5 Tales From the Complicated Life of Beethoven

Passionate, moody, troubled, social — Beethoven's personality is hard to pin down. Here are a few wild stories from his life that provide a glimpse into a life misunderstood.

As Salieri's Vocal Student

Antonio Salieri has a bad rap in many a mind, thanks to insidious rumors about his distaste for Mozart which were bolstered by his characterization in the play (and later, film) Amadeus. But he was a talented composer in his own right, and can take some credit for being a teacher to Beethoven himself. When Ludwig went to Vienna, he sought instruction from the Italian composer. From Salieri, Beethoven learned the art of vocal music; the student would set Italian texts to music, and his teacher would correct them. One interesting anecdote from Beethoven’s own pupil, Carl Czerny: Once, Salieri had some negative feedback for one of Beethoven’s songs, but admitted he just couldn’t get it out of his head. Beethoven’s reply? “Then, Herr Salieri, it cannot have been so utterly bad!”

Symphony No. 2 — Fun in a Dark Place

For much of his life, Beethoven struggled with severe cramping and gastrointestinal issues as well. While we aren’t sure exactly what was the cause of these issues, there’s a chance his symptoms were due to irritable bowel syndrome. And the composer-killer syphilis may have been involved as well. On top of that, around the time he finished his second symphony, Beethoven was beginning to notice he was losing his hearing. It was a rough time — he wrote of his “miserable” and “unhappy” situation — and began to withdraw from social functions. With all of this in mind, it’s pretty interesting to hear how energetic and lively his second symphony is, especially it’s finale. Chicago Symphony Orchestra annotator Phillip Huscher declares it has a “nose-thumbing sense of humor,” and contemporary critic Hector Berlioz wrote that it was “smiling throughout.”


"Eroica," or, When Your Hero Isn't a Hero

In 1804, Beethoven completed his masterful third symphony. It's big and bold, and from those striking opening chords the audience knows it's in for something big. So it was only appropriate that this magnificent symphony be dedicated to someone of equal importance. And who better than to dedicate your best work than to your idol? For Beethoven, there was no question that his own hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, should be the dedicatee. At least, until he realized his own personal hero was a maniacal dictator bent on world domination. When he learned Napoleon had declared himself emperor, Beethoven lamented, “[Napoleon] is nothing but an ordinary being! Now he will trample the rights of man under foot and pander to his own ambition.” Beethoven scratched out Napoleon’s name from the dedication page, tore it up, and retitled it “Sinfonia Eroica,” for the true heroes of the world.

Fighting With Art

Once Beethoven got over his disillusionment with Napoleon, he used his art to actively resist his Imperial Majesty. Toward the end of 1813, Beethoven completed his orchestral piece Wellington's Victory, Op. 91 that celebrated Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Vittorio. It’s a battaglia, a musical form in which the sounds of the orchestra mimic the opposing sides of a battle. Listen closely and you can hear the sounds of war, as well as patriotic tunes representative of both sides. For the English, “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the King”; for the French, “Marlbrough s'en va-t-en guerre” (which you may know as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”). However, the piece wasn’t loved by everyone and Beethoven responded to one critic with fighting words: “What I shit is better than anything you have ever thought.”


The “Elise” in “Für Elise” is still a mystery, but a popular idea is that it’s a nickname of Therese Malfatti, one of Beethoven’s piano students. Even though he was much older than her, Beethoven fell wildly in love with her. He suddenly began to care about his appearance and putting his best foot forward, which was slightly off brand for a guy who was wholly committed to just doing his thing. Anyway, the story goes, he wrote this piece just for her. But when Malfatti invited Beethoven over for a dinner party so he could meet the parents he dropped the glass ball into a million pieces. Maybe he was nervous, but apparently Beethoven drank way too much punch and, when asked to play this “Für Elise,” found himself unable to perform. It was a bad look, and Malfatti’s parents forbade him from ever seeing their daughter again.

Beloved as “Für Elise” is today, it may have been intended to remain a private work — it was found among Malfatti's affects when she died in 1851 and wasn’t even published until 1867.

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