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Meine unsterbliche Geliebte: Who Was Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved?

It was a wild and wintry night after ONE (1) INCH of snow had fallen, which in the District of Columbia amounts to near-blizzard conditions. Miracle of miracles, there were a few hardy souls who came out to the latest offering of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music's new film series at Catholic University's Pryzbyla Center. Here is, more or less, what I said by way of an introduction to last night's film.

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Immortal Beloved (1994), starring Gary Oldman
British director Bernard Rose (b. 1960) wrote and directed Immortal Beloved for release in 1994, after arriving on the American movie scene by directing Clive Barker's Candyman in 1992. Immortal Beloved appears to have shifted his interest or marketability away from horror movies, which he had also directed in Great Britain, toward historical epics. He has since made a period version of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1997) and an unusual adaptation of Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich, updated to 20th-century Hollywood, called Ivansxtc (2000). However, he is reportedly finishing another horror movie right now, called Man with a Movie Camera.

First, I will mention some scenes in Immortal Beloved that are at least based on factual evidence, beginning with the striking depiction of Beethoven's funeral in Vienna, which was indeed mobbed with crowds. Anton Schindler (played by Jeroen Krabbé), was indeed Beethoven's secretary; in fact, he wrote the first biography of the composer, including a heavily embroidered, really falsified, transcription of the Immortal Beloved letter, which provides the basis for the movie's plot. Beethoven's father was an abusive alcoholic, although no memory of his troubled youth was ever mentioned by Beethoven in connection to his creation of the Ninth Symphony. Napoleon did invade Vienna, and Beethoven, who had originally dedicated the Eroica Symphony to him, scratched Napoleon's name from his handwritten score. Beethoven did indeed live in the home of his friend, the Hungarian countess Marie Erdödy (played in the movie by the ravishing Isabella Rossellini), and he even called her his Beichtvater, or father confessor. It is unlikely that there was any sexual relationship between them, however.

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Maynard Solomon, Beethoven Essays (1988; reprint 1990)
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Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (1977; 2nd ed. 2001)
Beethoven did spend several years in a protracted legal battle with his sister-in-law Johanna, managing ultimately to gain legal custody of her son, his nephew Karl, at the expense of his compositional productivity for several years. Beethoven's brother Caspar had married Johanna in 1806, and their child was conceived out of wedlock. Karl was born in 1806, and at the time the Immortal Beloved letter was written he would have been 6 years old. Judging from Beethoven's journal entries, Johanna was, as Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon put it, "the woman whom the real Beethoven despised more than any other." Whatever his motivation, Beethoven did use his celebrity and influence to turn the courts against Johanna, although the tide of popular opinion in Vienna was on her side. Karl was indeed driven to the point of attempted suicide because of his uncle's insane obsession. In the worst parts of this troubled period, rumors circulated in Vienna that Beethoven had lost his mind: he changed lodgings with alarming frequency, his living space was invariably terribly cluttered, and he was actually seen in violent confrontations with street urchins who mocked him. All of these factual details appear in some form in Immortal Beloved, although its central premise is entirely a work of fiction.

Interesting Links:

Misha Donat, Death and the muse (The Guardian, June 12, 2004)

Beethoven's Immortal Beloved, a Web site devoted to "solving the riddle"

Cast your vote for the Immortal Beloved, with the promise that the results will eventually be made public

The Immortal Beloved (Simon Johnston)

Betsy Streisand, Immortal befuddled: The search goes on for Beethoven's great love (U.S. News and World Report, July 24, 2000)

The Immortal Beloved: The Numerous Possibilities (Dominique Prevot)

Janet Maslin, The Music Almost Tells the Tale (review in the New York Times, December 16, 1994)
Although he achieved a remarkable level of celebrity for a composer in his lifetime, Beethoven never married. His biographers have documented a bewildering number of fleeting romantic attachments in his often turbulent life, but none that we might call, to use that dreaded word in our modern language, a relationship. Beethoven felt deeply, we are told, falling in love with a series of women, but each time that one woman appeared about to take a permanent place in his life, he plunged himself single-mindedly into his composition. After about 1810, as Solomon again has documented, his sexual energy was spent mostly in the company of prostitutes.

This pattern holds true for all of the romances in Beethoven's life, with one important exception. Among the papers recovered from the composer's apartment, after his death in 1827, were two especially important documents. The first was the Heiligenstadt Testament, a sort of last will addressed by the composer to his brothers, written years earlier in a moment of despair, when Beethoven realized that his loss of hearing would worsen inevitably until he was completely and irrevocably deaf. The second was a letter the composer had written in pencil, addressed to an unidentified woman as "mein Engel, mein alles, mein Ich . . . meine unsterbliche Geliebte" (which translates as "my angel, my all, my I . . . my immortal beloved"). In what is still the best critical biography of Beethoven, musicologist Maynard Solomon called it the only "unalloyed love letter of [Beethoven's] bachelor existence—an uncontrolled outburst of passionate feeling, exalted in tone, confused in thought, and ridden with conflicting emotions" (Beethoven, p. 159).

Beethoven dated the mysterious letter Monday, July 6, with a post-scriptum added on July 7, but did not specify the year. The tone is familiar and impassioned (he uses the German familiar du), destined for someone who not only knew of the composer’s deep love for her but who shared those feelings. However, nowhere in the text is there any indication of a name. This has not prevented biographers, musicologists, and Beethoven nuts of all stripes and levels of scholarly rigor from proposing solutions to this problem. Some have even forged false evidence to prove their theories, which have all been systematically debunked.

Musicologists generally agree that we may never know the identity of Beethoven's unsterbliche Geliebte with scientific certainty. However, there are plausible theories and implausible ones, and the plot of Bernard Rose's movie is based on one of the latter. I think that Lewis Lockwood spoke for the entire musicological community when he published a very funny review of Immortal Beloved in The Musical Quarterly in 1997 called "Film biography as Travesty: Immortal Beloved and Beethoven" (The Musical Quarterly 81: 190–198). In terms of its historical accuracy, this film has been "pretty much condemned to oblivion" by Beethoven scholars, as he put it. Never one to mince words, Lockwood wrote, "My view is that the pablum this film doles out to the masses is not just of poor quality but should carry a warning to say that it is deleterious to their health." Prof. Lockwood would not be happy with me today, if I did not make it clear to you that, with the exceptions I mentioned at the opening of my presentation, the story we are about to see is, speaking from the learned viewpoint of the music historian, absolute baloney. We should not be surprised: it is the screenwriter/director's job to make an entertaining film, and the historian's to tell the truth. In the broad range of movies about composers, Immortal Beloved probably takes more liberties than Amadeus (1984) but not as many as Ken Russell's many films about composers, such as Lisztomania (1975) or The Music Lovers (1970).

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Soundtrack from Immortal Beloved (1994)
The only possible benefit of the whole enterprise, as Lockwood saw it, was that the movie has impelled large numbers of viewers to buy recordings of Beethoven's music and, presumably, to listen to them. As he put it, "the whole film is in some sense a vehicle for Sony performers, who are heard on the soundtrack," and who were featured on a specially issued CD that accompanied the movie's release. I promise not to reveal the film's dénouement, but I will give you the verifiable background from this episode in Beethoven's life, which will hopefully enhance your enjoyment of the movie. For my money, the most credible theory of who was most likely the real Immortal Beloved is that proposed by Maynard Solomon and defended by him and others over the last 30 years. In Solomon's solution, the Immortal Beloved was a married woman named Antonie Brentano.

First, there is the problem of the year of the letter's composition. Solomon cites calendarial research that limits the possible years, in Beethoven's adult life, that the letter could have been dated as it is. That is, July 6 could have fallen on a Monday, as the letter specifies, only in 1795, 1801, 1807, 1812, or 1818. Through a process of elimination, the only year in which Beethoven could have written this letter is 1812, since he refers to being in a specific temporary lodging in the midst of a voyage. Beethoven typically left Vienna for an extended vacation each summer. In 1812, instead of his usual trips to the Viennese suburbs, Beethoven left his adopted city on June 28 or 29 and arrived in Prague on July 1. On Saturday, July 4, he took the coach to the town of Teplitz, on the way to the spa at Karlsbad, the town mentioned in the letter simply as "K." This solves the second problem, that of Beethoven's location at the time of writing the letter. He was in Teplitz.

According to the sequence of events worked out by Solomon, the addressee must have been in contact with Beethoven in the preceding year and probably lived not far from him in Vienna. She should have been in Prague between July 1 and July 4, where Beethoven specifies that he has just seen her. Finally, she must have gone ahead to Karlsbad, where she and Beethoven planned to meet later in the summer and where Beethoven intended to send the letter but apparently never did, and she must not have arrived prior to July 6. The police in Karlsbad at this time recorded the arrival of all visitors to their town, including Antonie Brentano, who arrived at exactly the right time. Newspaper reports also place her in Prague, with her husband and children, in the previous week. Antonie's husband was Beethoven's friend, as was her sister-in-law, Bettina, who arranged Beethoven’s introduction to the German poet Goethe.

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Anne Sofie von Otter, Beethoven, Meyerbeer, Spohr Lieder, including Beethoven's An die Geliebte (WoO 140)
Solomon goes on to lay out an impressively thorough case for identifying Antonie Brentano as the Immortal Beloved. A later love interest of Beethoven's, Fanny Giannatasio, wrote in her diary in 1816 that her own possible romance with the composer was overshadowed by Beethoven's continuing love for another woman, whom he had met five years earlier, that is, shortly before our letter was written. Other brief references to a great love, from around this period, in Beethoven's journal mention the initials A. and T., which fit perfectly with Antonie's first name and her nickname, Toni. The manuscript of Beethoven's song An die Geliebte (WoO 140, poem by Josef L. Stoll), dating from 1811, bears an inscription, the handwriting of which Solomon identified as Antonie Brentano's, to the effect that she requested the song from Beethoven. He composed it first with an accompaniment for guitar, an instrument that Antonie was known to play well. Finally, Solomon analyzed two unsigned portraits also found in Beethoven's possession at the time of his death (one shown here) and showed that they match portraits that can verifiably be identified as Antonie Brentano.

Antonie BrentanoScholars continue to publish articles, some supporting and some disputing Solomon's theory, including a handful in German journals over the last five years. One of these, Klaus Kopitz's 2001 article in Bonner Beethoven-Studien examines newly discovered letters from Antonie Brentano to her sister-in-law Bettina, which "offer the first really precise look at her years in Vienna. They reveal that Beethoven visited her almost daily starting in 1810, and that her husband Franz Brentano did not, as was previously assumed, live in Vienna during those years." Antonie was of a noble Viennese family, and her husband was a banker from Frankfurt. In the time before Beethoven wrote the letter, Antonie's father had died and she had been in Vienna arranging the sale of her childhood home and its art collection. Facing the prospect of leaving her native city for good to return to her husband back in Frankfurt, Solomon surmises, her well-documented worship of Beethoven's music could have turned into love. In 1811 to 1812, when Antonie was ill, she received no visitors except for Beethoven, who improvised at the pianoforte in her apartment for long periods of time. The tone of the letter seems to indicate that Beethoven had decided that the relationship was untenable. By November 1812, Antonie had moved back to Frankfurt with her husband and children. However, in the 1820s, Antonie and her daughter Maximiliane were still clearly on Beethoven's mind. They were the only women to whom Beethoven dedicated compositions in this period: the op. 109 piano sonata, the magisterial Diabelli Variations, and the English edition of the op. 111 piano sonata.

Why Bernard Rose did not dramatize this plausible theory instead of inventing one that is ludicrous is its own mystery. Through the wonder of DVD, I sat listening to Rose's director's commentary on the movie last week, and he speaks there with full awareness of Solomon's theory and of other serious musicological research that he must have read. At the same time, he clings to the belief that his own solution is just as valid, although the Brentano's do not even appear at all in the movie, nor does any of the information described above about this period in Beethoven's life. However, the condemnation of music historians does not mean that we cannot enjoy Immortal Beloved as the beautifully crafted and entertaining movie that it is. With this introduction I hope only to provide, if not a warning label ("deleterious to your health," as Lewis Lockwood would have it), the gentle reminder that this film is a work of fiction, not of history.

Canadian scholar Rita Steblin, who lives in Vienna, has been heavily critical of the work of Maynard Solomon for several years. She has alerted me to her continuing work on the matter of identifying Beethoven's Immortal Beloved. She has questioned the validity of much of Solomon's research and will offer her own theory in an upcoming publication. I'll let you know more as it happens.

1 comment:

John said...

More than 6 years later, we are still waiting for "Canadian scholar Rita Steblin, who lives in Vienna, has been heavily critical of the work of Maynard Solomon for several years. She has alerted me to her continuing work on the matter of identifying Beethoven's Immortal Beloved. She has questioned the validity of much of Solomon's research and will offer her own theory in an upcoming publication."