Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Time, Distance, Weather, Daily Routine, and Wordplay as Factors in Interpreting Beethoven's Conversation Books

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Time, Distance, Weather, Daily Routine, and Wordplay as Factors in Interpreting Beethoven's Conversation Books

Article excerpt

I. Brief History of the Conversation Books from 1818-1961

By 1818, Beethovens deafness had progressed to such an extent that, with increasing frequency, he began to carry blank books with him so that his friends and acquaintances, especially when in public, could write their sides of conversations, while Beethoven himself customarily replied orally. He, too, began to write in them-often shopping lists or errands to run, or books advertised in the local newspapers.1 He also used them for the conversations and draft memoranda pertaining to the protracted negotiations, hearings, and lawsuits surrounding the guardianship of his nephew Karl,2

Until September 1820, he seemingly set aside the conversation books with major references to Karl in one pile, while the others probably went into a trunk or box with most of the rest of the correspondence that he had received over the years. Then, around November 1,1822, as he was moving from his summer residence in Baden to an apartment in the suburb ofWindmühle, back in Vienna, the trunk or box with the correspondence and all but sixteen of Beethovens conversation books up to that point probably fell off of the wagon transporting his possessions and was lost.3 This, rather than any other factor, probably accounts for the gap in the surviving conversation books between 1820 and 1822.

In November 1822 Beethoven simply continued his practice of using blank conversation books on a regular basis as he needed them. Most often, he again squirreled them away in some box or trunk, and this time most of them were not lost, though he might have given a few away as souvenirs, as he did to Maurice Schlesinger on September 9,1825.

When Beethoven died, his unpaid secretary and future biographer Anton Schindler deemed the perhaps 140 surviving conversation books of no particular monetary value to Beethovens estate, and took them with the intention of using them to document his projected biography of the composer.4 At first, Schindler probably went through them, identifying every author of conversational entries that he could-and in that he has proven remarkably accurate, although a few identifications did elude him. He also probably began jotting in reminders to himself about conversations that did take place, and then-getting into dangerous territory-commandeered blank pages and partially-filled pages to write or reflect conversations that may or may not have taken place while the composer was alive. Fortunately, once we know that these falsified entries are present in the first place, we can see that most of them have a tone all their own, and we can safely regard or disregard them as circumstances warrant.

In 1842 Schindler wrote that he possessed many more than a hundred ("viel über hundert") conversation books.5 Three years later, in the seldomcited 1845 second edition of his Biographie, the publisher wrote of the conversation books: "There are 138 of them in Prof. Schindler's possession."6

In 1846 Schindler, who probably lacked a pension from his earlier employers,7 sold his Beethoven documents-including 137 conversation books-to the Königliche Bibliothek, the Prussian Royal Library in Berlin for what amounted to a pension stipend. This number corresponds almost exacdy to the 138 estimated a year before and certainly fits the description of "many more than a hundred" that Schindler had written four years earlier.

A few years later, the American Alexander Wheelock Thayer, working on a modem, scientifically-based biography of Beethoven, spent months going through the conversation books in Berlin, extracting notes to be used in his work.8 In the process, in 1854, he also went to Frankfurt, where Schmdler now lived, and asked him about the conversation books. Consistent with his earlier reports, Schindler probably told him that there were "viel über hundert" (many more than a hundred) booklets, which Thayer, as good as his German was, probably misheard as "vier hundert" (four hundred). …

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