Beethoven as a Person

A gallery of portraits can be found here.

Beethoven as a Person

The following are impressions of Beethoven as a Person:

"Beethoven was short, but broad-framed. Until his early thirties he was slim... [he had] penetrating brown eyes beneath a broad forehead and thick eyebrows. His ruddy complexion bears the scars of childhood smallpox, his mouth is shapely, and his chin has a cleft which became more marked in later years. ...
In his late thirties Beethoven became stockier." Grillparzer writes in 1823: "I first saw Beethoven in my boyhood years - which may have been 1804 or 5.... Beethoven in those days was still lean, dark, and contrary to the habit in later years, very elegantly dressed... One or two years later I was living with my parents in Heiligenstadt, near Vienna. Our dwelling fronted on the garden, and Beethoven had rented the rooms facing the street... My brothers and I took little heed of the odd man who in the meanwhile had grown more robust, and went about dressed in a most negligent, indeed even slovenly way."

Rockel, a singer, wrote of a visit to Beethoven in 1806:

"[In his room] was placed the mighty bathing apparatus in which the Master was laving his powerful chest... and I had the opportunity of admiring his muscular system and sturdy bodily construction. To judge by the latter the composer might look forward to growing as old as Methuselah, and it must have taken a most powerful inimical influence to bring the strong column to so untimely a fall."

Beethoven was clumsy. Ries wrote:

"Beethoven was most awkward and bungling in his behaviour; his clumsy movements lacked all grace. He rarely picked up anything without dropping or breaking it... Everything was knocked over, soiled, or destroyed. How he ever managed to shave himself at all remains difficult to understand, even considering the frequent cuts on his cheeks. - He never learned to dance in time with the music."

A lifemask of Beethoven

A lock of Beethoven's Hair
Beethoven's personality was also challenging:
"As a young man Beethoven was frank to the point of rudeness. Headstrong and proud, he was never willing to conform in his behaviour... As he grew older and deafness overrtook him, the negative aspects of Beethoven's personality came to the fore. He was increasingly given to bouts of despair, the difficulties of communication made him more reserved, and he became more suspicious and distrustful of others."
"Beethoven's behaviour was as erratic as his complex personality might lead one to expect. He rarely stayed in one abode for long; domestic comforts were apparenly unimportant to him and he lived in a state of disorderliness which shocked many observers; he was unable to excercise control over his household affairs; and he became increasingly negligent over his dress."

Baron de Tremont writes of a visit to Beethoven in 1809:
"Picture to yourself the dirtiest, most disorderly place imaginable - blotches of moisture covered the ceiling, an oldish grand piano, on which dust disputed the place with various pieces of engraved and manuscript music; under the piano (I do not exaggerate) an unemptied pot de nuit; ... the chairs, mostly cane-seated, were covered with plates bearing the remains of last night's supper and with wearing apparel etc."
Count von Keglevics, nephew of one of Beethoven's students, wrote:
"he had a whim, one of many, since he lived across from her [his student], of coming to give her lessons clad in a dressing gown, slippers and a peaked nightcap."
"It was not uncommon for {Beethoven's] friends to replace his old clothes with new ones overnight. Beethoven would apparently dress the next day completely unaware of the exchange.
Paradoxically he had an almost obsessional attitude towards washing. This ritual would be the cue for him to sing (or howl) at the top of his voice, much to the amusement of his servants or passers-by who were in a position to overlook his apartment. Whether this denoted a particular concern for his personal hygeine, or was essential to his thought process, is open to question. What is certain is that the overflow from the buckets of water he emptied over himself often leaked through the floor, causing Beethoven to be unpopular with landlords."

All quotes and material from Barry Cooper, ed The Beethoven Companion (London, 1991), 102 - 105

A letter in Beethoven's Hand

Beethoven's Heilegenstadt Testament
Found in his effects when he died was this letter, written in the form of a testmanet to his two brothers. It had been written nearly 25 years earlier at a crucial moment in the life of the composer.

For my brothers Carl and [Johan] Beethoven, O ye men who think or declare that I am hostile stubborn or Misanthropic, how you wrong me you do not know the secret motive of what seems thus to you, from Childhood my Heart and Mind were inclined to the Gentle Feeling of goodwill, indeed I was ever disposed to accomplish great Feats, but only reflect that for the last 6 years an incurable condition has seized me, worsened by senseless physicians, cheated from year to year in the Hope of improvement, finally compelled to the prospect of a lasting Ailment (whose Curing may perhaps take years or indeed be impossible). Born with a fiery Lively Temperment susceptible even to the Diversions of Society, I soon had to keep myself, pass my life in solitude, if I attempted from time to time to rise above all this, o how harshly then was I repulsed by the doubly sad Experience of my bad Hearing, yet I could not say to People: speak louder, shout, for I am deaf, alas how could I then acknowledge the Weakness of a Faculty which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a Faculty I once had to the highest degree of Perfection, such Perfection as only few of my Calling surely have or have had o I cannot do it. Therefore forgive me if you see me withdrawing when I should gladly join you. My misfortune afflicts me doubly, since it causes me to be misunderstood. Diversion in Human Society, civilized Conversation, mutual Effusions cannot take place for me. All but alone, I enter society no more than is required by the most urgent Necessity. I must live like a Banished man; if I approach a company, a hot anxiety invades me, because I am afraid of being exposed to the Danger of letting my Condition be noticed and thus has it been this half-year too, which I have spent in the country, my wise Physician having ordered me to spare my Hearing as much as possible. He nearly met my present Disposition, even though I have sometimes let myself be led astray by an Urge for Society. But what Mortification if someone stood besides me and heard a flute from afar and I heard nothing; or someone heard a Shepherd Singing, and I heard nothing. Such Happenings brought me close to Despair; I was not far from ending my own life only Art, only art held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to me that I should leave the world before I had produced all that I felt I might, and so I spared this wretched life truly wretched; a body so susceptible that a somewhat rapid change can take me from the Best Condition to the worst. Patience so now I must choose Her for my guide, I have done so I hope that my decision to persevere may endure until it please the inexorable Fates to break the Thread; perhaps I will improve, perhaps not. I am resigned to be forced already in my 28th year to become a Philosopher is not easy, and harder for an Artist than for anyone else. Deity, thou lookest down into my innermost being; thou knowest it, thou seest charity and benevolence dwell within, - o Men, when you read this some day, think then that you have wronged me, and let any unhappy man console himself by finding another one like himself, one who, despite Nature's Impediments, yet did what was in his Power to do to be admitted to the Ranks of worthy Artists and Men. And so it is done I hasten with joy towards my Death should it come before I have had an Opportunity to disclose all my Artistic Capacities, then it shall still have come too soon despite my Hard Destiny, and I should indeed wish it came later yet even then am I content. Does it not free me from an endless Suffering State? Come when you will, I'll meet you bravely farewell and do not wholly forget me in Death. I have deserved it of you, for in Life I thought of you often, in order to make you happy, so may you be
Ludwig van Beethoven
6th October

Heiligenstadt 10th October 1802 and so I bid you farewell and sadly too yes the cherished Hope which I brought here with me, that I might be cured at least up to a Point it must abandon me completely now, as Autumn Leaves fall away, wither; so has it too wilted for me, I go from here much as I came even the High Courage that often inspired me during the Lovely Days of Summer has vanished o Providence grant me one day of pure Joy the inner reverberation of true Joy has so long been a stranger to me o when o when, o Deity may I feel it once more in the Temple of Nature and Mankind, - Never? no o it would be too hard.

The Story of Beethoven's Deathmask

The painter Joseph Danhauser (1805-1845) made a plaster mask of Beethoven's face shortly after Beethoven's death. His brother Carl recorded the story:

"On March 26 [1827] 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]
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All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
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