Monday, May 31, 2010

Ludwig van Beethoven : A Letter & The Eroica

For my brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven

Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me? You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood on, me heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of goodwill, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things. But, think that for six years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, from year to year deceived with hopes of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible). Though born with a fiery, active temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was soon compelled to withdraw myself, to live life alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh how harshly I was I flung back by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing. Yet it was impossible for me to say to people, "Speak louder, shout, for I am deaf." Ah, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.--Oh I cannot do it; therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would have gladly mingled with you.

My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell in with my own present frame of mind, though sometimes I ran counter to it by yielding to my desire for companionship. But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended me life -- it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence -- truly wretched for so susceptible a body, which can be thrown by a sudden change from the best condition to the very worst. -- Patience, they say, is what I must now choose for my guide, and I have done so -- I hope my determination will remain firm to endure until it pleases the inexorable Parcae to break the thread. Perhaps I shall get better, perhaps not; I am ready. -- Forced to become a philosopher already in my twenty-eighth year, oh it is not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else. 'Divine one, thou seest me inmost soul thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and the desire to do good'. Oh fellow men, when at some point you read this, consider then that you have done me an injustice; someone who has had misfortune man console himself to find a similar case to his, who despite all the limitations of Nature nevertheless did everything within his powers to become accepted among worthy artists and men. 'You, my brothers Carl and [Johann], as soon as I am dead, if Dr. Schmidt is still alive, ask him in my name to describe my malady, and attach this written documentation to his account of my illness so that so far as it possible at least the world may become reconciled to me after my death".

At the same time, I declare you two to be the heirs to my small fortune (if so it can be called); divide it fairly; bear with and help each other. What injury you have done me you know was long ago forgiven. To you, brother Carl, I give special thanks for the attachment you have shown me of late. It is my wish that you may have a better and freer life than I have had. Recommend virtue to your children; it alone, not money, can make them happy. I speak from experience; this was what upheld me in time of misery. Thanks to it and to my art, I did not end my life by suicide -- Farewell and love each other -- I thank all my friends, particularly Prince Lichnowsky's and Professor Schmidt -- I would like the instruments from Prince L. to be preserved by one of you, but not to be the cause of strife between you, and as soon as they can serve you a better purpose, then sell them. How happy I shall be if can still be helpful to you in my grave -- so be it. -- With joy I hasten to my death. -- If it comes before I have had the chance to develop all my artistic capacities, it will still be coming too soon despite my harsh fate, and I should probably wish it later -- yet even so I should be happy, for would it not free me from a state of endless suffering? -- Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee bravely. -- Farewell and do not wholly forget me when I am dead; I deserve this from you, for during my lifetime I was thinking of you often and of ways to make you happy -- please be so --

~ Ludwig van Beethoven

Heiligenstadt, October 6th, 1802

Known as The Heiligenstadt Testament, this letter was written by Beethoven in 1802. He was running 33 then. That year marked the culmination of Beethoven's personal and artistic crises. This unsent letter, addressed to his brothers, was discovered in his room after his death in 1827. Heiligenstadt is a small village located in the north of Vienna, surrounded by forests. Heeding to the advice of his doctor, Beethoven stayed at this village and took long strolls in the forests. His hearing problem became acute and he underwent a deep sense of anguish and loneliness at this failing faculty. The certainty of turning irreversibly deaf loomed large in the horizon. He realised that he would never be able to hear the sound of a distant flute or a sheperd's song again. This was an insurmountable tragedy for Beethoven as he had one of the sharpest ears in the history of humanity. At the personal front, his first love Giulietta Guicciardi turned down his proposal in the same year of 1802, as she hailed from the nobility and Beethoven was a commoner. Giulietta went away from the life of Beethoven to get married to some Count in the next year. All this led Beethoven to enter into depression and melancholy.

The mystery of life is that when one door closes, another one opens. More so, if one is bestowed with that Grace. Such a magical transformation happened during the Spring and Autumn of 1802 for Beethoven, who then emerged out more strongly. He overcame the despondency and surged out with creative flourish at the end of this disquieting episode. Shortly after writing The Heiligenstadt Testament in the form of the above letter, he completed his Second Symphony and began to work on Symphony No.3, the Eroica in 1802. During the same year, he had composed his Sonata No.14, also known as the Moonlight Sonata. It remains as one of the most beautiful of the 32 piano sonatas composed by Beethoven during his 57 years of living. Beethoven dedicated the Moonlight Sonata to his first love Giulietta. The immense energy and strength to Beethoven to continue his life's journey sprang out of the turbulence he underwent during 1802, creating masterly symphonies till his last and immortal Ninth Symphony, by which time he had become completely deaf. Out of the 16 string quartets composed by Beethoven, he aptly called his slow moving Fifteenth Quartet as a Holy Song of Thanks to Divinity, from one made well. This was one of the few last compostions of Beethoven composed during 1825, a few months before his death. Upon hearing this Quartet, his contemporary Franz Schubert is said to have remarked, "After this, what is left for us to write?".

Beethoven's Symphony No.3 was named by Beethoven himself as Eroica, which in Italian means the heroic. The work for this composition, though began in 1802, had got completed in 1804. This particular composition of Beethoven is regarded in the history of Western Classical Music to herald the end of Classical period and the beginning of the Romantic era. The Romantic musical form was the predominant musical form of the 19th Century and lasted upto the first decade of the 20th Century. The greatest composers of Romantic period include Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Antonin Dvorak, Nokolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Leos Janacek and ending with Gustav Mahler, from whom Modernism began in music during the 20th Century. To put it in perspective, the most significant composers of the Classical era of the 18th Century are Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. And the greatest composers of the preceding Baroque period of the 17th Century to mid-18th Century are Johann Sebastian Bach and Antonio Lucio Vivaldi. Each period in the history of Western Classical Music, starting from the post-Renaissance Baroque to the Modernism of the 20th Century, exhibit distinct attributes and unique characteristics in tune with the developments in other forms of art and human endeavour, along with the socio-economic changes in Europe. Each musical era along with their respective composers require detailed elaboration and in-depth understanding to appreciate Western Classical Music in better light. We shall try to venture into it, whenever an opportune moment emerges to do so. But before endeavouring further, one should cultivate the art of listening. One should learn how to be all ears. To nature, to human beings and to life. Then only one can listen to music.

Beethoven's Eroica has four movements in it. The four movements of this masterly Symphony can be related to the turmoil Beethoven had undergone during 1802.  The music critic John William Navin Sullivan, in his elaborate work Beethoven (1927), wrote that the first movement is an expression of Beethoven's courage in confronting his deafness, the second, slow and dirgelike, depicting the overwhelming despair he felt, the third, the scherzo, an indomitable uprising of creativity and the fourth an exuberant outpouring of creative energy. Beethoven had originally conceived of dedicating this symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. But he got disgusted when Napoleon declared himself to be an Emperor in 1804 and tore the title page of the Symphony into pieces and threw it away. The title page of the composition was re-copied by Beethoven and then he re-named it as the Eroica. Though the entire Symphony No. 3 of Beethoven with all its four movements should be listened together to get a complete feel of it, my most favourite piece is the fourth movement of Eroica, especially the one conducted by one of the greatest conductors of 20th Century, Herbert von Karajan of Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. For me, this particular masterpiece of Beethoven signifies the triumph of Eros over Thanatos. It is a grand celebration of the joie de vivre of existence. It is the one of the most profound homages to the Divine Grace which eternally blesses life on Earth.


  1. Satya, Your profound understanding of things which are beyond our grasp is truly amazing. Whether we have the ears to truly appreciate his work is another issue. But Beethovan is a shining example of the mystery of life. It should give us the resolve not to give up under the severest of circumstances. All situatons would change for the better. Only if we are ready to wait. And not lose heart.

  2. Dear Satya, it is another of your in-depth articles peppered with a lot for us to know. I have seen a film in which the music teacher's son is deaf and inspired by the story of Beethoven, the teacher makes use of big strobe lights-display in accordance with the tempo of music, its crescendo and fall, to make the unheard appreciate his symphony. I think the name of the film is 'Mr. Holland's Opus'.

  3. The music of Beethoven, after reading his letter & u'r elaborately well-researched blog, moved me to tears

  4. He probably started to listen to the inner music in his head once other sounds were shut out! In a world where most of us believe that our happiness lies in some particular thing or the other Beethoven's trials stand testimony to the fact that the earth has much to offer and we just have to look and listen.
    It was enlightening to read that behind the success of the artist, there was such despair and turmoil. He appears to be human rather than just a two dimensional legend.

  5. Beethoven is considered to be da founder of Romantic Era in Western Classical Music. Da period of Romanticism strived to increase da emotional expressions of da modern self & attempted to intensify da power to describe da inner experiences in musical forms, while preserving or even extending da formal structures from da earlier Classical period.

    Da significance of da compositions of Beethoven lies in expanding da harmonic language with innovate chord progressions. Da greater harmonic elusiveness & fluidity, da longer melodies, poesis as da basis of expression & da use of literary inspirations became da central pursuits of music during da Romantic period.

    It was Beethoven who laid da foundation to create in music, a more intense personal expression of emotion in which fantasy, imagination & a quest for adventure play a crucial part. His Symphony EROICA is considered to be a daring, wild, fantasia of inordinate length with extreme difficulty in execution.

    It is very true that da Heiligenstadt Testament is da meditative method used by Beethoven to exorcise his inner fears & it transformed him to create one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of music, EROICA. U'r Blog has brought it out wonderfully well. Hats off!

  6. red earth and pouring rainJune 9, 2010 at 7:39 PM

    Very exhilarating. If it comes to the western art and philosophy, sathyu is in majestic flow. strong currents of his thought, aesthetic experience peppered with bit of history and autobiographic writing of author collaged almost perfectly in this post. author is uninhibited in these kind of posts unlike in controversial current topics like capital punishment.

  7. Veena said..

    Wonderful blog.