Beethoven - George Upton

The End

Although Beethoven lived to see happy days and happy times in beautiful Vienna, other days and other times succeeded them, darkened by a terrible fate which only a strong and lofty spirit like his could endure and even overcome.

One fine summer evening Beethoven and his pupil, Ries, took a pleasant ramble among the beautiful fields around Vienna. The setting sun flooded the earth with a sea of gold and purple. Rosy clouds slowly floated in the sky. High in air the lark sang its sweet-toned evening song. On a green hillock sat a shepherd lad, filling the fields and woods around with the pretty melody of his flute, which he had fashioned out of elder. Beethoven and Ries stopped and quietly enjoyed the wonderful beauty of the dying day.

"How beautifully the song of the lark blends with the shepherd's melody," said Ries. Beethoven leaned forward and listened. "Flute and lark? I do not hear them," he said, with an expression of painful suspense on his face. "There is the young shepherd, playing on his pipe. Do you not see him?"

"I see him," said Beethoven in a pitiful tone. '"I see him—but—I do not hear him."

On that spot his distressing fate was pronounced. Beethoven, the musician, who lived only in the realm of music, had lost his hearing! He could no longer hear his own beautiful melodies! He would never hear again the song of the nightingale or the orchestra's surging volume tone.

Beethoven and Ries


His misfortune did not come suddenly, like a bolt out of the clear sky. For years Beethoven had observed the gradual loss of his hearing, and had sought medical help for it but it was during this walk that he conviction was a last forced upon him that there was no hope he would ever be better. Silent, sad, and absorbed in gloomy thought, he went home. Ries tried to console and calm him, but for such an artist, with such an affliction, there could be no consolation, no relief except in humble submission to the divine will.

An extract from a letter written by him to his old true friend, Wegeler, in Bonn, dated May 2, 1810 shows how keenly Beethoven felt this affliction. He writes: "I, however, should have been happy, perhaps the happiest of men, had not that demon taken possession of my ears. I have read somewhere that man should not willfully part from this life so long as he can do even one good deed; and but for this I should ere now have ceased to exist, and by my own hand too."

It could not well be otherwise. His total deafness could not but exercise a depressing influence upon Beethoven's disposition, even though it could not completely dominate his strong character. Usually frank, cordial, and confiding in his friends, Beethoven soon became suspicious and distrustful, irritable and passionate. It was easy for any outsider to slander his truest friends and set him against them. On such occasions—and, alas, they were not rare—Beethoven would show no outward sign of his enmity, utter no reproaches, make no complaints, and not even call the suspected one to account. But from that time he would exhibit the utmost contempt for him. At the same time he would feel the deepest sorrow, and yet make no explanation of his conduct. When by some chance the misunderstanding was cleared up, then Beethoven sought to make reparation for his injustice in every possible way. He would offer apologies, and not rest until reconciled to his injured friend. Then he was as usual the truest friend, ready to help in every time of trouble as much as it was in his power to do so. Even those nearest to him bitterly felt the pain of his capricious disposition.

"You cannot believe," writes Stephen von Breuning, one of Beethoven's devoted friends at Bonn, "what an indescribable impression the decay of his hearing has made upon Beethoven. Think what the feeling of unhappiness must be in one of such earnest character, besides his reserve and frequent distrust of his best friends and his irresolution in many things. For the most part, when he expresses his original feeling freely, intercourse with him is an actual exertion, as one can never feel absolutely free."

True indeed; but was not the unfortunate one the most to be pitied? Let us hear what he says about it himself.

Early in 1802 Beethoven was attacked by an illness so dangerous that for the first time he had serious doubts whether he should recover. His friend, the celebrated Doctor Schmidt, checked the progress of the disease, and when he was fully restored sent him to Heiligenstadt, a village in the suburbs of Vienna. There in solitude, his mind busy with thoughts about death, he wrote the following document, a kind of will, addressed to his two brothers:

"For my brothers, CARL, and JOHANN BEETHOVEN:

"Oh, you who consider or assert that I am hostile, obstinate, or misanthropic, what injustice you do me! You know not the secret causes of that which makes me appear so. My heart and my mind have been moved by the tender feelings of affection from childhood. I have always been disposed to perform great actions; but consider that for the last six years I have been afflicted with a hopeless complaint, aggravated by the unskilful treatment of physicians; that I have been disappointed from year to year in the hope of relief, and am at last obliged to submit to the endurance of an evil the removal of which may take years, if it can be removed at all, Born with an ardent, lively disposition, susceptible to the pleasures of society, I was forced at an early age to renounce them, and pass my life in seclusion. When I strove to rise above this, oh, how cruelly was I forced back by the doubly painful experience of my defective hearing! And yet, how could I say to people, 'Speak louder-shout for I am deaf'? How could I proclaim the defect of a sense that I had once in the highest perfection—a perfection which few of my colleagues ever surpassed? I could not! Forgive me then when you see me refrain from mingling with you, which I would very gladly do. My misfortune is doubly mortifying to me, for it causes me to be misunderstood. I am cut off from recreation in the society of my fellow-creatures, from the pleasures of conversation, and from the enjoyment of friendship. Wellnigh alone in the world, I dare not go into society more than is absolutely necessary. I am obliged to live like an exile. If I go into company, a painful anxiety seizes me lest I may be forced to betray my situation. This has been my condition also during the half year I have spent in the country. Enjoined by my sensible physician to spare my hearing as much as possible, I have been almost encouraged by him in my present disposition, though, carried away by fondness for society, I have allowed myself to be drawn into it. But how humiliating it was when one beside me could hear at a distance a flute that I could not hear, or a shepherd singing, and I could not distinguish a sound! Such things brought me to the verge of despair, and only my art restrained my hand from putting an end to my life. It seemed impossible for me to quit the world before I had completed the work which I felt myself set apart to do. So I endured this wretched life—a life so absolutely wretched that the slightest thing is' capable of plunging me from the best into the worst condition. I am told I must be patient. I have been so. I hope I may be steadfast in my resolution to persevere until it shall please the inexorable Fates to cut the thread. I may be better, I may not. I am prepared for the worst,—I, who as early as my twenty-eighth year was forced to become a philosopher. It is not easy—it is harder for the artist than for any other. O God! Thou seest my misery. Thou knowest that, wretched as I am, I love my fellow-creatures, and am disposed to do good. O men! when you shall read this, reflect that you have wronged me; and let the child of affliction take comfort on finding one like himself, who, in spite of all the impediments of nature, yet did his utmost to obtain admittance into the ranks of worthy artists and worthy men."

And he has been admitted to those ranks. Notwithstanding the malignant disease which dispelled every outward joy of life, Beethoven created those immortal symphonies, overtures, and sonatas, in which he proved himself the greatest master of music and inscribed his name indelibly in the history of the art. Misfortune could not overcome him. His splendid genius made him superior to it. "I will clutch fate by the throat," he once wrote to a friend. "It never shall make me bow to it." And it never did. He wrestled manfully with it, and subjected it to his powerful will.

That in spite of this he was unsociable to the end, and often alienated his nearest friends, is easily explained by the nature of his ailment, which made conversation extremely difficult. It was due to this also that Beethoven, always good-hearted and generous to the suffering, experienced the ingratitude of his own brothers in various ways. He had suffered them to come to Vienna, supported them in every way, and sacrificed a considerable part of his income in their maintenance for a year. They treated him with shameful ingratitude, and broke open his chest and stole all the jewels, snuff-boxes, watches, rings, and other souvenirs which had been given to Beethoven by high personages, in recognition of his performances. Beethoven, that great, noble heart, made no allusion to the theft; but the knowledge that those who were nearest to him, who owed their very existence to him, upon whom he had absolutely heaped benefactions, had lied to him, cheated him, and robbed him,—such knowledge could not contribute to his happiness, cheerfulness, and affability.

And yet, notwithstanding all this, with all his misfortune, was Beethoven actually unhappy? Was he alone in his gloomy solitude? He may have been at first, but in his later life certainly not. The happiness of knowing he could create sublime masterpieces was greater than the unhappiness of being deaf and misunderstood. He was not solitary, for the divine genius of art always was his companion. Beethoven was really happy because he was greater than his misfortunes. Upon his heroic brow rests a more splendid ornament than the crown of any king,—the laurel-wreath of ever-lasting fame, the radiant diadem of immortality.