Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

"My Angel, My All, My Self": A Literal Translation of Beethoven's Letter to the Immortal Beloved

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

"My Angel, My All, My Self": A Literal Translation of Beethoven's Letter to the Immortal Beloved

Article excerpt

Beethoven's ten-page letter to his "Immortal Beloved" has become one of the most important primary documents in Beethoven biography. The letter was discovered in a secret drawer in Beethoven's wardrobe after his death by his friend Karl Holz. The addressee is not named, and the letter has generated a considerable literature which has sought to identify the intended recipient. Because of the letter's significance in Beethoven studies, it is essential to study the document in the original German or in as literal a translation as possible. It was not until 1986, however, that the first critical edition of the German text of the letter was published by Sieghard Brandenburg and the Beethoven-Haus (Beethoven / Der Brief an die Unsterbliche Geliebte). Heretofore, a literal translation that resists the customary insertion of absent punctuation and "missing" words has not existed. For example, in the standard complete edition of Beethoven's letters, the 1961 Letters of Beethoven (hereafter: Anderson), Emily Anderson aimed for "a sort of timeless English that would reproduce the idiom of the day without its neologisms."

The literal translation below is based on the facsimile and transcription prepared by Sieghard Brandenburg. The original letter is in the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin (Mus. ms. autogr. Beethoven 35, 6; Mus. ep. autogr. Beethoven 127). Line and page breaks correspond as closely as possible to the original, because in certain spots (some critical, some not) Beethoven used those breaks in place of punctuation. Other significant physical aspects of the original are also retained, such as Beethoven's unexpected (but apparently not out of character) insertion above line 4 that he was writing the Immortal Beloved with her own pencil, a telling and endearing detail. Because English does not capitalize nouns, that idiosyncrasy of the original has not been retained. - Editor

A literal translation such as this necessarily raises questions of interpretation, examined without bias in the analytical notes in the hope of moving toward a better understanding of Beethoven's actual meaning.

The question of the Immortal Beloved's identity, considered solved by some, is still vigorously debated or even believed unsolvable by others. Regardless of her identity, it appears that Beethoven loved her passionately, though recognizing the infeasibility of defying convention. In the world of morals and manners, the absolute freedom he craved was, according to biographer Schindler, "limited only by the laws of morality."11 Denied a life with his Beloved on earth. Beethoven could only taist in Fate to grant them eternal union in the hereafter.

I am indebted to Lori Dormer for invaluable assistance in translating certain words and expressions and a better understanding of subtle nuances in phraseology and usage.


1. Since the 1909-10 research of Wolfgang Thomas-San-Galli and Max Linger, 1812 has been widely accepted as the undesignated date of writing (Max Linger, "The 'Immortal Beloved,'" in The Beethoven Companion, edited by Scherman and Biancolli, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972, pp. 437-44). This date was reinforced by the watermark research of Joseph Schmidt-Görg and Hans Schmidt ("Wasserzeichen in Beethoven-Briefen," Beethoven-Jahrbuch 5 (Jahrgang 1961/64; 1966): 7-74. In her 1954 Beethovens Beloved (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954), however, Dana Steichen continued to support 1807 as the date and Marie Erdödy as the Beloved and Czechoslovakian scholars continue to prefer 1801 and Julia Guicciardi (Vladimir Karbusicky, Beethovenuv list "an die unsterbliche Geliebte" a jeho hudebni dilo, Praha-Bratislava: Editio Supraphon, 1969).

2. "Mein Engel, mein alles, / mein Ich.-" The salutation conspicuously lacks an addressee, and is still an enigma after many years of intensive investigation. Although an assessment of various candidacies is beyond my scope here, current contenders are 1) Dorothea von Ertmann, tentative proposal of George Marek (Beethoven: Biography of a Genius, New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969) and H. …

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