By Laura Carlo
This coming Thursday marks the 240th anniversary of Beethoven’s birthday, or best as we can figure out his birthday. Records show he was baptized on the 17th, and in his time baptisms were done as soon as possible after a birth to ensure the baby’s entrance into heaven should there be an untimely death. Over the years I’ve had a countless number of discussions with folks who know something about classical music and when the conversation comes around to Beethoven, no matter how learned my conversant, you’ll usually hear something like “He wrote some great music but he had a really nasty personality.” So in this season of “good will toward men” I thought I’d offer you a glimpse into the real Beethoven through what is called the Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter he wrote “For my brothers Carl and Johann Beethoven.”
"Oh you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn, or misanthropic, how greatly you wrong me. You do not know the secret cause which makes me seem that way to you. From childhood, my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of good will, and I was even inclined to accomplish great things. But, think that for 6 years now I have been hopelessly afflicted, made worse by senseless physicians, 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 isolate myself, to live alone. If at times I tried to forget all this, oh, how harshly I was 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.” Oh, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or have ever enjoyed. Oh, I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would 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 one who has been banished. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed...... But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me hear a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair, and little more of that and I would have ended my life. It was only my art that held me back. H, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had forth all that was within me."
And finally, at the end of the letter, “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. Be so.”
This letter changed everything I ever “knew” about Beethoven, even from the numerous biographies I’ve read. This one letter makes me stop and think before I unleash my own “fiery, active termperament.” Maybe, in this hustle‘n’bustle holiday time, when people there are people who are too slow, or “too nasty” in our way...we’ll think of Beethoven and have a little more patience.
Happy Birthday, Ludwig.
Comment on This Article
Arts & Drama Email from WGBH
Find out about upcoming shows and events. Enter your email address below.
Support for WGBH is provided by:Become a WGBH sponsor