Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/March 1914/The Physical Beethoven




THE study of the parentage of Beethoven should cause the overzealous eugenist to pause and ponder whether we as yet have sufficient knowledge of the conditions governing heredity for the passing of any save the most tentative laws toward the regulation of lives to be.

Beethoven's mother was consumptive, his father a sot, and yet, though his immediate ancestry promised so little, the great musician was a giant in bodily force, a marvel of sober mental power in his art and a profound thinker along other lines; tender and self-sacrificing in his family relations, and of lofty moral sentiment and practise. Erratic he undoubtedly was, but largely from the stress and distress of a hypersensitive organization, produced by his deafness and other bodily ailments.

Little is known of the ancestry of Beethoven. His grandfather, who seems to have been a worthy man, and well-to-do, was apparently of good physique and in excellent health. Besides being a musician he carried on a small wine business. His wife was not so steady. The wine shop was too great a temptation for her. She fell into intemperate ways to such an extent that it was found necessary to confine her in a convent. Their only surviving child came easily by his mother's bad habits, for "he was given to tasting wine from a very early age." His illustrious son often rescued him from the clutches of the police and helped him home, always with the utmost tenderness. He was never known to utter a bitter word about his father, and he resented any uncharitableness toward him on the part of others. His father lived until Beethoven was twenty-two. His mother, who is described as a pretty and slender woman, died, after a long illness of consumption, when Ludwig was seventeen.

The boy Beethoven was a lively little fellow, but more reserved and less boisterous than most at his age. He evidently had a goodly fund of animal spirits for, like all healthy children, he had a great dislike for sitting still, and it was necessary to drive him to the piano if any studying was to be done. His unfortunate father, hoping to produce a profitable prodigy—possibly another Mozart—began his lessons by the time he was four years old and kept him hard at work at them. Friends of his youth told of how they had seen the boy standing on a stool before the piano, crying, as he practised. Pfeiffer, a teacher who lived with the family, after coming home with the father late at night from the tavern, frequently took young Ludwig out of bed, and kept him practising until morning.

In later youth, as events in the family produced their influence and as his mind began to go out into the realm of the spirit, he became quiet and reserved. He is described as a boy, as being short in stature, but muscular, "awkward, and with a snub nose."

With many conditions, including poverty, to depress his soul, and with apparently little to aid in his bodily unfolding, he nevertheless developed into a tremendously vigorous man—" the very image of strength," with a constitution that defied the attacks of disease and the influence of mental depression, for fifty-seven years."

As early as his seventeenth year he mentions being "troubled with asthma," which he feared would "lead to consumption." Very naturally he thought of such a termination since his mother died in this year. "I also suffer from melancholy which for me is almost as great an evil as my illness itself." Evidently it was his nature to be brave and buoyant, and it was this attitude toward life which constantly finds expression in his music. There is nothing sickly in his art.

But asthma was but the least of the dark demons of disease that came to dwell with him. At about the same time he had already begun to have symptoms of a depressing malady of the digestive organs which finally brought about his dissolution.

Worst of all, and before he was twenty-eight, there came the affection of the ears which speedily brought about deafness, the most trying of all his ailments. Already at this age this disease had so progressed that he was in mortal dread lest his infirmity be observed. After three more years he "found himself unable to hear the pipe of a peasant played at a short distance in the open air." His genius was fairly unfolding itself and was receiving the recognition of his contemporaries. And to be rapidly growing deaf! It is not to be wondered at that his melancholy became profound, and that only deep religious conviction and his ability to live in the glorious realm of the imagination, saved him from taking his own life.

Many doctors and more cures were tried for his deafness, but with no avail. In 1802 he writes: "For the last two years I have avoided all society, for it is impossible for me to say to people, 'I am deaf.'"

In 1802 his sense of depression reached its lowest during an acute illness, and his despair found utterance in the letter to his brothers, which is known as "The Will." He bewailed his exile by his deafness from the diversions of society which he had so loved; and lamented his seeming moroseness which this condition had brought about. The contemplation of this affliction, he writes to his brothers, "brought me to the brink of despair, and had well nigh made me put an end to my life. . . . Recommend virtue to your children; that alone—not wealth— can give happiness. I speak from experience. It was this that upheld me even in affliction; it is owing to this and my art that I did not terminate my life by suicide."

From this time he seems to have become reconciled to the worst. There is in his letters little mention of illness for the next twelve years, and he was apparently in robust health. Nevertheless, disease was his constant companion and his deafness steadily progressed. In 1805 he was able to judge severely of the musical expression in the rehearsal of his opera. In 1814 he played his B flat trio. From 1816 to 1818 he used an ear trumpet. He continued to conduct his works, but in 1822 nearly brought the performance to ruin, although he was able to detect that the soprano was not singing in tune. Later in the same year he again attempted to conduct, but with such ill success that he did not try it again. This event meant so much to him that it marked another epoch in his life. From this time he was able to communicate with his friends only by writing.

The loss of his hearing undoubtedly had a most depressing effect upon his general health, and besides he was "constantly on bad terms with his digestive organs." His magnificent constitution was, however, as yet hardly touched by his continued ailments. In his collected letters there are from 1816 numerous notes to Archduke Eudolph begging ill health in apology for failure to keep his engagements as tutor to his highness. These are perhaps not to be taken so seriously as they sound, since he took little pleasure in his tutorship, though they indicate his continuous ailments.

In 1817 there are, however, letters to friends telling of his more serious illness. In June he wrote: "I caught a very severe cold which forced me to keep my bed for a long time and many months passed before I could venture out." After much drugging with powders and tinctures he is taking the baths at Heiligenstadt. He feels "that for several years [his] health has been steadily getting worse."

In 1818-1819 his health was much better and his devotion to the composition of his mass was extraordinary. Never had he been known to be so entirely abstracted from external things. It is to these years that the Ninth Symphony and the great Mass in D belong.

In 1821 he was laid up with a severe attack of rheumatism. He was at Baden for a part of the time and for some two years he was quite ill.

In February, 1822, he writes: "Last night I was again attacked by ear ache from which I generally suffer at this season of the year."

From 1823 on he was more or less continuously ill and under constant treatment by baths and drugs, always hopeful, always finally worse.

In October, 1826, Beethoven, with his miserable nephew, visited Johann Beethoven at Gneixendorf. This niggardly man denied his sick brother a fire in his room, although the weather became severe, and the food he served him was not suited to Beethoven's disturbed digestion. They quarreled over the affairs of the nephew, and the composer packed his things on December 2 for a journey back to Vienna.

"It was biting weather, and even the winter sun seemed permanently hidden. A closed vehicle was consequently indispensable for a fifty miles' journey; the brother would not lend his, so with great misgivings Beethoven hazarded an open conveyance—a milk cart, it is supposed,—'the most wretched vehicle of hell' as the composer described it. . . . Beethoven, though only clad in summer clothing, resolutely faced all." It was a two days' journey and it cost him his life.

He took to his bed. Not only were his old ailments aggravated, but inflammation of the lungs set in. His nephew neglected to call a physician and none came to see him until three days after his return. Dropsy, the last symptom of his old abdominal ailment, appeared and on December 18 he had to be tapped. Again on January 8 and 28 the fluid had to be withdrawn. "Better water from my body than from my pen," he is said to have remarked. Malfatti, a former physician, was called, and under his care he improved, but only for a time. "His long, painfully long, end was now beginning. His constitution, powerful as that of a giant, blocked the gates against death for nearly three months." The end came on March 26, 1827, at the age of fifty-seven.

The physical Beethoven was a most impressive figure. He was not tall—was in fact, short,—not over five feet five inches, but with broad shoulders, and very firmly built. Siegfried said that "in that limited space was concentrated the pluck of twenty battalions." His head was large, with profuse black hair thrown backward and upward from a grand forehead; he had great breadth of jaw and somewhat protruding lips. His clean-shaven face was pock-marked from early youth, and browned and burned by wind and sun; his eyes, large and jet black, were full of the fire of genius, and were often remarkably bright and peculiarly piercing; his teeth were beautifully white and regular. His hands were thick and dumpy, with short, untapered fingers; his feet, small and graceful. On the whole his was not a handsome figure, "but the ugly pock-marked man with the piercing eye, was possessed of a power and beauty more attractive than mere physical charm." One person described him as "power personified," and another thought of him as a Jupiter.

Julius Benedict, who saw him in 1822, wrote: "Who could ever forget those striking features? The lofty vaulted forehead with thick gray and white hair encircling it in the most picturesque disorder, that square lion's nose, that broad chin, that noble and soft mouth; . . . his thick-set Cyclopean figure told of a powerful frame."

His voice varied. "When quite himself it was light in tone, and singularly affecting; but when forced, as it so often was, on occasions of anger and temper, it became very rough and far from sympathetic."

In his later years, depressed by sickness or wrapped in his music, he grew careless as to his personal appearance, and even one of his admirers—the Countess Gallenberg—noticed that "he was meanly dressed, and very ugly to look at, but full of nobility and fine feeling and highly cultivated."

He was very regular about early rising, work and exercise, but beyond this he was singularly erratic in his habits. He was up with the sun, summer and winter, and worked from breakfast to dinner at two or three p. m. Dinner over, he immediately went, rain or shine, hot or cold, for his half walk, half run, into the country, or, at Vienna, about the ramparts. In his solitary life "Nature became to him a mother, sister and sweetheart." Neate said that he "never met any one who so delighted in nature or so thoroughly enjoyed flowers or clouds or any other natural object." "He was out of doors for hours together, wandering in the woods or sitting in the fork of a favorite tree." To Beethoven "every tree seemed Holy, Holy"; he exclaims: "No one loves the country better than I do," and "Oh! the charm of the woods,—who can express it?" It was in communion with nature in fields and woods that his inspiration flowed most freely into his sketch books. He worked as he walked: "As the bee gathers honey from the flowers of the meadows, so Beethoven often collected his most sublime ideas while roaming about in the open fields." He seldom composed in the afternoon or evening.

Schindler tells us that "the use of the bath was as much a necessity to Beethoven as to a Turk, and he was in the habit of making frequent ablutions. When it happened that he did not walk out of doors to collect his ideas, he would not infrequently, in a fit of the most complete abstraction, go to his wash hand-basin and pour several jugs of water on his hands, all the while humming and roaring, for sing he could not. . . . Then he would seat himself at his table and write; and afterwards get up again to the wash basin, and dabble and hum as before." On more than one occasion the water went through the floor and trickled from the ceiling below, with the consequence that the master was forced to move to other quarters.

Like most great men, the matter of food and eating was of little moment to Beethoven. It was sufficient for him if he derived from his meals ample energy for his work. "Wherefore so many dishes?" he exclaimed on one occasion. "Man stands but little above other animals if his chief enjoyments are limited to the table." While absorbed in the composition of the Mass in D, he worked like one possessed, and at least once was so absorbed that he went without eating for twenty-four hours, and he "looked as if he had gone through a struggle of life and death." His irregular meals of badly prepared food, hastily devoured, would have damaged more perfect organs of digestion than those of Beethoven.

For breakfast he usually had coffee, which, like Brahms, he often prepared himself. He allowed sixty beans to a cup, and made it a rule, when he had company, of counting the beans for each cup. At dinner his favorite dish was macaroni with Parmesan cheese. He was very fond of fish and on Friday always had fish and potatoes. A plate of soup or some left-over answered his purpose for supper. His favorite beverage was fresh spring water, which he took in large quantities. He was no judge of wines and is said to have injured his stomach by drinking adulterated kinds. He liked a good glass of beer and a pipe of tobacco in the evening.

If erratic in his habits, it was chiefly Beethoven who suffered the consequences. He was singularly pure in his life,—but only from such loftiness of character could come such music.

The physical Beethoven is reflected in his art—all but his ailments and illnesses. These never touched his spirit. He was a Titan and his work was titanesque. Not only is there nothing morbid in his music, but it contains more of humor than that of any composer. Beethoven remained physically robust to the last, notwithstanding his continual fight with disease. His afflictions only served to drive his soul farther into the realms of the ideal. His most profound utterances were poured forth in his last years, and, even in his last illness, "his overflow of fancy was indescribable and his imagination showed an elasticity which his friends had noticed but seldom when he was in health."

The examination of the wreck of that most powerful bodily machine showed the auditory nerves shriveled and degenerated, the liver, the source of his digestive disturbances, shrunken to half its normal size, and there were other signs of chronic disease, which, on slight grounds, has been attributed to syphilis. The convolutions of the brain were more numerous and twice as deep as usual.

So much for the Beethoven laid away at Bonn in 1827. The Beethoven of the Heroic Symphony—of the Leonore and of the Mass in D—is even more alive in all his inspiring strength and beauty than he was a century ago.