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Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament

January 19, 2015


THE LETTER BEETHOVEN wrote in Heiligenstadt to his brothers Johann and Caspar is dated October 6, 1802. The three pages and later addendum, written in his upstairs room looking out to autumnal fields and hills, were apparently never mailed. Though the letter was torn from his heart, it was not scribbled down like most of his correspondence, but considered, sketched, then written out in fair copy. It may have been intended to be found after his death from age or illness or accident, or sooner by his own hand. After it was read by his brothers he hoped it would be published, to enlighten people about how they had scorned and misunderstood him. So it was a letter to the world too. Three times he left a blank space representing the name Johann. Always Ludwig detested writing a name or even a word that pained him, so it seems that at the time brother Johann pained him.

The letter became one of the talismans he kept always with him, perhaps the most important of those talismans. The others were keepsakes from lost loves. This was a keepsake from lost joy in life. Likely over the years he took the letter out of its hiding place in his desk, unfolded it, and read it over to remind himself what he had resolved his life was to be and why, and how close he had come to death before he created his true work.

He begins the letter with a review of his goodness, his bitterness, his ambition, his loneliness. His state of mind at that moment is that of the human soul he had painted earlier that summer, in the D Minor Piano Sonata: a moment of intense despair in contemplating the mechanism of fate, and also a moment of intense clarity:

For my brothers Karl and       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 my 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 6 years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless doctors, 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 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 in 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 an exile.

. . . 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 my life.

It is no surprise that his affliction brought him to the brink of suicide. It would be surprising if it did not. If he was to live, he must understand that he would live in misery, and there must be a reason to endure that misery:

It was only my art that held me back. Oh, it seemed impossible to me to leave this world before I had produced all that I felt capable of producing, and so I prolonged this wretched existence—truly wretched for so susceptible a body that a sudden change can plunge me from the best into the worst of states.

He recapitulates what he had written to Wegeler and Amenda about his illness: the pathetic consolation of patience is his only choice. He drifts back to the feeling that he is wronged and misunderstood. He invokes God, turns the letter into a will, becomes the wise and magnanimous big brother, recalls other friends and his most valued worldly possessions, the quartet of string instruments Prince Lichnowsky had given him. At the moment, he believes he is three years younger than he actually is.

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 28th year, oh it is not easy, and for the artist much more difficult than for anyone else.—Divine One, thou seest my inmost soul, thou knowest that therein dwells the love of humanity 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 . . .

You my brothers Carl and        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 document to his account of my illness so that so far as it is 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 it can be called that); divide it fairly: bear with and help each other. What injury you have done to 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 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 I can still be helpful to you in my grave—so be it—

He would not kill himself—not yet—but still, with great clarity, he understood how much death could relieve him of, even at the moment when he knew he was rising toward his best work:

With joy I hasten to meet death—If it comes before I have had the chance to develop all my artistic capacities, it will still come 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

Beethoven folds the letter the world will someday name the Heiligenstadt Testament and presses his seal to the wax. He notes the place and time. He addresses it “For my brothers Carl and       to be read and executed after my death.” Three days later, he adds a frenzied addition on the outside of the letter. He falls into his dashes, his breathless mode, as if gasping—or drunk. This has not been part of the draft, part of the plan. This is the true cry from the cross:

Heiglnstadt [sic], October 10th, 1802, thus I bid you farewell—and indeed sadly—yes, that fond hope—which I brought here with me, to be cured to a degree at least—this I must now wholly abandon. As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered—so likewise my hope has been blighted —I leave here—almost as I came—even the high courage—which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer—has disappeared—Oh Providence—grant me at last but one day of pure joy—it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart—Oh when—Oh when, Oh divine One—shall I feel it again in the temple of nature and of mankind—Never?—No—Oh that would be too hard.

He means the joy that was more than the pleasures of a good life. For an Aufklärer, joy was at the center of everything: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; Schiller’s god-engendered daughter of Elysium. Or call it peace, hope, joie de vivre, joy in work and in love. The things chronic pain and disease rob you of. That is the subject of his frantic last words, because that is what he feared most.

This was his last word, after he had written into the letter proper the idea that would sustain him: It was only my art that held me back. Oh, it seemed impossible to me to leave this world before I had produced all that I felt capable of producing, and so I prolonged this wretched existence. There was no posturing in those words. It was the truth. At some point he would no longer be able to function properly at the keyboard. He could have little hope for an end to deafness and painful illness. He had no children or anyone who truly needed him. Art was all he had left.

Here with passion, anguish, clarity, and insight, Beethoven wrote of what lay on his heart. There is one thing he did not say that tells a great deal about him. Twice he calls on God, who sees and understands what he suffers. He believes in God, he believes God sees his heart and understands. But he does not say, “I must do what God put me here to do.” His gifts come from nature; the will to accomplish great things is his own. He does not believe God is chastising him. As authors of his fate
he names the mythical Parcae. He does not pray for miracles because he does not believe in them— even if only a miracle could restore his health. His relationship to God would change and deepen over the years, he would draw closer, he would pray. But years later when a protégé wrote on a score, “Finished with the help of God,” Beethoven wrote under it, “O Man, help yourself!”

It is easy enough to declare, Help yourself. But to suffer without hope, without believing that thesuffering has some larger meaning and purpose, requires great courage. For an artist to continue growing and working at the highest level without hope takes still greater courage. Beethoven had something near as much courage as a human being can have. From this moment on, without hope and, he feared, without joy, he needed to be heroic just to live and to work. The Heiligenstadt Testament shows that he understood this with excruciating clarity. True heroism is usually called for in the face of suffering and death. It is rarely joyful. But in the letter Beethoven vowed to live with suffering and for his art, and he kept vows like that. His crisis had little observable effect on his output. In his work he had been soaring, and he was about to soar higher.

via Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph: Jan Swafford: 9780618054749: Books.


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