Ludwig van Beethoven, was he really the man we think he was? Stubborn, depressive, meddling, polarising, irascible, obsessive: Was there more duality to the wild-looking man we always imagine brooding behind a score of “Missa Solemnis” as he is in J. Stieler’s famous depiction?
What was it, exactly, that contributed to the so-called ‘Beethoven legend’? How much did his turbulent, troubled life influence the music he wrote, and in turn influence how we’ve interpreted it?
Part of what has drawn historians and music theorists to this enigmatic man was not just his achievements, but also his ailments and the undoings of his character. Beethoven was of course profoundly deaf during the final years of his life, and yet the music from this period, in particular the late string quartets, were among his most revolutionary and complex musical inventions.
He began to lose his hearing in his mid-thirties which is when his style began to change. attributed as his ‘heroic period’ e.g. 5th Symphony, Emperor’s Piano Concerto…
Brief history of his artistic and social life leading up to the ‘Final Maturity’ — and the astonishing last works. Talk about conversation books…
In an intriguing recorded conversation between him and Karl Holz, a violinist and friend of Beethoven’s at the time he was writing the late quartets, they discuss the differences of “character” in Mozart’s and his own instrumental music:
“Your works have, throughout, a really exclusive character… that is what I miss in Mozart’s instrumental music.” “Especially the instrumental music.” “I would explain the difference between Mozart’s and your instrumental works in this way: for one of your works a poet could only write one poem; while to a Mozart work he could write three or four analogous ones.”
Beethoven acknowledges that his works are generally driven by their unique character, something that’s so clear in his thematic symphonic writing from the “Eroica” to the great “9th”. These ‘character symphonies’ were a huge influence and punctuated the music we start to see appearing from 19th century romantic composers such as Wagner and Berlioz.
Despite the socio-political landscape of the time having such a huge impact on his changing style, Beethoven rarely gave much thought to actually pleasing his audiences: by and large, he wrote for himself. In fact, he had so much disregard for his patrons as a court pianist, he couldn’t abide the quietest of chatter during a performance and would simply stop playing. He would also have no hesitation in telling them… Later when he
So where did the inspiration for this astonishing music come from?
What was it about the complexity of this music that scared audiences?
How, at a time when he was most deaf, could he write such revolutionary music? Does his music in fact reflect this? Was is it simply a result of a lifetime of artistic and social development? Or was it something else? Did these original musical ideas come from a deeper, more subconscious recess of his brain?
Is it possible these works are the result of hallucinations, albeit in the hands of a master?
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter” — John Keats, from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’
Simply put, hallucinations are the perception of something with real qualities without the external stimulus present needed to generate an actual sensory response. They are quite different from illusions, delusions, mental imagery, and as Neurologist Oliver Sacks explores in his book “Musicophilia”, they are often musical.
Does this mean Beethoven suffered from psychosis? Well, no; Before the late 60s and 70s, there weren’t any studies on this remarkably “common phenomenon of ‘hallucinations in the sane'”. And because of this, there has remained a strong popular link between psychosis and hallucinations, like hearing voices. There are in fact many different factors that can predispose someone to musical hallucinations, the most common being the loss of sensory input.
Define aural hallucinations and how these are often brought on by loss of auditory input.
The music that is heard, is almost always perceived as coming from some external source: a radio, or even a passing marching band! It’s not until that person has eliminated all possibilities that they start to realise it’s coming from inside their own head.
The idea that we can imagine a piece of music and ‘hear’ the melody with exceptional vividness is not new. In fact, many composers write first not on paper but in their minds, which makes Beethoven’s deaf musical works all the more impressive. His musical imagery was probably made all the more intense by his loss of hearing. But how does the ‘inner ear’, something that most professional musicians have an incredibly developed sense of, differ from an auditory hallucination? According to one of Sacks’s patients, “they are completely unlike each other! They are as different as thinking of music and actually hearing it.”
The woman, he names as Mrs. C, was musically gifted and describes the hallucinations she experienced when began to lose her hearing as “quite unlike her normal, coherent, and usually “obedient” imagery.”
Many of Sacks’s patients describe different characteristics to their hallucinations, ranging from fragments of melodies that repeat themselves, to indistinguishable ear-worms. They’re often music that signals back to an important memory, but can also be a non-sensical arrangement of alien-sounding instruments. The one thing that links the majority of these cases is that the provocative factor is hearing impairment.
Define visual hallucination i.e. seeing musical notation and why do these occur?
Why would it be more/less likely/even possible for Beethoven to have experienced either kind?
Speculate on this…
How do both these types of hallucinations manifest themselves — use examples of Oliver Sacks’ observations from his patients.
Try and relate these to Beethoven’s experiences and draw parallels in his late musical works.
If he did in fact Hallucinate, why don’t we know about it? — surely there’d be written evidence of these experiences in his ‘conversation books’.
Explore why there may not be any evidence to suggest so —
A lack of understanding (both from Beethoven/his doctors who he may have confided in, and also historians who have long speculated about the writing during his late life).
Another possible explanation is that fear of the stigma around mental health at the time could have prevented him from sharing such experiences.
As far back as the 1100s, mental distress in individuals has been viewed by society with superstitious ignorance, fear, and hostility. Sacks believes Hildegard von Bingen suffered from migraines, and the variety of visual auras — probably hallucinatory in nature — that resulted inspired her liturgical plainsong. These ‘visions’ were no doubt misunderstood at the time and, while seen as a mystic with this connection to the divine, she could have easily have been branded a witch.
Seven hundred years later, while we weren’t burning people at the stake (in most parts of the world) for suspected dealings with the devil, mental health issues still carried huge stigma and were widely misunderstood. In fact the latter part of this statement, sadly, is still relevant to today’s society. One of Sacks’s patients from the early 2000s describes her reluctance to say anything about her hallucinations for fear of being diagnosed as psychotic and “locked up in a mental institution”.
Other notable musicians who were plagued by maladies of the mind include…
Touch on other artists purported to have hallucinated/suffered from mental illnesses e.g.
Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich (assumed to have just been rumours)…
While Beethoven wouldn’t necessarily need to have suffered from migraines or psychosis to have had hallucinations, and his deafness aside, they could have also been potentially symptomatic of another physiological illness.
It’s well known that Beethoven was a sickly man for most of his life. He suffered from asthma as child and throughout his adulthood was plagued by various sicknesses. His personal physician would puncture his abdomen in an effort to relieve some of his bloating which caused him chronic abdominal pain. The exact cause of his death is still a topic of debate among historians and mere speculators. One popular theory is that he had late stage syphilis which brings an onset of neurological problems and, although just a theory, the disease would account for him going deaf.
An autopsy (ordered by Beethoven on his deathbed) showed that he had cirrhosis of the liver, no doubt caused by a lifetime of heaving drinking. But recently there has been more evidence to point towards the possibility he died of something else, although not far unrelated.
In 2005, a group of researchers working from the Department of Energy laboratory in Argonne, Illinois found high traces of lead in two separate DNA samples taken from the hair and skull of Beethoven. Lead wasn’t exactly a rare substance in the 19th century. It was in paint and cloth dyes as well as medicine, crockery and even wine, which Beethoven was very fond of. If he drank himself to death, couldn’t he have then also died from complications of lead poisoning? Maybe not — it takes a high level of lead in the system over a long time to actually kill someone, probably more than what was just in his wine. However, the researchers posit that he could have been “hyper-sensitive to lead and his body may not have been able to eliminate it”, especially if he had an already damaged liver.
Symptoms found in people with lead poisoning range from irritability to headaches to abdominal pain. It also has far reaching effects on the nervous system and brain including seizures and possibly even hallucinations. However, it also notably decreases cognitive performance which would not be suggestive of a man with Beethoven’s obvious intellect.
So, if Beethoven did indeed hallucinate, how could these visions or phantom sounds have possibly influenced his writing? Is the evidence in fact in the music?
Grand Fugue – intricacy and beauty on page but dissonant cacophony when played… (use quote from website article)
How does this relate to the reality of visual hallucinations?
Aural hallucinations are usually non-sensical but could Beethoven have taken inspiration from these, and used his musical genius to infuse them with emotion or structure.
Discuss/Analyse C-Sharp Minor quartet (my favourite and purportedly Beethoven’s – use quote here of him talking about writing it from bits and pieces…)
Influence of Bach, him looking back at the well tempered clavier, a piece he learnt as a young boy… the influences of his past and the past eras of music on the last quartets.
Give personal opinion on the piece, where do I think it stands amongst his other works – specifically the late quartets.
The quartet directly follows his working on the grand fugue with a totally different use of the technique in the first movement etc.
I can imagine what audiences at the time must have been thinking, but it’s fascinating to look back on such revolutionary works with the benefit of now knowing all the music that they inspired. To me, the slow opening movement evokes the sonorous, aching sadness of Mahler or even Elgar’s late works.
And suddenly Beethoven launches us into the
In total contrast, the strings’
Uses silence in such a way…
A sentiment and feeling I feel he revisits and expands on in his last quartet, Op. 135 in F.
How did these last two un-commissioned works (the last complete musical thoughts of Beethoven?) compare with the three that came before? Were these passion projects?
What was the influence his life had on his writing of the piece e.g. Karl’s suicide attempt…
While it may seem that it was entirely likely To pose the idea that hallucinations were the/a source of these late works invalidates his genius – was he not ordinarily capable of writing such music?
Rather than hallucinations, was it more likely his anguish over his increasing deafness and social isolation were the inspiration for more mature musical thoughts?
In the mid-20th century, German psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote about psychosocial development and produced a theory about how personality develops by stages in our life — in many ways, a more enlightened vision of Freud’s psychosexual theory of development. He talks about how, by overcoming the conflicts of accumulative experiences, we all more-or-less meet the same developmental milestones in our lifetimes.
Throughout adulthood, we find careers and relationships, and many have children. This comes from a desire to care and nurture which is the essential virtue Erikson thinks people develop at this age. It describes the feeling of a need to contribute to the world in some way that’s larger than oneself; whether it is to have children or to create something that will out-last you. Erikson calls this the ‘Generatively vs Stagnation’ phase and interestingly with Beethoven, his seemed to align with his musical development into the late style.
From an early age, he was thrust into the role of caregiver and bread-winner to his two younger brothers. His father, whom he harboured hatred for all his life, was a neglectful alcoholic and his mother died when he was just 16. This loss deeply affected the young Beethoven as he expressed in this letter (his earliest preserved piece of personal correspondence) to Dr. Joseph Freiherr who had lent him money when he travelled to Vienna just four months prior:
“My longing to see my sick mother once more overcame all obstacles and helped me surmount the greatest difficulties… She had consumption and died about seven weeks ago after a great deal of pain and suffering. She was such a kind, loving mother to me, and my best friend. Oh, who was happier than I when I could utter the sweet name, mother, and it was heard — to whom can I say it now?”
This role of a surrogate father would follow him throughout his life as he filled it again when his brother Kaspar died in 1815 and he assumed guardianship over his nephew Karl. Beethoven’s meddling in family affairs had now grown into obsessive interference, perhaps in some desperate attempt to grab control of the things he loved. This is evident in his court battles with Karl’s mother over custody of his nephew, where he went to such lengths to demean her and cast her as an unfit mother. Karl’s years with his uncle were… (go on to briefly describe their relationship and how it led to him being sent to the military academy which is when he attempted suicide).
Beethoven also had no true female companionship from the time that his mother died, despite searching for it all his life.
A sense of deprivation from the things he most wanted must have had a huge impact on Beethoven’s development. We start to see these tragedies turn this hopeful, dedicated, and dutiful young man into someone much more cynical and distrustful of the world. This is certainly the man he became, and the one we mostly remember. No wonder; it’s these character traits that eventually broke down his relationships and perhaps would later drive him to compose the dramatic, emotionally direct music of the ‘heroic’ and ‘late’ works.
Another argument you could make was the development of his late style was reactionary (guilt perhaps?) to his prior dip in productivity and quality of writing — the fallow years?
Beethoven’s feelings of shame and regret at his failed attempt at being a father figure to Karl no doubt influenced his music like that of the C-Sharp Minor quartet. But more than that, his late stage represents a need to create something that would out-live him, just as Erikson predicts in his theory of psychosocial development. Failing at being a father and now unable to perform his music as he once did, he created music for a “theoretical other” – perhaps the future of musicians.
Of course, the vast majority of Beethoven’s genius all throughout his life reflected onto his music, and has lasted the ages all the same. But I think this direct reaction to his personal and musical failures of the previous years could most certainly have been a catalyst for his sudden development of style.
Did Beethoven hallucinate? From the speculative evidence I’ve presented, I believe it’s certainly possible. At the same time, I think it’s important not to disregard the impact his personal life had on the development of his late style. However, the fact remains this legendary composer is long-dead. Only from his personal letters, his music, and the sociopolitical climate at the time can we speculate on his creative process and the inner-workings of his brain.
As much as Beethoven has expressed our anger etc. in his music, he has always been a man of duality also exploring the humour and light in the world. This contrast is shown so clearly in the last two string quartets (Op. 131 and Op. 135), both reflecting a different side of the same man; one torn by obligation and obsession. This is what makes Beethoven ultimately such a great communicator of the human condition. He believed music had not only entertainment value but also moral and humanistic importance.
Would he have ascended to such great artistic heights had not been for such personal losses in his life? Maybe not, and perhaps great art does indeed come from great struggles.
Whether or not these ‘unearthly visions’ were the inspiration for some of the greatest music ever written, however; how could a man with less than complete artistic control over his work, write music that strikes such a tone at the hearts of listeners and musicians two hundred years after his death?