The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview

5
The construction of Beethoven
K. M. KNITTEL

Beethoven vs. 'Beethoven'

On 28 May 1810, a young woman wrote to the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describing her new acquaintance, Ludwig van Beethoven:

When I saw him of whom I shall now speak to you, I forgot the whole world It is Beethoven of whom I now wish to tell you but I am not mistaken when I say what no one, perhaps, now understands and believes he stalks far ahead of the culture of mankind. Shall we ever overtake him? I doubt it, but grant that he may live until the mighty and exalted enigma lying in his soul is fully developed, may reach its loftiest goal, then surely he will place the key to his heavenly knowledge in our hands so that we may be advanced another step towards true happiness.

I may confess I believe in a divine magic which is the essence of intellectual life. This magic Beethoven practises in his art. Everything that he can tell you about is pure magic, every posture is the organization of a higher existence, and therefore Beethoven feels himself to be the founder of a new sensuous basis in the intellectual life Who could replace this mind for us? From whom could we expect so much? All human activities toss around him like mechanism, he alone begets independently in himself the unsuspected, uncreated. What to him is intercourse with the world to him who is at his sacred daily task before sunrise and who after sunset scarcely looks about him, who forgets sustenance for his body and who is carried in a trice, by the stream of his enthusiasm, past the shores of work-a-day things?1

The picture of Beethoven drawn here the isolated, eccentric genius committed to his art and its importance to the point of forgetting to eat is immediately recognisable. When the young woman writes that Beethoven reported to her 'I have not a single friend; I must live alone', we can feel the pain of Beethoven's loneliness and deafness. When she reports that he told her 'music is the mediator between the life of the mind and the senses', the words resonate with our experience of his music. The strength of Beethoven's personality

____________________
1
Cited in O. G. Sonneck, Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries (New York, 1967), pp. 79–80.

-118-

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