RTF Book of the Month: Beethoven’s Letters

It is indeed very hard to come by anyone who has never heard of Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest composers of all time. However, despite this level of fame which has followed him, nearly 200 years after his death, there is little that is truly known about the man himself. For certain, there have been numerous movies with numerous depictions of Beethoven, such as ‘Immortal Beloved’, who may catch aspects of who the man was, but I would daresay, rather miss the whole person. Some depictions even go so far as to portray Beethoven as partaking in madness, that is, the so-called madness of genius. I think this portrayal is especially misleading, and is a common thought by many, that creative persons who are passionate and even temperamental, seem to ‘ordinary’ folk as completely mad.

It is of course true, that to be creative necessarily means to challenge the existing boundaries of thought during that period, and thus most-naturally, confront much opposition and confusion by the majority of people, including its institutions of the time. It is very much for this reason, that creative persons are often wrongfully depicted as partaking in madness, however, when one really reflects upon this, we often have to conclude that it is rather the opposition to that creative genius that is partaking in madness. That is, if one is presented with a challenge to their own world outlook, but that this challenge, or new idea, partakes in truth and can be known through reason, than it is the resistor to such an idea who is mad, not its presenter!

This appears to be the special task of biography: to present the man in relation to his times, and to show how far as a whole they are opposed to him, in how far they are favourable to him, and how, if he be an artist, poet, or writer, he reflects them outwardly.

– Goethe ‘Wahrheit und Dichtung’

It should be noted that this book of ‘Beethoven’s Letters’, was never intended by Beethoven to have been published and thus he is not writing with this in mind. However, despite this we at times are shown a window into Beethoven’s sensitive soul; his awareness of the responsibility that is brought with great creativity, and how one almost always feels short of that ever-reaching goal, as he writes in 1798 at the age of 28:

If I told you that the verses you just sent me did not perplex me, I should be telling a lie. It is a peculiar sensation to see, to hear one’s self praised, and then to be conscious of one’s weakness, as I am. I always look upon such opportunities as warnings to approach nearer, however difficult it may be, to the unattainable goal, which art and nature set before us. These verses are really beautiful, but they have just the one fault, which, indeed, it is customary to find in poets; for that which they wish to see and to hear, they actually do see and hear, however far it may be, at times, below their ideal. You can readily understand that I should be glad to make the acquaintance of the poet, or poetess, and now also I tender my thanks for your kindness shown.

Keeping in mind that the last symphony Beethoven wrote was to Schiller’s poem ‘Ode to Joy’ in its final (fourth) movement, and that Schiller held a dear place in Beethoven’s heart, it is fitting that we end with Beethoven’s quoting of Schiller in a letter he wrote to his friend and student, Lenz Von Breuning, who unfortunately died the following year at the age of 21. It was thought by many that the quote was Beethoven’s but is actually from Schiller’s play ‘Don Carlos‘ and the words are those of the Marquis of Posa to the Queen in the fourth act.

Wisdom is for the wise, Beauty for a feeling heart; And both belong to each other.

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