Over the past few weeks I have been blissfully “nerding out” to The Beethoven Compendium, an in-depth, all-encompassing Beethoven biography. It’s a deep dive into what we know about the man, his daily habits, his influences, and what made him tick.
For me it has gone a long way to bring Beethoven, the man, to life – a reminder that Beethoven, for all his superlatives, was also a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood human being.
For his 246th birthday, here are some of my favorite takeaways from The Beethoven Compendium:
1) A Difficult Man
Beethoven was a famously difficult man to be around. He oscillated between rage and effusive love towards even his closest friends, and was seldom charitable when it came to people he considered idiotic. His biting rage had no eyes for social hierarchy, and he was equally belittling of princes and paupers. But he was also funny, ebullient, filled with a lust for life, and an extremely loyal and dedicated friend. These traits are often forgotten next to his darker tendencies, but I will say that you have only to listen to his music to find them. Nevertheless, as his deafness grew worse, so did Beethoven's darker side.
Domestically, Beethoven lived his life in an atmosphere of constant disorder. He famously couldn’t keep a housekeeper for longer than a few months before each one would quit his hostile and messy employ. Friends often reported his apartment filled with old, half-eaten meals, un-emptied chamber pots, and paper, ink, and manuscripts tossed indiscriminately about. Beethoven didn't seem to notice. And knowing this, it's no surprise to learn that he was a terrible tenant and rarely retained an apartment for longer than a year or two. Indeed, over his 35 years in Vienna, Beethoven lived in no fewer than 30 apartments.
2) The Craftsman
Domestically Beethoven’s life may have been in shambles, but compositionally his life was the essence of regularity and order. When it came to his music, Beethoven was a craftsman. He was diligent and regimented, his entire existence dedicated to his art. He always rose early with the sun, and immediately jumped to his piano to begin composing. Then, around noon, after several hours of work, Beethoven would lay down his pen and take lunch. Next he would embark on one of his lengthy walks. These walks were infamous in Vienna, and Beethoven was frequently seen briskly walking the entire circumference of the walled-in city, hands clasped firmly behind his back, all the while humming loudly to himself and pausing from time and time to jot down some new musical idea. Some days, Beethoven made the trip around Vienna two or three times! After his walk, Beethoven would find a favorite tavern or café for supper, and a pipe or cigar, and sit to read the day's newspapers. I found it interesting that Beethoven rarely composed at night, cognizant of the damage to his eyes of straining to focus by candlelight. By 10pm, Beethoven was in bed, ready to rise again with the sun and restart the routine.
3) A sum of his parts
Like any composer, Beethoven did not live in a vacuum. His musical innovations emerged from the innovations of other composers. Beethoven’s strategy was to seek out the best composer of each genre, devour their compositions, and use their innovations as a starting point for his own. For piano sonatas, Beethoven insisted on Clementi. With piano concertos, it was Mozart. Symphonies? Haydn. Chamber music? Again, Haydn and Mozart. Song? C.P.E Bach. And Fugue? Who else, but the great J.S. Bach. Yes, Beethoven composed in every genre, devoured and expanded every genre, and aimed to master every genre. But we must remember that his musical advances did not just appear out of the blue, like a divine spark of genius. Rather, they derived from his insatiable appetite for the best music, and his respect for the greatest minds. He was the sum of the musical parts around him.
4) Not an easy life
Beethoven's life was not easy and was consumed by several illnesses. There’s the famous deafness, which started in his mid-twenties and gradually grew worse. That loss of hearing led to an all-consuming depression with which he struggled his entire life. In his would-be suicide note, the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” Beethoven outlined to his brother Karl the sorrow and despair he felt at losing “the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others.” Happily, composing brought Beethoven back from the edge. But his hearing continued to leave him, and by the 1820s, he was completely deaf.
Hearing loss was not Beethoven’s only health trouble. He also suffered from many digestive complaints throughout his life. Today the prevailing theory is that he had ulcerative colitis - and in his day, there was nothing to be done about that. Additionally, Beethoven became jaundiced in the 1820s due to a failing liver. And, toward the end, his eyesight started to go as well. The list goes on.
Knowing about his issues, both interpersonal and corporeal, helps highlight the "realness" of the Beethoven, the man, and speaks to the spirit of perseverance that radiates through his music.
5) The music!
Of course… The music! Yes he was difficult, surly, angry, and sickly, but at the end of the day, the music is what it’s all about. Here are some of my favorites:
The "Emperor" Piano Concerto
The Seventh Symphony, Movement 2
The "Great" Fugue
Piano Sonata 30, Op. 109 (Movement 3 particularly)
The song cycle “An die Ferne Geliebte”