Of the late quartets, Beethoven's favorite was the Fourteenth Quartet, op. 131 in C♯ minor, which he rated as his most perfect single work. The last musical wish of Schubert was to hear the Op. 131 quartet, which he did on 14 November 1828, five days before his death.
Beethoven was bedridden for most of his remaining months, and many friends came to visit. He died on 26 March 1827 at the age of 56 during a thunderstorm. His friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner, who was present at the time, said that there was a peal of thunder at the moment of death.
The following art works and objects describe Beethoven's final days and the accounts of eye witnesses, including the young man who clipped Beethoven's lock of hair, Ferdinand Hiller.
Beethoven on his deathbed (Beethoven auf dem Sterbelager)Reproduction of an engraving by J. Adé, based on a drawing by Wilhelm von Lindenschmit (date unknown)
This original drawing was probably by Lindenschmit the Younger (1829-1895), whose father was also a well-known historical painter. His paintings on musical subjects include Hall of Fame of German Music (1740-1867) [Ruhmeshalle der deutschen Musik (1740-1867)], which depicted the most famous German musicians surrounding a platform on which sat Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, among others. In Beethoven On His Deathbed, the man holding Beethoven's hand appears to be J.N. Hummel, but the young man in the back of the room is likely meant to be Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Beethoven's childhood friend Stephan.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
In 1804 he left Vienna to serve as Kapellmeister of Prince Esterhazy's court orchestra, but returned in 1811 to focus on composition and performance in Vienna's theaters.
In 1813 he married the singer Elisabeth Röckel (1793-1883), who Beethoven knew and was very fond of. Elisabeth was the sister of Josef August Röckel, the tenor who sang the role of Florestan in the 1806 revival of Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Hummel's relationship with Beethoven was occasionally strained; Beethoven was said to have taken offense to Hummel's criticism of his Mass in C. However, the friendship persevered, and in 1814 Beethoven enlisted Hummel as the percussionist for a performance of hisWellington's Victory, with this delightful letter:
"Most charming Hummel! Please conduct this time too the drum-rolls and cannonades with your excellent Kapellmeister's and Master of the Ordnance's baton-Please do so. If you would like me to cannonade you sometime, I am at your service, both body and soul. Your friend, Beethoven."
Hummel left Vienna in 1816, and became court conductor in Weimar two years later. His sense of loss at Beethoven's death was strongly felt. When hearing of Beethoven's grave illness, he and his wife rushed to Vienna from Weimar with Ferdinand Hiller in tow to pay their last respects. They kept some mementos of that final meeting, including the last quill Beethoven used and a lock of his hair (now in the Beethoven-Haus, Bonn). Hummel served as a pallbearer at the funeral and he performed at the memorial concert, improvising themes from Beethoven's works on the fortepiano.
Ferdinand Hiller from ca. 1855
Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885) was a German conductor, composer, teacher and a close friend of Felix Mendelssohn. At the age of thirteen he began musical studies with J.N. Hummel in Weimar, and in 1827 he traveled with Hummel to Vienna to visit Beethoven on his deathbed.
An excerpt from his reminiscences of this visit follows:
"On March 13th, Hummel took me to see Beethoven for the second time. We found that his condition had deteriorated considerably. He lay in his bed, seemed to be suffering great pain and at times uttered a deep groan; nevertheless, he spoke freely and vigorously. He seemed to be deeply concerned with his failure to enter the married state. Already during our first visit he joked about this with Hummel, whose wife he had known as a young and beautiful girl. This time he said to him, smiling: 'You are a lucky fellow: you have a wife, she looks after you, she is in love with you-- but I'm a poor bachelor!' -- and he sighed deeply. Also, he begged Hummel to bring his wife, who had been unwilling to face in his present state a man whom she had known at the height of his powers ..."
"When we stood beside his bed once more on the 20th, it was certainly clear from his remarks how greatly this attention had pleased him; but he was extremely weak and spoke only softly, in clipped sentences. 'I rather think I shall soon be setting out on the upward journey,' he whispered after our greeting. Similar exclamations occurred frequently; but, in between, he spoke of his plans and hopes, neither of which, unfortunately, were to be realized. Speaking of the noble conduct of the Philharmonic Society and praising the English, he said that it was his intention to leave for England as soon as his condition had improved. 'I wish to compose a grand overture and a grand symphony for them.' And then, too, he wished to visit Frau Hummel (who had come with her husband) and go to Heaven knows how many different places. It did not occur to us to write down anything for him. His eyes, which during our last visit had still been quite lively, were now drooping and only with difficulty could he sit up from time to time. We could no longer deceive ourselves: the worst was to be feared."
Ferdinand Hiller was not the only visitor who wanted a lock of hair as a remembrance of the composer. Beethoven's young friend Gerhard von Breuning reported that
"On March 29 I went with my father to Beethoven's dwelling and wanted to cut off a lock of his hair. Father had not allowed me to do this before the lying-in-state ended, in order not to spoil his appearance; but now we found that strangers [sic] had already cut off all his hair." (Memories of Beethoven, ed. Maynard Solomon, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992).
Death mask by Joseph Danhauser (1827)Reproduction in plaster
Danhauser's brother Carl recorded the story:
"On March 26  early in the morning while we were still asleep, Ranftl knocked on our door and brought in the news that Beethoven had died in the night."
"Since we had a plaster in our firm, my brother Joseph, who in the course of his studies of heads had been prompted to try that sort of work, immediately struck on the idea of taking a death mask of the departed great man. We dressed quickly, had the horses harnessed and since the stucco worker Hofmann had arrived in the meanwhile, we took him along with us in the carriage."
"It was still early in the morning as we arrived at the dead man's house, and we could find no one who could tell us anything. Finally, a woman let us go upstairs, and as we arrived at the landing we found an open entrance hall; the door leading to the next room was ajar, so we lifted the latch and went in. A bed stood against the main wall of this room, and in this bed lay Beethoven's body."
"Since during the dead man's illness his beard had grown very thick, we sent the plasterer to fetch a barber, who shaved him clean. The barber's apprentice said that he could never use the razor again after he had shaved a dead man with it. I bought it from him."
"In the meanwhile we had cut off two locks from the temple where it grew thickly, as a memento of the celebrated head, and then we went to work. My brother, who knew less about this kind of work than the plasterer, was glad to have him help, and so we soon obtained a good cast which we brought home with great care; for my brother, a painter, had conceived the idea of trying his hand at modeling and at producing a bust of Beethoven. He went right away to work and actually succeeded in making a bust of the master ..." [From H.C. Robbins Landon, Beethoven: a documentary study]
The earliest known extant cast of the death mask was given by Danhauser to Franz Liszt in 1840 and is now in Vienna at the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien. Another cast is at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn.