16 December 1770 – 26 March 1827
These are some of the most moving first-hand accounts that I’ve ever read of Beethoven and his tragic loss of hearing later in his life. From The Musical Journeys of Louis Spohr (from his journals 1802 to1821):
Shortly after my arrival in Vienna I had looked up Beethoven. He was not at home, and I left my card. I hoped to encounter him at one of the musicales, to which I was frequently invited, but soon learned that Beethoven, now that his deafness had reached the stage where he could no longer hear music distinctly and coherently, withheld his presence from all musicales and had become generally shy and withdrawn. I tried again to pay a call, but in vain. Finally, I met him unexpectedly in the restaurant where my wife and I lunched every day. I had already appeared in a concert, my oratorio had been twice performed, and the Vienna press had been favorable in its commentary. It was not, therefore, as an unknown that I introduced myself, and Beethoven greeted me with unusual cordiality .We seated ourselves at a table, and Beethoven became very talkative. This occasioned much surprise in the room, as he usually sat, staring straight ahead, dour and silent. It was uphill work trying to get anything across to him, as one had to shout loud enough to be heard two rooms away. Thereafter, Beethoven used to come frequently to this restaurant, and he also visited me in my apartment. Thus we became good acquaintances. He was a bit rough, not to say uncouth, but an honest eye peered out from beneath his bushy brows.
After my return from Gotha I used to meet him now and again at the Theater an der Wien, where Count Pallfy had provided him with a free seat right behind the orchestra. He would accompany me home after the performance and spend the rest of the evening with me. On such occasions he was always most engaging with Dorette and the children. Of music he rarely spoke. When he did, his judgments were very severe, and pronounced with a finality that seemed to exclude any thought of contradiction. In the work of others he showed not the slightest interest, and I had not, therefore, the courage to show him mine. His favorite subject at that time was what he conceived to be the iniquities of the theater administrations of Prince Lobkowitz and Count Pallfy. About the latter he thundered his imprecations while still in his theater, and in such a manner as to be heard, not only by the departing audience, but also by the Count himself in his office. This caused me some embarrassment, and I was always at some pains to change the subject.
Beethoven’s coarse, even repulsive behavior of those days stemmed partly from his deafness, which he had not yet learned to bear with resignation, and partly from his ruinous financial circumstances. He was a bad manager, and had the additional misfortune to be robbed right and left by those around him. He often lacked the barest essentials. In the early days of our acquaintanceship I asked him once, after he had been absent from the restaurant for several days, “Have you been ill? ” He replied, “It was a shoe, and as I have but one pair I had a few days house arrest.” He was rescued from this appalling situation some time later-by the efforts of his friends. It happened in the following manner:
Fidelio, which had had only a slight success when produced under unfavorable circumstances during the French occupation of Vienna in 1805 , was now remounted by the regisseurs of the Kaerntnerthor Theater and produced for their benefit. Beethoven was persuaded to write a new overture (the overture in E), a song for the prisonwarden, and the great aria for Fidelio ( with horn obbligato), as well as to undertake a few alterations. In this new form the opera had a resounding success and experienced a long run to full houses. At the first performance the composer was recalled again and again and was once more the object of general attention. His friends took advantage of this favorable moment to organize a concert for him in the large Redoutensaal, at which his newest compositions were to be played. Everyone who could play, blow, or sing was invited to participate, and none of the more important artists of Vienna were missing. I and my orchestra were, of course, among them, and I had my first experience of Beethoven’s conducting. Al though I had heard a good deal about it, the actuality still came as a shock. Beethoven had adopted the habit of communicating his expressive desires to the orchestra by all sorts of odd movements of the body. For a sforzando he would throw apart his arms, hitherto held crossed on his heart. For a piano he would bend down, the more piano, the lower. Then at a crescendo he would rise up gradually, and at the onset of the forte, literally spring into the air. He often shouted, too, in order to contribute to the forte, although probably unconsciously.
Seyfried, to whom I expressed my astonishment at this extraordinary way of conducting, told me of a tragicomic incident which had occurred at Beethoven’s last concert in the Theater an der Wien. Beethoven was playing a new piano concerto and at the first tutti forgot that he was soloist, jumped up, and began to conduct in his own inimitable manner. At the first sforzando he flung his arms so wide apart that he knocked both candlesticks from the music rack on the piano. The audience broke out laughing, and Beethoven was so incensed by the disturbance that he had the orchestra begin again from the beginning. Seyfried, anxious lest the same thing happen again, summoned two choirboys and had them hold the candlesticks in their hands next to Beethoven. One of them came close to the piano and peered unsuspectingly into the piano score. As the fateful sforzando arrived, Beethoven fetched him such a blow on the mouth with his outwardly swiping right hand that the poor boy dropped the candlestick to the floor. The other boy, more cautious, had been following Beethoven’s movements most closely, and managed to duck in time. The initial laughter now became sheer hilarity .Beethoven fell into such a rage that he broke half a dozen strings on the first chord of his solo. The efforts of the true music lovers to restore order and attention were of no avail, and the first allegro went pretty much unheard. Since this incident, Beethoven had been reluctant to give concerts.
This concert arranged by his friends, however, was a most brilliant success. Beethoven’s new compositions were extraordinarily well liked, particularly the Symphony in A Major (No.7), whose wonderful second movement had to be repeated. It made a deep and enduring impression upon me. The performance was absolutely masterly, despite Beethoven’s uncertain and often ridiculous conducting.
It was quite plain that the poor, deaf master could no longer hear the softer passages of his music. This became particularly apparent during a rehearsal in a certain passage in the second pan of the first movement, where there are two successive closes, the second of them pianissimo. Beethoven apparently overlooked this, as he began to beat the time before the orchestra had even attacked this second close. Thus, all unknowingly, he was ten or twelve measures ahead of the orchestra when the latter began, and piano at that. In order to indicate the piano, Beethoven had practically crawled under the desk. With the oncoming crescendo he became visible again, rising higher and higher and leaping into the air at that moment when, according to his reckoning, the forte should be reached. When the forte failed to materialize he looked around in amazement, then stared incredulously at the orchestra, still playing piano. He got his bearings with the arrival of the forte, and something that he could hear. Fortunately, this comical scene was not repeated at the performance, for the audience would certainly have laughed. Since the hall was filled to overflowing, and the applause most enthusiastic, Beethoven’s friends arranged a repetition of the concert, which brought in almost as much money as had the first. Beethoven’s financial embarrassment was eased for the moment, but he was to suffer many more, and for the same reasons.
No diminution of Beethoven’s creative powers was as yet noticeable. But from that time onward, as his increasing deafness made it impossible for him to hear any music at all, it was inevitable that this should adversely affect his fantasy. His constant striving to be original and to break new paths was no longer subject to aural control. Is it any wonder that his works became steadily less coherent and less intelligible? There are those, to be sure, who flatter themselves that they understand these late works, and in their enthusiasm, go so far as to label them masterpieces. I am not among them, and confess freely that I have never been able to develop a taste for the later Beethoven. I include among these even the much admired Ninth Symphony, whose first three movements, despite flashes of genius, strike me as inferior to any of the movements of the preceding eight symphonies, and whose fourth movement I consider so monstrous and tasteless and, in its representation of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot imagine its having been written by a man of Beethoven’s genius. I find in it a confirmation of what I noted in Vienna; namely, that Beethoven was wanting in esthetic cultivation and feeling for beauty.
At the time when I made his acquaintance, he had ceased to play either publicly or at private gatherings, and only once did I have occasion to hear him play. This was quite accidentally during a rehearsal of a new Trio in D Major in his apartment. It was no pleasure, firstly, because the piano was out of tune, which bothered Beethoven not at all, since he could not hear it, and, secondly, because little was left of his once celebrated virtuosity. In forte passages he hit the keys so hard that the strings rattled, and in piano, so softly that whole groups of notes never sounded at all, with the result that it was impossible to follow without the piano score as a guide. I was deeply moved by so tragic a fate. It is bad enough for anyone to be deaf, let alone a musician. Beethoven’s constant melancholy was never a mystery to me again.
…Since the Munich Orchestra still enjoys a reputation as one of the best in the world, my expectations were high, and I hasten to record that in the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony in C minor, which opened the concert, they were unsurpassed. It is hardly possible that this symphony could be played with more fire and more strength and, at the same time, with more tenderness and with more precise attention to every nuance. It had, accordingly, a greater effect than I would have thought possible, although I had heard it frequently in Vienna and under the composer’s direction. Even so, I found no reason to reverse my earlier judgment. It has many individual beauties, but they do not add up to a classical whole. The very first theme, in particular, lacks the dignity essential to the opening of a symphony. This aside, however, the short, easily grasped theme lends itself well to thematic elaboration, and the composer has combined it most imaginatively and effectively with the other principal motives of the first movement. The adagio, in A flat, is very beautiful in part, but the same progressions and modulations are repeated too often, despite the ever richer figuration. The scherzo is highly original, and of genuinely romantic texture, but the trio, with its tumbling bass runs, is too baroque for my taste. The last movement, with its empty noise, is the least satisfactory, although the return of the scherzo is such a happy idea that one can only envy the composer who could have thought of such a thing. It is quite irresistible. What a pity that the effect is so soon dissipated by the resumption of the noise.
(I think it’s a fair judgement today to say that Spohr may have had it wrong about the 5th and 9th Symphonies! But at the same time, to also be fair, there was no greater promoter of Beethoven’s music than Spohr.)
This treasure I found buried in a collection of old sheet music being sold at a small bookstore. I paid $2 dollars for it along with a large box of other sheet music I bought that day for a huge bargain! I didn’t really realize what I had until later when I started going through it. It is sheet music printed circa 1814 for Beethovens song Adelaide. The cover page is beautifully engraved on linen paper, and you can still still the impression of the printing press. It was published by C.F. Peters (still in business) and was imported to New York during Beethoven’s lifetime. I like to think…who knows?…it could have been thumbed through by…maybe Thomas Jefferson?