Beethoven's Immortal Beloved: Solving the Mystery.
Few documents in music history have been shrouded in mystery as much as the passionate love letter that was found in a box in Beethoven's bedside table after his death on 26 March 1827. Determining the identity of the intended recipient--a woman Beethoven addresses as "meine unsterbliche Geliebte" (my immortal beloved)--has been rendered more difficult by the fact that no year or place is provided on the letters. In 1977, Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon published the most thorough study of the letters to date. Using the month and dates given by Beethoven (6 and 7 July), his knowledge of Beethoven's whereabouts during the summers of the early nineteenth century, and the testimony of a few of the composer's most intimate friends and contemporaries, Solomon concluded that the letters were written during the summer of 1812, when the composer was tending to his health in the Bohemian spa 'town of Teplitz.
During the two hundred years that have elapsed since the letters were written, virtually all of Beethoven's closest female friends and acquaintances have been proposed as potential "Immortal Beloved" candidates, including the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi (to whom the "Moonlight Sonata" is dedicated), the Countess Therese von Brunswick (Ginlietta's cousin), Antonie Brentano (dedicatee of the Diabelli Variations). Magdalene Willmann, Amalie Sebald, Anna Marie Erudody, Dorothea Ertmann, Almerie Esterhazy, Therese Malfatti, and the Countess Josephine von Brunswick (Therese von Brunswick's younger sister). While British musicologists have tended to follow Solomon's lead in defending the candidacy of Antonie Brentano, Beethoven scholars in the rest of. the English- and German-speaking world have generally rallied around the candidacy of Josephine von Brunswick. In a book review published in 1984, Carl Dahlhaus went so far as to state that it is "now firmly established" that Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" was Josephine von Brunswick (see his review of Beethoven und seine 'Unsterbliche Getiehte' Josephine Brunswick by Marie-Elisabeth Tellenbach in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 24 February 1984).
In Beethoven's Immortal Beloved: Solving the Mystery, Edward Walden argues that the mysterious woman in question is none of those listed above. He mounts a vigorous and detailed argument in support of the candidacy of Bettina von Arnim (1795-1859), Antonie Brentano's sister-in-law, a correspondent of both Goethe and Beethoven, and the half-sister of Clemens and Franz Brentano, Antonie's husband. Bettina was also the wile of Achim von Arnim, the celebrated poet and novelist who is perhaps best known for compiling the "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" collection in collaboration with Clemens Brentano. Bettina herself was a novelist of note, a minor composer, and a social activist who advanced a number of progressive causes, including the social and legal rights of 'Germany's women and Jewish citizens. She was in many ways a woman ahead of her time, and she was well known in contemporary creative, intellectual and political circles.
Walden is not the first to believe Bettina's assertion that she was involved in an extended correspondence of an intimate nature with Beethoven. He informs lite leader that Alexander Thayer. Beethoven's first English-language biographer, considered her a trustworthy source (p. 52). and that Romani Rolland, the Nobel Prize-winning Beethoven biographer, wrote of her that "no other eve has fathomed the depth of [Beethoven's] genius so deeply" (p. 127). Yet Bettina has had even more detractors. An entry in the 1879 edition of the American Cyclopaedia provides a sample of the view that prevailed during the period following her death. It describes her three-volume Goethe's Briefwechsel mit einem. Kinde (Correspondence of Goethe with a Child [Berlin. 1835]) as a book "proved to be so full of falsifications, distortions, and affectations as to be worth little save as a record of its author's egotism and eccentricity." After Beethoven's death. Bettina published a number of letters that she had allegedly received front the composer. Since few of the original documents were available to verify the authenticity of this correspondence, most early-twentieth-century Beethoven scholars have likewise tended to feel that Bettina's test i mot iv was of dubious credibility. Walden tells us that Hugo Riemann and Max Unger, for example. argued that she had wildly exaggerated the extent of her contact with both Beethoven and Goethe (pp. 67-79).
Walden insists that Unger. Riemann and others have discredited Bettina's reputation without just cause. Armed with an arsenal of new findings and a fresh perspective, he sets out to put the record straight and to polish her tarnished reputation. A distinguished Canadian lawyer with a passion for history. philosophy, and music, Walden builds his case by applying decision-making print titles and procedures derived from the realm of civil law. He reminds the reader that, with respect to the burden of proof, criminal and civil law differ quite substantially. Whereas in criminal law a case must he proven "beyond a reasonable doubt" in order to obtain a conviction, in a civil case it need only be proven "on the balance of probabilities" (p. 13). While this approach gives rise to a series of quasi-legalistic discussions of "probative evidence" and the like throughout the book, it brings a refreshing approach to a scholarly debate that has too often been dominated by excessive conjecture, ad hominem argumentation, and spurious reasoning.
Walden recognizes that his primary challenge is to establish the authenticity of a number of letters (and a sonnet) purportedly written by Beethoven to Bettina, and published as such by Bettina, but for which no authenticated original autograph copies exist. He does this by compiling a mound of converging evidence intended to persuade the reader that these documents are authentic, when viewed in light of the "balance of probabilities." While the case he builds is an impressive one, consider the following passage from a letter that Bettina alleges was written to her by Beethoven on 11 August 1810 (cited on p. 58): "Since you have gone, I have had melancholy hours, dark hours for which nothing can be done. ... Excuse me, dearest Bet tine, for this departure from the usual key, but I must have intervals like this to unburden my heart." Are these punning musical metaphors in any way characteristic ot Beethoven's normal mode of expression? For Beethoven biographer Adolph B. Marx, Walden concedes (p. 69), they most emphatically are not (Beethoven: Leben und Schaffen, 2 vols. [Berlin: Otto Janke. 1859], 2:132). And in the following excerpt from an existing letter written by Bettina to her friend Alois Bihler in 1810, the author hardly sounds as though she is writing about a budding heart-throb: "His melancholia ... so completely obsesses him that he takes no interest in anything and treats his friends with rudeness rather than (p. 111). Furthermore, why do the majority of the most passionate letters Beethoven allegedly wrote to Bettina exist only in her own publications? For the case that both Bettina and Walden are trying to promulgate, it seems conspicuously convenient that the originals have never been found. Walden's answer is straightforward: both Bettina and Beethoven must have agreed to destroy the letters in order to protect both her marriage and her children from the stain on her reputation that would .have resulted had these documents surfaced after her death (p. 72). Would Bettina truly have destroved these letters, as Walden surmises, only to publish them subsequently in numerous places? In fact, she published the pivotally important "Teplitz Letter"--which she alleges Beethoven wrote in despair, after learning that Bettina had decided not to abandon her marriage in favor of a life with him--no less than three times after his death. This seems highly inconsistent with Walden's contention that Bettina was trying to protect her reputation.
The book unfolds in comfortably readable prose, although a tendency to redundancy suggests that another editorial cycle might have been in order ("as stated above" and "as previously stated" appear literally dozens of times throughout the book). Only one of Walden's assertions--admittedly a relatively trivial one--appears to be factually dubious. Walden asserts that a passage from one of the "Immortal Beloved" letters suggests that Beethoven must have had a prior discussion with the recipient about how badly the Esterhazy family had treated him some years before (he therefore opted not to dedicate a Mass to them, as planned). In the passage in question (p. 130). Beethoven describes how both Esterhazy and he experienced a breakdown of their coach on the way to Teplitz: "Esterhazy on the other customary route here had the same fate with eight horses, as I with four--still I had some pleasure again, whenever I fortunately survive something." In reference to this passage, Walden writes: "Beethoven wrote in his letter that Esterhazy's misfortune gave him some pleasure" (intimating that Bettina must have understood why). Read in context, however, it appears clear that the source of Beet ho oven's pleasure was the survival of a potential calamity, rather than Esterhazy's misfortune.
Notwithstanding any reservations one might have about some of the details offered up as Walden pursues his argument, the book's merits are considerable. It is admirably and extensively footnoted, and Walden carefully lays out his case with both clarity and an incisive logical method. To his credit, Walden never attempts to ignore the arguments that have been proffered against Bettina's candididacy. On the contrary, Walden is a skilled debater who carefully trots out the arguments made by Bettina's many detractors, only to shoot them down one by one.
William Meredith, director and curator of the Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State University, provides an elegant introduction to the book. After reviewing the debate that has raged among Beethoven scholars for almost two centuries concerning the various candidates that have been proposed, Meredith states that "Walden's carefully drawn arguments and theories warrant our serious consideration" (p. xxx). This finely researched book is indeed essential reading for Beethoven scholars and amateur Aficionados alike. For readers more inclined to curl up with a good mystery, Walden's book provides a bit of that too!
JAMES K. WRIGHT
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Wright, James K.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2012|
|Previous Article:||Boccherini Studies 3.|
|Next Article:||The Instrumental Music of Iannis Xenakis: Theory, Practice, Self-Borrowing.|