Beethoven's romantic crisis: how one night with his 'immortal beloved' changed his life

Born of crisis, Beethoven’s eerie ‘Equali’ are the sound of a man relinquishing all hope of love

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Gary Oldman and Isabella Rossellini in the 1994 film Immortal Beloved
Gary Oldman and Isabella Rossellini in the 1994 film Immortal Beloved Credit: Snap/REX

In July 1812, Ludwig van Beethoven was 41 years old. Ten years before, when he had started to lose his hearing, he had gone through an existential crisis and contemplated suicide. But he decided to live for his art and went on to write an astonishing series of masterpieces: most of the works that fill concert halls today, including his Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, Violin Concerto, Waldstein and Appassionata Piano Sonatas, Kreutzer Violin Sonata, the opera Fidelio, the Archduke Trio, and five ground-breaking string quartets.

His personal life, however, was a lonely mess. His deafness was worsening, he had constant gastric trouble and he did not get on with his younger brothers, his only remaining family. Karl, the next in age, had a wife whom Beethoven disliked. Johann, the youngest, lived in Linz with a housekeeper, Therese, and her illegitimate child, fathered by another man. Beethoven thought this deeply immoral; he himself lived alone in Vienna, in rented rooms.

Since his teenage years, according to a childhood friend, he had been “always in love”. But no love ever lasted. His most recent infatuation, with the teenage daughter of a rich merchant, for whom he wrote the little piece now known as Für Elise, had ended in tears. But in the autumn of 1811, just as he began work on his Seventh Symphony, he had made the acquaintance of auburn-haired Antonie Brentano, wife of a Frankfurt businessman.

Brentano was staying in Vienna that year to clear her dead father’s house. Beethoven began visiting her. He played to her when she was ill, composed a piece for her little daughter to play, and wrote a song called For the Beloved. When she asked for the manuscript score, he gave it to her. It is likely that they both understood that he had written it for her.

In June 1812, on the advice of his doctor, Beethoven took off for the Bohemian spa of Teplitz, but stopped over in Prague on the way. On July 1, Brentano and her husband Franz, travelling to another spa, also made a stopover in the city. One of the mysteries of Beethoven’s life is what happened in Prague on the night of July 3.

Detail of Joseph Karl Stieler's 1820 portrait of Beethoven composing the Missa Solemnis Credit: Getty Images

We shall probably never know what happened. We do know that he failed to keep a business appointment that evening. We even have his handwritten apology, though it does not say what he was doing instead. He left Prague the following day, arrived in Teplitz on July 5, and on July 6 wrote a passionate letter, in pencil, to a woman. He does not name her, but the letter says she lent him that pencil. He addresses her as his “immortal beloved”. To read that letter, even today, feels like an invasion of its author’s privacy:

My angel, my all, my own self. Can you change the fact that you are not entirely mine, I not entirely yours? Never can another own my heart! O God why have to separate oneself from what one loves? Your love makes me at once happiest and most unhappy. What longing, with tears, for you my love – my all – O continue to love me – forever yours. forever mine, forever us!

It seems unlikely that this letter was ever sent. It was found in his desk after his death. But it does imply that he spent at least part of the night of July 3 with the woman he was writing to. It was possibly the only night he ever spent with anyone.

Who was she? Scholars have debated this question for centuries and combed hotel registers, coach passenger lists and police records in search of an answer. In 1994, a film Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman and Isabella Rossellini, made an unconvincing case for one woman; biographers have argued the case for several others. Antonie Brentano was certainly in Prague that night, but so was her husband, whom Beethoven considered a friend. If she was his immortal beloved, how did he square his high moral standards with his love? He began an anguished diary at this point, but even in the privacy of its pages he remains oddly cagey.

Whoever she was, Beethoven’s immortal beloved precipitated a creative crisis which took him four years to resolve. After 1812, he entered the most barren era of his life. Biographies speak of paranoia, alcoholism or depression. At one point he tried to starve himself to death. In 1813, friends discovered him in Baden, “so negligent of his person as to appear positively filthy, in a deplorable state. No decent coat or whole shirt.”

Artistically, too, he was at a nadir. That same year, the inventor of an “automatic playing-machine” proposed Beethoven write a musical celebration of the English victory against the French in Spain, the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall. Beethoven responded with the Battle Symphony. It was a crowd-pleaser and became wildly popular but was musically null, a near-parody of the heroic style he had invented 10 years earlier. “What I s--- is better than anything you could think up,” he told a critic.

For four years, he was a composer who was not really composing, although underneath he must have been searching for a new musical voice. He spent months alone, reading, with only cheap red wine for company. The breakthrough came in 1816, when he wrote a song cycle – the first in Western music – called To the Distant Beloved. Perhaps it brought him the emotional closure he needed. Perhaps it expressed his final acceptance that it was time to move on from his “immortal” love. Two years later, beginning with piano sonata Opus 101, he wrote himself into the astounding burst of creativity that would produce the Missa Solemnis, his Ninth Symphony and the late quartets.

This was his “late style”, the most sublime of all Beethoven’s music. But there had been a glimmer of it, late in 1812, his year of crisis, in three, small, eerie Equali for Four Trombones. An equale was a speciality of Linz – a piece played by a trombone quartet at funerals and on All Souls’ Night. Beethoven wrote his Equali three months after his passionate letter, while visiting his brother Johann. They were first performed in Linz Cathedral on November 2, All Souls’ Night, 1812. They would be played at his funeral in 1827 and, later, at the funerals of William Gladstone and Edward VII, when they were praised for their “weird simplicity and exquisite pathos”.

In miniature, these shimmering and poignant evocations of a tranquillity beyond despair foreshadow the glorious and profound “late style” of his final quartets. They are the sound of a man relinquishing any hope of the love for which he longed all his life. Whoever the immortal beloved was, there were to be no more women after her. Perhaps, to their composer, these little pieces marked the death of love itself.

Ruth Padel will read from her book Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life at Daunt Books, London W1, on March 2,  with a guest appearance from the Endellion String Quartet. Details: dauntbooks.co.uk

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