A walk in Vienna and its environs can reveal some of the places where the composer lived.
Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms (among others) are symbolized in Vienna not only with monuments but also with museums (two, in Schubert’s case: his birthplace, and the house in which he died), but it is Beethoven who is represented most. With several museums devoted to him, some of which contain his own personal effects, there exist in and around Vienna more sites associated with Beethoven than with any other composer who graced the city.
Though born in Bonn, Beethoven spent most of his adult life in the Austrian capital. His birthplace is now an important archive and museum, containing the most comprehensive Beethoven collection in the world, but he lived there only for the first four years of his life. The Bonn house in which he grew to young manhood was destroyed during the Second World War.
He first journeyed to Vienna at 17, in 1787, hastened back to Bonn at the news his mother was dying, and returned to Vienna, ultimately for good, in 1792. He undertook some concert tours to Prague, Leipzig and Berlin (1795), to Pressburg and Budapest (1800), and stayed briefly at the health spas in Teplitz and Karlsbad, but from 1792 onward his stay in Vienna was permanent.
There is evidence that Beethoven lived in more than 60 different places (some sources mention at least 80) during his 35 years in Vienna. Sixteen of the 27 documented dwellings he occupied during his time there were located in what is now the inner city, the old part of Vienna now surrounded by The Ring, the enormous boulevard which circumvents the heart of the city.
Some of the buildings in which Beethoven lived now contain museums devoted to him (Gedenkrume, memorial rooms) and are open to the public (Mlkerbastei 8 in Vienna, and Rathausgasse 10 in nearby Baden). Other buildings, some of them still private residences, are not museums but are merely identified by the characteristic red and white Austrian banners with a plaque stating Beethoven lived there (such as the corner house at Beatrixgasse-Ungargasse 5 in Vienna, where Beethoven worked on the Missa Solemnis in 1819 and where he finished the ninth symphony in 1824). Many more still serve as public or commercial buildings, and even private quarters, but offer no indication of their former illustrious tenant (Ballgasse 6 in Vienna). Many of the structures in which Beethoven lived during the course of his life in Vienna have been demolished altogether, allegedly in the name of “progress.” (Cases in point are the house in which he died, demolished in 1904, and Tiefergraben 241, one of his first residences in Vienna). Some of the buildings no longer extant still warrant mention here because of the importance of their Beethoven association, even though some of the present buildings give no clue that the composer once lived on that site.
Beethoven’s powers of concentration in composing his music may have been supreme, but in his personal nature he was restless in the extreme. He seems to have changed lodgings as often as he did his servants later in life. Indications are that in some cases he didn’t have to pay rent for a flat if he wasn’t actually occupying it for a period. Finding a flat in Vienna was easier then than now, and, never a home-owner, he didn’t have much furniture to move. These points help explain his consistent movement from place to place, and why he sometimes retained several flats simultaneously. Yet another reason was his usual disregard of conventional, external considerations, which often caused friction with neighbors, janitors, servants and landlords. Accordingly, scores of Beethoven sites now exist.
Early in 1803 Beethoven was provided with an apartment at the Theater an der Wien by J.E. Schikaneder, a librettist (and, from 1801, the theater’s manager). Beethoven’s flat was in a building, no longer extant, that was part of the Theatre complex. There are indications Beethoven used this flat primarily to receive visitors, while composing elsewhere. Still an active theater, the Theate an der Wien was the site of the first public performances of several of the composer’s most important works: his third symphony (“Eroica”), which Beethoven himself conducted on April 7, 1805, and his only opera, Fidelio, performed there in its revised form on May 23, 1814. This theater was also the site of the first performance, on December 22, 1808, of the composer’s fifth and sixth symphonies (which were in fact composed in reverse-order), and the Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra. It was a mammoth concert in which Beethoven himself took part.
While today many go south for the winter, Beethoven often went “south” for the summer, to the towns of Baden and Mdling. Times have changed: a simple jaunt for us today was a veritable journey in Beethoven’s era. Some of Beethoven’s summer locales were, in his day, as geographically distant from Vienna, and from each other, as his early and late works were, musically. Now easily reached by bus or tram, Baden and Mdling were then, before the railroad era, essentially a day’s journey by carriage or coach from the city limits.
Beethoven also visited Hetzendorf, Penzing, Dbling, Heiligenstadt, and Jedlesee. These were self-contained towns in the composer’s day but today are integral geographical components of the city of Vienna. The Jedlesee location (today, Jeneweingasse 17) was then the residence of Princess Marie Erddy, where Beethoven was invited during the summers of 1801-1803.
Before leaving the city for the summer, Beethoven usually arranged to have his mail sent to his publishers for later retrieval. There are several reasons documented information on the composer’s summer residences is not as abundant as for some of his city dwellings. At best, his letters from the country usually bear only the town of origin, and sometimes the date. Especially in his later years, Beethoven had the egregious habit, endearing him to historians and scholars, of misdating his letters. In one rather obvious but non-crucial case, he actually wrote 1088 (sic) instead of 1808. Perhaps no-one in the entire history of music better exemplifies the image of The Absent-Minded Composer than does Beethoven. To compound and crown the confusion further, most of the specific locations had different addresses in Beethoven’s day – the houses differently numbered and the streets differently named. The researcher faces a rich assortment of obstacles.
Among the numerous Beethoven residences in Vienna proper, only three buildings remain essentially as he knew them: Mlkerbastei 8, Auerspergstrasse 3, and Laimgrubengasse 22. All the others have been either substantially modified, or altogether replaced by new structures. Of these three original Beethoven locations, the first is by far the most important; the second is not a museum; and the third is closed during the winter and is accessible only by advance arrangement intermittently during the tourist seasons.
Beethoven lived and died before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Though by nature he was quite indifferent to material extravagance, by today’s standards even some of his more “luxurious” personal surroundings might be called quaint by some and primitive by others. Both would be right.
Beethoven visited the town of Teplitz (now part of what was Czechoslovakia) in August of 1811, where he met both old and new friends, often at the Clary Palace.
At this stage the 41-year-old composer was preoccupied with problems, and much of his conversation and correspondence from this period is characterized by complaints. Beethoven had a reputation, largely warranted, of being something of a malcontent. If his chronic complaining was not always altogether justified in every case, certainly it was entirely understandable, in view of the life he led intermittently riddled with the misfortune and malady that often plagued him.
Money matters, too, were of concern to him at this time, though his grumbling in this regard was not as merited. Beethoven was certainly not an 18th-century Vanderbilt but he was far from a pauper – as indeed were most of the great (and even the not-so-great) composers. The image of The Starving Composer is largely a myth – often believed and traditionally accepted, but usually false, and although Beethoven first made his mark not as a composer but as a pianist (and especially as an improvisor), he ultimately reached iconic status as a composer even during his own lifetime.
Beethoven returned to Teplitz in 1812, where he met and spent time with Goethe on July 19, 20, 21 and 23. Goethe was then 63, with the publication of the first part of Faust four years behind him. Of this meeting, the following vignette has come down to us. – As Beethoven and Goethe walked, some of the nobility passed with their entourage. Goethe politely stepped aside and bowed deferentially to the nobles – while Beethoven, in a gesture entirely typical of him, strode almost defiantly right through their midst, with his hands behind his back and without acknowledging the presence of the nobles, who had no alternative but to give him clear passage. When Goethe asked Beethoven how he could so disrespectfully treat these nobles, the composer replied, again quite characteristically, “There are countless ‘nobles’, but only two of us.”
Though he recognized the genius of the older man, soon afterward Beethoven wrote of him, “The Court suits him too much; it is not becoming of a poet.” In a letter of September 2, 1812, Goethe wrote of his meeting with Beethoven, “His talent astonished me, but his is a totally untamed personality, and he is not entirely wrong in finding the world detestable, though this attitude does not make it more pleasant, either for him or others.” Goethe also wrote, “To think of teaching Beethoven would be an insolence even in one with greater insight than mine, for he has the guiding light of genius, whilst the rest of us sit in total darkness, scarcely suspecting the direction from which daylight will break upon us.”
Beethoven’s fondness for the town of Baden-bei-Wien drew him to it intermittently for at least a dozen summers between 1807 and 1825. His attachment to this place in some ways anticipated the loyalty of Johannes Brahms, decades later, to the town of Bad Ischl, near Salzburg, where he, too, spent 12 creative summers during the 1880s and 1890s. Though most of the buildings Beethoven is said to have occupied in Baden are still in existence, only one (at Rathausgasse 10) now contains Memorial Rooms.
Because of his carelessness in some of his letters, only a few locations in Baden have been determined with any certainty as Beethoven dwellings.
Beethoven first visited Baden for part of the summer in 1807, where he stayed at the Johannesbad. Now a Baden spa facility (kurpension), it is located at Johannesbadgasse 12. He returned to Baden in 1809, 1810, 1813, 1814, 1815 & 1816 (for longer periods), and again in 1817. During the summers of 1821-1825, he attemped to alleviate some of his ailments by taking the cures at the natural mineral baths for which Baden is still known. (Baden is the German word for baths).
During the summers of 1808, 1809 and 1813, he stayed at Weilburgstrasse 13, then known as The Sauerhof. It is still a privately-owned hotel. In the 1920s the sculptor Sockel was commissioned to do a bust of Beethoven which now graces the hotel’s grounds.
In 1822 Beethoven stayed at an inn called Zum Goldenen Schwan (The Golden Swan), located at what is now Antonsgasse 4 (in Beethoven’s time the address was Baden 230 Wienerstrasse). Though now marked with a memorial plaque stating Beethoven lived there, it is not a museum.
In 1816 he stayed at Breitnerstrasse 26, later known as Castle Breiten, and on another occasion at Kaiser Franz Ring 9, near what is now the Public Library. Beethoven also had quarters at Magdalenenhof 87, now Frauengasse 10. Rathausgasse 10, now a small Beethoven museum (containing a piano of the period), is marked by a plaque stating the composer lived on the upper floor of this two-story dwelling while working on the ninth symphony.
Beethoven, an enthusiastic lover of nature (to which his sixth symphony, “Pastorale,” bears witness), enjoyed walking in the Helenenthal (Helen’s Valley) near Baden. It may have been this area which gave rise to the following Beethoven vignette: “When he became excited by some musical idea he waved his hands and screamed melodies, occasionally frightening horses and unsuspecting strangers.”
The Helenenthal was where Beethoven’s nephew, Carl, tried to commit suicide in the mid-1820s by climbing one of its peaks and shooting himself with a pistol. The composer’s litigation for Carl’s guardianship had taken years, and made such inroads into Beethoven’s time and efforts that it may have robbed posterity of at least several sonatas, a string quartet, and perhaps even the tenth symphony, sketches for which Beethoven actually made.
In Beethoven’s day, Mdling was a small market town of less than 300 houses. He first visited here in 1799 when he was 29, and during the years 1818-1821, he returned there for a part of each summer.
Like Brahms after him, Beethoven sometimes worked on the composition of several pieces simultaneously. Above the door of Hauptstrasse 79 in Mdling, there is a plaque stating that Beethoven lived and worked there in the summers of 1818 and 1819. Known as The Hafnerhaus, it now contains Beethoven Memorial Rooms. In his day the building was owned by Jacob Tuschek. Beethoven’s quarters consisted of “three rooms on the first floor, on the right.” (In Europe even today “the first floor” means the second floor, i.e., the first one above street-level). It was here that Beethoven worked on the composition of the Mdling Dances, the Missa Solemnis, the ninth symphony, the piano sonata Nr.29 (“Hammerklavier”), and the Diabelli Variations.
In 1818, Beethoven was sent an English Broadwood grand piano as a gift from the London manufacturer. It was conveyed from England by ship via Trieste, thence overland to Austria. Beethoven received it during his stay in Mdling, where the instrument had been specifically directed by Broadwood himself. For the piano to reach the composer, it took nearly a year.
The Hafnerhaus was taken over by the town of Mdling on June 14, 1970 in commemoration of the Beethoven bicentennial. It has since been the subject of French and Japanese documentary films and the site has been of considerable interest to European, American and Asian visitors.
When Beethoven returned to Mdling in the summer of 1820, he stayed at The Augustinerhof at Babenbergerstrasse 36. It is known today as The Christhof, Achsenaugasse 6. This structure, too, is marked by a plaque stating when Beethoven lived there. Though not accessible to the general public in the traditional sense, the owner has been known to open the rooms on occasion to accredited visitors (i.e., those who have made the effort to contact him with their specific Beethoven interest).
There is evidence that this structure was known as The Christhof even in Beethoven’s time. In his sketches for the Missa Solemnis there is a cryptic entry which reads, Do’tag. Azgtg. Christ. Decoded, it could easily mean, Donnerstag, auszugtag, Christhof: Thursday, moving-day, (to the) Christhof. One of Beethoven’s most extraordinary characteristics, which sets him apart from composers who preceded him (and from most who followed), was the manner in which he grew musically. Where most composers reach a certain level of musical maturity, Beethoven continued his ascent throughout his life. He not only climbed a musical Matterhorn but he seems actually to have created and scaled entirely new peaks of his own.
Some of his late pieces (particularly his chamber works) were extremely demanding upon both listener and performer, and were called “…the musical mutterings of a deaf man.” The ninth symphony was premiered after only two rehearsals and was played from manuscript, which makes us wonder how musically cohesive a performance it actually was. Beethoven’s late piano and chamber works, respectively, may have defied both the performance-capabilities as well as the comprehension of all but the most astute musical minds of his day. Some of this music was beyond the scope of his contemporaries. It took time for some of his last works to gain general acceptance, and it wasn’t until half a century after Beethoven’s death that his late quartets became “accessible.”
Compared to those of his contemporaries, these last works of Beethoven may have sounded strange and perhaps even tumultuous to some listeners. Examples of this are some of his late quartets, generally, and his Grosse Fuge (Great Fugue) specifically, a piece described by Igor Stravinsky as, “an absolutely contemporary work which will be contemporary forever.” In Beethoven’s day, some of his later works were as difficult to perform (and, for some, even to listen to) as his handwriting, wild in the extreme, is difficult to read.Our ears are accustomed to the 20th-century musical sounds we hear today, so Beethoven’s music no longer seems new or “revolutionary” to most of us, and may now sound actually old-fashioned. This was not the case when his works first appeared, and some of his later music arguably belonged to the musical dawn of the world’s next century. It is conceivable that had Beethoven lived even another fifteen years and continued his musical growth, his last works, viewed in proper historical perspective, might have assumed characteristics approaching the avant-garde.
Nevertheless, on the musically informed listener even his late works make an eloquent impression – an impression which may be difficult to explain and impossible to define, but easy to recognize and a pleasure to feel. If Beethoven’s music no longer answers our esthetic wants, it surely answers our esthetic needs.
Dblinger Hauptstrasse 92. A short tram ride from Vienna’s center is the house in which Beethoven lived in 1803 while composing his third symphony, the “Eroica” (Heroic). Located at Dblinger Haupstrasse 92, now can integral part of Vienna, the house is situated in what was then the town of Dbling. In Beethoven’s time the building was a one-story structure, until about the 1840s when an upper level was added.
The flat Beethoven occupied is accessible through a courtyard entered from the street. Though he undoubtedly had a view of hills and meadows from his windows, the passage and changes of time allow us to see now only the facade of a building directly across the narrow street. Though very little original Beethoven material is exhibited here at the Eroica House (a bust, period furniture, etc.), the site is important because of what the composer produced while he lived here.
Beethoven’s third symphony was as revolutionary in its day as was Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde six decades later. We know that had Napoleon not succumbed to the lure of power, this Beethoven work would today be known not as the “Eroica” but as the “Bonaparte” symphony. We find specific and incontrovertible proof of this on Beethoven’s own handwritten manuscript of the symphony (now in the Austrian National Library in Vienna): the completed autograph score, ready to be sent to Beethoven’s publishers, already had the subtitle “Buonaparte” on the title page in the composer’s own letter hand. In his Biographical Notes, Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries wrote that he brought the composer the news that Napoleon had declared himself emperor of France. Beethoven, livid with fury, flew into one of his rages, exclaiming, “Is he, too, nothing more than an ordinary human being? Now he will trample on all the rights of man and indulge only his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others and become a tyrant!” Beethoven went to the table on which his manuscript lay, and crossed out the “Buonaparte” dedication – with such force, in fact, that it actually tore a hole in the paper. When the symphony was published in October, 1806, its dedication was not to Napoleon, but bore instead the following inscription: “Sinfonia Eroica – composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
Napoleon’s action forever changed Beethoven’s view of him. Years later, the composer was more “specific” in relating to a friend his ultimate opinion of Napoleon, with remarks in which Beethoven used very explicit language.
Mlkerbastei 8. On July 14, 1804, Beethoven wrote from Baden to Ferdinand Ries in Vienna that he wanted better quarters in the city. “…I would very much like a house on one of the large, quiet places, or on the Bastei…” Ries later wrote (again in his Biographical Notes), “I then chose – on the Mlkerbastei in the ‘Pasqualattischen house’ – a flat on the top floor, with a nice view, and thus Beethoven had four flats at the same time.” (Beethoven had two summer flats in the country during this period, and now two winter ones in the city: his Mlkerbastei dwelling, the other at the Theater an der Wien). After her first meeting with Beethoven, Bettina Brentano wrote to Goethe on May 28, 1810, “Beethoven now has three flats, in which he hides in turn: one in the country, one in the city, and the third on the Bastei.”
Beethoven’s top-floor residence at Nr.1239 Mlkerbastei (today, Mlkerbastei 8) consisted of five rooms in what was the 18th-century counterpart of today’s apartment house. Located on the ramparts of what was then the city limits, and imposing even today, in Beethoven’s day it was a massive building, in keeping with the magnitude of his music. If not actually “equivalent,” it was in some ways comparable to a Fifth Avenue penthouse apartment in New York overlooking Central Park today.
Beethoven lived in this building intermittently from 1804 until 1815. It is of primary importance as a Beethoven site in Vienna. During his time here he worked on a number of important compositions, including his opera Fidelio. Additionally, among all those flats in which he lived in Vienna proper, it was this dwelling that he used more “permanently” – that is, several times and for longer periods than the others. The building was situated above and set back from an enormous protective wall (bastion, bastei) which for centuries had served as the fortifications that encircled what is now Vienna’s Innere Stadt (inner city). The wall existed until the late 1850s, when the fortifications were demolished to make way for The Ring, the wide boulevard that surrounds what is now the old part of Vienna. According to Professor Gerhard Stradner, Curator of the Collection of Historic Musical Instruments at the Kunsthistorisches Museum at the Neue Burg in Vienna, the bulwark below and in front of the Mlkerbastei (which today faces Vienna’s University across The Ring) is now, along with the Stubenbastei elsewhere in Vienna, one of the only two surviving portions of the old fortifications.
The building was known in Beethoven’s day as the Pasqualati House because of its owner, Baron Johann Baptiste von Pasqualati of Osterberg, whose father had been the personal physician to the Empress Maria Theresa (mother of Marie Antoinette). The younger Pasqualati was a wealthy merchant, an official agent of the Imperial Court, and perhaps most importantly for posterity (and fortunately for Beethoven) an enthusiastic music-lover: he was not only a pianist but he also composed. With his position and influence, Pasqualati was instrumental in helping Beethoven in various important practical matters. He was not put off by the composer’s notorious whims and moods and he remained his friend all his life, despite Beethoven’s personal behavior (which at times could be very embarrassing). Whenever Beethoven moved from the flat, Pasqualati showed admirable foresight and consideration: he adamantly refused to rent it to others, knowing the composer would return. Even after 1815, when Beethoven had permanently left the dwelling, Baron Pasqualati assisted the composer in some legal matters, including the litigation the composer later went through for the guardianship of his nephew. Pasqualati also brought Beethoven comfort and delicacies during the composer’s last illness, even though Beethoven was by that time living elsewhere in the city. Pasqualati’s personal concerns for Beethoven may have been somewhat unique in the annals of contemporary friendships and human thoughtfulness.
Beethoven’s Mlkerbastei flat is accessible from ground level by a seemingly interminable spiral staircase of 105 stone steps. Two rooms of his original five are open to the public today, but by compensation they contain a wealth of Beethoven material on display, including letters, documents, a number of his personal effects, and even a lock of Beethoven’s hair under glass. The centerpiece of the collection is a five-pedal Streicher grand piano, displayed prominently in the main room. According to Frau Jutta Ross of Dlmen, Germany, recent findings show that although the instrument is certainly representative of those of Beethoven’s era, this particular Streicher piano was not among his own personal possessions.
The facade of the Mlkerbastei has remained essentially as it was in Beethoven’s day. He would now have little difficulty recognizing the building itself, but certainly not the view from it. From his windows, he had a clear, unobstructed panorama of the Leopoldsberg and Kahlenberg peaks in the distance. The only “view” available now is that of the University of Vienna directly across The Ring.
He could also see the surroundings of the Prater park, but for this he had to lean out his window and look to the right. Ries wrote, “His main room was the last (easternmost) one on the fire wall and the next; the adjoining house was only two stories high at that time, so that the main wall of Beethoven’s dwelling was unencumbered. If there were a window in that wall, Beethoven thought, the room would be a corner room, with a clear view of the Prater. Getting that done seemed to him a simple matter, and he called in a stone mason. Work had already begun when Pasqualati found out about it…” Though Beethoven was not expected to know that a building’s structural integrity could be compromised by altering a retaining-wall, we can easily imagine Pasqualati giving the composer a taste of his own medicine with an entirely understandable Beethovenian rage.
From this apartment Beethoven could also see his beloved Wienerwald (the Vienna Woods) in the distance across the Glacis (pronounced glah-SEE), an expanse of open meadow which then surrounded Vienna and which bordered on the Bastei. The Glacis afforded not only an unimpeded view of the Wienerwald and the various mountain peaks in the distance, it also offered virtually no concealment for invading military forces. The last remaining vestige of the Glacis may be Vienna’s Stadtpark, which rests on part of what was then the sweep of open terrain. Vienna is now such a metropolis that the Wienerwald can no longer be seen from the windows of Beethoven’s apartment.
Schwarzspanierstrasse 15. In Vienna today, Schwarzspanierstrasse 15 is the site of the house, demolished in 1904, in which Beethoven died on Monday, March 26, 1827.
On October 15, 1825, the composer moved into this three story gabled building. Beethoven’s flat had six functional rooms: servants’ area, housekeeping section, kitchen, and the three rooms in which he himself lived and worked – the music room, his study (where he composed), and his bedroom, which, oddly, also contained his two pianos. The structure was adjacent to a church and was already two centuries old when Beethoven lived there. The building, Nr.200 Alsergrund am Glacis in Beethoven’s time, was known as Das Schwarzspanierhaus (The House of the Black Spaniard – aptly named, as Beethoven himself had the nickname The Black Spaniard in his youth, because of his swarthy complexion). The street, then facing the Glacis, was later renamed Schwarzspanierstrasse, and it was while living here that Beethoven made sketches for his tenth symphony. The original green door to the composer’s Schwarzspanierhaus flat is now on display (among so much else) in the Beethoven Memorial Rooms on the Mlkerbastei. Also displayed there is the door’s original key-hole cover-plate, with the explanation that in the 1880s it had been “taken as a souvenir” from the door of Beethoven’s flat by a young musician named Gustav Mahler, who later returned it to the appropriate organization when he was Director of the Vienna Opera.
Living across the street to the right of the Schwarzspanierhaus during Beethoven’s tenancy was Stephan von Breuning, a close friend from their Bonn days. During the next year and a half, von Breuning’s 12-year-old son, Gerhard, played a small but important role in Beethoven’s life. He got to know the composer and helped him in various ways, including running errands, assisting with some of his correspondence, helping him keep order in his dwelling, and doing what he could during Beethoven’s last illness. The boy eventually developed for Beethoven a feeling approaching worship. The composer playfully referred to the lad as his “trouser-button” and reciprocated his young admirer’s thoughtfulness and devotion by guiding some of the lad’s musical education. When the young Gerhard asked the older man’s permission to address him with the familiar Du (rather than the formal Sie), the boy was overjoyed when Beethoven consented. (He was also devastated some years later when the several dozen handwritten notes he had received from Beethoven were inadvertently discarded by a servant who thought they were trash).
While he distinguished himself musically, there were conspicuous gaps even in some of the basics of Beethoven’s general education. Though he could sight read anything and transpose from one key into another prima vista, apparently Beethoven never mastered the multiplication table. Evidence clearly shows that the composer would, for example, simply add up the number 9 seven times to arrive at the sum of 63. The young Gerhard tried to rectify this by tutoring Beethoven in the intricacies of multiplication.
Beethoven is said to have died as he had lived: dramatically. An incident during a visit to his brother Johann, a well-to-do apothecary, may have precipitated the composer’s death. After a violent argument with Johann at his estate at Gneixendorf, Beethoven stormed out in a blind rage. Leaving in a huff, and possibly too proud to use his brother’s coach, he started back toward Vienna on a crude, open milk-cart. The composer, now in his mid-50s, spent the night at an inn which was as cold as the argument must have been heated. It was December of 1826, wintertime.
By the time Beethoven arrived in the city, he was suffering from a severe inflammation of the lungs. Soon he had almost recovered, but a sudden outburst of rage brought on a relapse with a terrifying combination of symptoms. Surgeons (such as they were in those days) were called in for a series of “operations” (four, to be exact – performed without anesthesia, not in use at that time). While his strength ebbed away, Beethoven suffered for the next four months through his last illness with a patience atypical of him.
On the evening of March 26, 1827, a violent thunderstorm arose in Vienna. According to the eyewitnesses, the room in which the composer lay dying was suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning. Beethoven, in a characteristic gesture, was said to have opened his eyes and raised his clenched fist in defiance. Amid the thunder, he sank back and died.
Beethoven’s young friend, 14-year-old Gerhard, suffered two tragic losses: that of the 57-year-old composer in March, and that of his own father only two months later. Gerhard became a respected physician in Vienna, and in 1874 published a book, Aus Dem Schwarzspanierhaus (From The House of the Black Spaniard), which chronicled Beethoven’s last years. Now available in English for the first time (under the title, Memories of Beethoven, Cambridge University Press), an original edition of von Breuning’s book is displayed in the Mlkerbastei Memorial Rooms.
When Gerhard von Breuning died in 1892, sixty five years after the composer’s death, the last survivor of those who had personally known Beethoven had passed away. What is most obvious, by its nature, often escapes our attention, so it may be worth noting that Beethoven and those he knew were as alive then as we are today.
Jeffrey Dane is a music historian, researcher and essayist whose work is published in various countries and languages. He has a marked tendency to develop an almost emotional attachment to the composers, living or not, whose music he studies. His book, Beethoven’s Piano, was published by New York’s Museum of the American Piano. He’s been called by some a real idealist and by others an ideal realist. Both are right.
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