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Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved letters

April 3, 2015

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Only to youth can love seem easy. With the years come losses that taint the yearning and the passion. From his twenties into his thirties Beethoven had been a lionized virtuoso, steadily but capriciously in love, and women showed up at his door. Then came Josephine Deym, beautiful and musical, whom he could not get off his mind. Her rejection devastated him but did not damp the fire of his work. In 1812, his desires were a different matter than his pursuit of Josephine five years before. It is as if after the creative climax at the end of 1808, when he put two new symphonies and the Fourth Piano Concerto before the public, he looked up from his labors and realized how miserably alone he had been. He courted Therese Malfatti, a girl of seventeen, and for his trouble gained only humiliation. But he did not give up, not yet. He had not forgotten Josephine. He had met Bettina Brentano and met or renewed his acquaintance with Antonie Brentano, and both women captivated him.

There was new urgency in his search now. This kind of desperation for love and companionship is a symptom of age, in Beethoven’s case of passing forty alone and in bad health. And now a woman had appeared who had not drawn away from him, who for the first time in his life seemed prepared to return his love. But there was something awry between them.

He had to have been in a frantic state as he headed for the Teplitz resort at the end of June. He stopped in Prague and met with his dilatory patron Prince Kinsky, who gave him an advance of 600 florins on the next installment of the stipend. On July 3, Beethoven failed to turn up for a planned evening with his earlier Teplitz acquaintance Karl Varnhagen. “I was sorry, dear V,” he wrote later, “not to be able to spend my last evening at Prague with you . . . But a circumstance which I could not foresee prevented me.” He had received urgent news. Things were coming to a head.

Two days later, his coach struggling into Bohemia in miserably cold and rainy weather, Beethoven arrived in Teplitz. The meeting of Goethe and Beethoven that Bettina had stage-managed was about to happen. But at that point Beethoven was thinking of another meeting, with a woman whom he believed to be nearby in Karlsbad. The next day he began to write her a letter in a mingling of love, hope, and despair, his words spilling onto the page like music with the surge of his passion. It is his only surviving letter to a woman that steadily uses the intimate du, “thou,” a sign of intimacy between friends or lovers:

July 6

In the morning—

My angel, my all, my self.—only a few words today, in fact with pencil (with yours)—only tomorrow is my lodging positively fixed, what a worthless waste of time on such things—why this deep grief, when necessity speaks—Can our love exist but by sacrifices, by not demanding everything, can you change it, that you not completely mine, I am not completely yours—Oh God look upon beautiful nature and calm your soul over what must be—love demands everything and completely with good reason, so it is for me with you, for you with me—only you forget so easily, that I must live for myself and for you, were we wholly united, you would feel this painfulness just as little as I do—

my trip was frightful, I arrived here only at 4 o’clock yesterday morning, because they lacked horses . . . at the next to the last station they warned me about traveling at night, made me afraid of a forest, but this only provoked me—but I was wrong, the coach had to break down on the terrible route . . . still I had some pleasure again, as always whenever I fortunately survive something—

now quickly to interior from exterior, we will probably see each other soon, even today I cannot convey to you the observations I made during these last few days about my life—were our hearts always closely united, I would of course not have to . . . my heart is full of much to tell you—Oh—there are still moments when I find that speech is nothing at all—

cheer up—remain my faithful only treasure, my all, as I for you the rest of the gods must send, what must and should be for us—your faithful ludwig

Monday evening on July 6—

You are suffering you my dearest creature—just now I notice that letters must be posted very early in the morning Mondays—Thursdays—the only days on which mail goes from here to K[arlsbad]—you are suffering—Oh, wherever I am, you are with me, I talk to myself and to you —arrange that I can live with you, what a life!!!! like this!!!! without you—Persecuted by the kindness of people here and there, which I think—I want to deserve just as little as I deserve it —Homage of man to man—it pains me—

and when I regard myself in the framework of the universe, what am I and what is he—whom one calls the Greatest—and yet—herein is again the divine spark of man—I weep when I think that you will probably not receive the first news of me until Saturday—as much as you love me —I love you even more deeply but—never hide yourself from me—

good night—since I am taking the baths I must go to sleep—Oh god—so near! So far! Is not our love a true heavenly edifice—but also firm, like the firmament—

good morning July 7

—while still in bed my thoughts rush toward you my Immortal Beloved now and then happy, then again sad, awaiting fate, if it will grant us a favorable hearing—I can only live either wholly with you or not at all

yes I have resolved to wander about in the distance, until I can fly into your arms, and can call myself entirely at home with you, can send my soul embraced by you into the realm of spirits— yes unfortunately it must be—you will compose yourself all the more, since you know my faithfulness to you, never can another own my heart, never—never—O God why have to separate oneself, what one loves so and yet my life in V[ienna] as it is now is a miserable life—

at my age now I need some uniformity and consistency of life—can this exist in our relationship?—Angel, right now I hear that the mail goes every day—and I must therefore close, so that you will receive the L[etter] immediately—be calm, only through quiet contemplation of our existence can we reach our goal to live together—be patient—love me—today—yesterday —What longing with tears for you—you—you—my love—my all—farewell—o continue to love me—never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved

L.

forever yours

forever mine

forever us

This letter, written over the course of two days, is the only surviving part of an ongoing dialogue between Beethoven and his lover that had been carried on in letters and in person for some unknown length of time. Its contradictions echo his jumble of feelings. He was writing with her pencil, so they had been together not long before. The feelings revealed in his words are an excruciating mixture of yearning and uncertainty, of hope trying to overcome despair. Their dialogue had reached a point where, at either Teplitz or Karlsbad, they needed to reach a resolution.

The reason for his pain is adumbrated between the lines: “[C]an you change it, that you [are] not completely mine, I am not completely yours.” He had fallen into his old pattern: his lover was married or betrothed or otherwise unavailable. The difference this time was that she reciprocated his love. Since it was some sort of forbidden relationship, the secrecy between them was so tight that no other letter between the two survives that clearly identifies her. For the rest of his life Beethoven kept these pages with him, hidden alongside the Heiligenstadt Testament and portraits of women he had loved, one of his collection of secret talismans. The letter may never have been mailed, or she may have returned it. He could keep it because it did not have her name on it. Deliberately, nothing was to be left for history to find her out. The future would know her only as Unsterbliche Geliebte, “Immortal Beloved.”

“[L]ove demands everything and completely with good reason, so it is for me with you, for you with me . . . I must live for myself and for you.” They are united in love but not in life. How they are united cannot be gleaned from his words. Are they physically lovers or lovers in spirit, living in the hope of somehow being fully united? A plea for resignation, from himself and from her. He says fate must decide the issue, and for Beethoven fate was always a hostile power. And yet, he reminds her, in each of us there is a spark of the divine that cannot reach but can imagine God. “Is not our love a true heavenly edifice[?]” The love of man and woman, Mozart taught in Die Zauberflöte and Schiller in “An die Freude,” is the earthly counterpart of divine love.

“I can only live either wholly with you or not at all.” No more of this neither-nor; it must be one or the other. “[A]t my age now I need some uniformity and consistency of life—can this exist in our relationship?” He was forty-two, in his day much closer to the end than to the beginning. The letter speaks of his love in rapturous and anguished phrases, dogged by a sense of impossibility. At his age he can’t live and love merely on hope. “[O]nly through quiet contemplation of our existence can we reach our goal to live together.” Only in finding a way out of their dilemma. Now they must meet and decide whether there really can be a way, whether she is to be his Immortal Beloved forever or never.

Some of his letter is made of balanced phrases or antitheses, like a psalm: “you [are] not completely mine, I am not completely yours . . . for me with you, for you with me . . . you—you—you —my love—my all—farewell—o continue to love me.” He finishes with the incantation, like a coda, “forever yours / forever mine / forever us,” which is more music than sense.

The letter to the Immortal Beloved is the second great tragic aria of Beethoven’s emotional life. The first was the Heiligenstadt Testament. That letter presaged defiance and an explosion of music. This second letter presaged suicidal depression and a sinking toward triviality and silence in his art.

Who was the Immortal Beloved? In the next two hundred years of speculation, history turned up no decisive answer, only a welter of tantalizing but inconclusive facts trailing off into uncertainties buttressed by guesses and suppositions. Still, there are essentially only three candidates.

In Beethoven’s surviving correspondence the fierce, sometimes almost incoherent passion of his letter to the Immortal Beloved, its breathless phrases joined by dashes, connects it with only one person in his past: Josephine Deym. His letters to her have the same tone and style. When he wrote the letter to the Immortal Beloved, Josephine’s two-year-old second marriage was already coming apart; the couple’s first separation came in the next year. But there is no evidence that Josephine was anywhere other than in Vienna at the time he wrote the letter, and no evidence of any connection either in person or in correspondence between them since their farewell letters of 1807.

The other candidates are the two women Beethoven met in 1810—unless he already knew Antonie Brentano from years before, through her family in Vienna. Antonie was miserable in her marriage. He was often at the Brentano house; she and Beethoven had formed a bond of mutual sympathy and affection. She was in Karlsbad when he wrote the Immortal Beloved letter to someone in that resort. Yet in contrast to Josephine’s current husband, Antonie’s husband was not cruel or indifferent; he was kind and patient with her. The trouble was that Franz Brentano was dull, always sunk in business. Antonie respected but did not love him, and she hated living in Frankfurt. But Beethoven was a man of rigid, almost puritanical ethics when it came to women and marriage—even if like most people he violated those ethics sometimes. He was friends with Franz Brentano and trusted him enough to borrow money from him and to ask his business advice. The couple had children; Antonie was pregnant for the fifth time when Beethoven wrote the Immortal Beloved letter.8 After the sad denouement with the Immortal Beloved, Beethoven actually went to stay with the Brentanos at Karlsbad and Franzenbad in August.

It is hard to believe that Beethoven could have thought of breaking up Antonie’s family, of taking on five children, of dealing such a blow to a man he liked and respected. Besides, if a pregnant Antonie had left her husband for Beethoven, the scandal would have been public and loud, reverberating between Vienna and Frankfurt. It is equally hard to imagine that Beethoven would carry on a backstairs affair with a married woman at the same time that he socialized with the couple and enjoyed their children, who brought him fruit and flowers at his lodging in Vienna.

The last candidate is, on the face of it, the most likely one: Bettina Brentano. She was young, fascinating, passionate, brilliant, talented, musical. She idolized Beethoven and plainly wanted to serve as his muse. It is hard to see Bettina as other than the kind of woman Beethoven had been searching for (except that Bettina conformed to no kind of woman other than herself). However, when they first met in 1810 and spent a few days closely in company, there was a barrier between them—at the time, Beethoven was courting Therese Malfatti. By the time he was disabused of that fantasy and had recovered his wits, Bettina was in the process of contemplating and finally accepting the proposal of Achim von Arnim.

To complicate the picture, there are reports that Bettina said her marriage was made not for love but because Arnim needed an heir to inherit some property, and it flattered her that a poet of his stature wanted to have a child with her. (It was just before her engagement to Arnim that she paid her shattering visit to Goethe, when he suddenly began undressing her. Was this what Bettina wanted from Goethe? Now when it finally happened, she was about to be engaged. “The memory of it tears me apart,” she wrote in describing the scene.) Bettina had expected to be in Karlsbad and/or Teplitz around the time Beethoven wrote the Immortal Beloved letter, though her visit was delayed because she was recovering in Berlin from a nearly fatal first childbirth and accompanying depression. Still, she and Arnim went on to a long and affectionate marriage, with six more children.

Around this point the facts about Bettina drift into speculation. While Arnim was courting her, she and Beethoven exchanged any number of letters, of which only one of his survives. In that letter, which refers to her lost letters, Beethoven does not seem crushed by the news of her marriage; his affection is strong but couched in terms more gallant than ecstatic. Bettina lived in Berlin. Could Beethoven have been courting a newly married and then pregnant woman at a distance? Could Bettina have reciprocated to the extent that she thought seriously of leaving Achim, with or without her newborn, and running off with Beethoven? Even somebody as unconventional as Bettina would have been daunted by that kind of scandal.

In 1816, Beethoven was reported to have told his nephew’s schoolmaster that five years before he had met a woman who still obsessed him. If he meant the Immortal Beloved, and he probably did, that dating would apply to Bettina certainly, Antonie possibly, Josephine not at all. As far as answering to Beethoven’s statement “you are suffering,” that applies to all three women. Bettina was gravely depressed. Antonie was chronically unhappy in her marriage and had been ill for some time. Josephine’s second marriage was a disaster.

Josephine, Antonie, Bettina—each of those women was close to Beethoven, each of them had aroused his feelings and his sympathy, each of them was musical and admired him as much as anyone on earth. He loved each of them in some fashion and degree. Yet there appear to be unanswerable reasons why each of them could not have been the Immortal Beloved. He formed a friendship with Franz and Antonie Brentano, visited the family, enjoyed the children, borrowed money from Franz and asked for advice. His later letters to Antonie are warm but have not the slightest hint of simmering pain or regret.

As for Bettina, in the middle of her postpartum depression could she have contemplated leaving her new husband? Could Josephine Deym have been finding romantic feelings for Beethoven she never had before, making him promises during her second year of marriage, however much she regretted that marriage? Again, there is no record of Josephine being anywhere near Teplitz or Karlsbad when he wrote to the Immortal Beloved in Karlsbad.

All of it seems unbelievable. It makes no sense that any of these women is a credible candidate for the Immortal Beloved. But life rarely makes sense. It is close to certain that one of them was indeed the woman to whom Beethoven wrote his ecstatic and anguished letter of July 1812. Whoever she was, both of them covered their tracks thoroughly. In the next two centuries no unequivocal piece of evidence turned up.

Years later Bettina von Arnim published three letters from Beethoven: the one from 1811 that survived and the two that did not. The last nonsurviving one is full of surging feelings and virtual worship of Bettina. It ends, “God, how I love you.” If it could be authenticated (not long after it was published it was questioned, the questioning growing into a chorus of condemnation over the years), the letter would go far to suggest that Bettina was the one. But missing letters cannot be authenticated. Some of that letter seems more convincing, some of it less. In later years Bettina told Karl Varnhagen that Beethoven had loved and wanted to marry her. By then Varnhagen had known Bettina for a long time, and she was intimately close to his wife Rahel. Varnhagen did not remotely believe what Bettina told him about her and Beethoven.

Yet Bettina can no more be dismissed than Antonie and Josephine. And, though it is far less likely, neither can some other unknown or unsuspected name be entirely ruled out. If the latter case was true, that woman has left no convincing traces at all. It may be that history will never know the identity of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved of 1812, who may well have sparked the rush of work that created the joyous Seventh Symphony and the comic and nostalgic Eighth, and afterward precipitated his decline toward silence. When he wrote the letter their relationship urgently had to be decided. Was it to be joining or parting, forever or never? By the time he left Teplitz it apparently had been decided. They must part.

There the mystery rests. What cannot be mistaken is the aftermath, the grinding depression that settled over Beethoven in the next two years. Added to his disappointment in love was a rankling loneliness. Old friends and patrons had fallen away: Prince Lobkowitz was struggling financially and not paying his part of the stipend; Prince Lichnowsky was dying; Baron Gleichenstein had angered Beethoven by declining to join him in Teplitz the previous year; in some degree he was estranged, for the moment, from his “father confessor,” Countess Erdödy, and from Stephan von Breuning, one of his oldest friends; at the end of this year the Brentanos returned to Frankfurt and Beethoven never saw Antonie again, though they corresponded a few times. He had never felt so wounded, so alone, so uncertain of his direction in life or in art.

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

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