"Artists Are Made of Fire": An Exploration of the Role of Fire in the Music of Beethoven

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ON THE MGHT OF JANUARY 13, 1777, SHORTLY AFTER YOUNG BEETHOVEN'S sixth birthday, part of the electoral palace in Bonn burst into flames of a severity sufficient to destroy an entire wing, sending the family - with Ludwig's father in tears - to seek refuge in the baker Fischer's house on the Rhine. Here, according to the Fischer memoirs, the Beethoven children rejoiced that there was water enough to put out the fire.1

Although this terrible episode has received little attention, it may have had a much greater impact upon the youngster, and upon the music he would eventually compose, than has previously been recognized. Lost in that "fearful conflagration" was Court Councilor von Breuning, who perished in an attempt to save valuable papers.2

At the house of von Breuning's widow, his friend Dr. Franz Wegeler would recall, the teenage Beethoven was treated as "one of the children," along with Eleonore (one of his earliest feminine interests), Stephan (a lifelong friend, whose family would be close in his last days), Lenz (a pupil and associate of his in Vienna), and Christoph. In Hélène von Breuning's welcoming household, Ludwig found a cherished sense of family identity, while absorbing the precepts of the Enlightenment in a cultivated intellectual atmosphere.3

I

That not only terror but awe must have struck the boy the night the palace burned down is suggested by Beethoven's lifelong fascination with fire in words and music, his sense of the power and grandeur - perhaps even the inspiration - of the flames. "Artists are made of fire," as Bettina Brentano recalled his telling her.4 Although the supposed "letter" to Goethe of May 28, 1810, in which this quote appears, was actually but a collection of notes made on Bettina's visit to Beethoven earlier that month, the sentiment is his. Late in life Beethoven would cite to a friend a remark, by the eighteenth-century archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, that seems remarkably reminiscent of his own method of composing: "one must sketch with fire and work out with sluggishness."5

Young Beethoven may have had his terrifying boyhood experience in mind when he set Sophie Mereau's poem "Feuerfarb," which concerns the harmony of beauty and truth. Though composed before Beethoven left Bonn in 1792, the song was not published until 1805, when it appeared as the second of the Acht lieder, Opus 52. Here was a piece so indicative of the gifted young composer's devotion "to the great and the sublime" as to prompt an impressed professor at the University of Bonn, Bartholomäus Ludwig Fischenich, an adherent of Schiller's "philosophy of happiness," to send a copy to Schiller's wife, Charlotte. Predicted Fischenich, "something perfect" was certain to come of this young genius's dream of setting the whole of the Schiller's "An die Freude" to music.6

Among several references to fire in Schiller's poem is a particularly significant one in the fifth stanza, in which fire is equated with truth and virtue:

Aus der Wahrheit Feuerspiegel

Lächelt sie den Forscher an.

Zu der Tugend steilem Hügel

Leitet sie des Dulders Bahn.

[Joy] smiles upon the ardent seeker

Of the truth in flame reflected,

And up the rugged hill of virtue

Points the way to the dejected.

Only after three decades more would Beethoven, after many tentative sketches, feel himself competent to set "An die Freude" to music in the glorious choral finale of his Ninth Symphony a revelation, indeed, of "the great and sublime."

II

In the music for his ballet Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Opus 43, composed at the turn of the century at the bidding of the ballet master Salvatore Viganö, to honor Maria Theresa, the gifted second wife of Emperor Franz II, Beethoven gave full scope to his fascination with fire Prometheus, in Greek mythology, being the intermediary who brought the precious gift of fire from the gods to man. …

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