The Death of Beethoven
Vienna, 5:00 pm, March 26, 1827
Outside Beethoven’s rooms at the Schwarzspanierhaus, a fresh measure of snow from a late season thunderstorm muffles the chimes of St. Stephens Cathedral as they ring out the hours for the old city.
Ein, Zwei, Drei, Vier… Funf Uhr. Five O’clock.
Beethoven, three months past his fifty-sixth birthday, lies in a coma, as he has now for two nights, his body bound by the betrayal of an illness whose only virtue was that it proved incurable and would, thankfully, be his last. Though his chest muscles and his lungs wrestle like giants against the approaching blackness, his breathing is so labored that the death rattle can be heard over the grumblings of the heavens throughout his apartment.
Muss es sein? Must it be? Ja, es muss sein. Beethoven is dying. From on high, the Gods vent their grief at his imminent passing and hurl a spear of lightening at Vienna.
Their jagged bolt of electricity explodes outside the frost covered windows of the Schwarzspanierhaus with a clap of thunder so violent it startles the composer to consciousness.
Beethoven’s eyes open, glassy, unfocused. He looks upward – only the Gods know what he sees, if anything. He raises his right hand, a hand that has graced a thousand sonatas, and clenches his fist for perhaps the last time. His arm trembles as if railing against the heavens. Tears flood his eyes.
His arm falls back to the bed… His eyelids close… And then he is gone ...
Plaudite, Amici, Comoedia Finite Est
Applaud My Friends, the Comedy is Over
By all accounts my funeral was a grand success.
Despite the snow and slush soaking through their shoes, all Vienna turns out. Twenty thousand mourners or more, accompanied by the Imperial Guards, guide the grieving to my grave. Streets crowded, impassable. My coffin, lined with silk, covered in flowers, rolls through the chaos on a horse drawn bier. Paupers and princes; merchants and mendicants; menials and musicians; clerics and commoners; they all come for this, their Beethoven’s final concerto.
As if they ever owned me or my music…
Plaudite, Amici, Comoedia Finite Est. Applaud my friends, the comedy is over. Inscribed herein rests my final opus.
Ja. Yes, they are all patrons and lovers… Lovers of my music, the very music the gods have forbidden me to hear. How cruel. To suffer my last decade without sound – any sound except the incessant surge of blood pounding through my veins - an eternity inscribed on the calendar pages of my life.
And so it is, these celebrants, anxious for one last encore, crowd the alleys and streets of the Hapsburgs capital in throngs not seen since the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Grande Armee oh so many years ago.
The cortege rolls on past the taverns and cafés of this fair city where dark beer, schnitzel and sausages reward the day. Ah, the saints and sinners of Vienna have always loved a good party, never mind the excuse.
Are they singing? Alle Menschen werden Brüder. All men will become brothers. They must be, yet I hear nothing.
I wonder if she is among them. My muse; my love; my passion; my sacred fire; will she be there to safeguard my voyage through Elysium?
Or is she too denied me as was the sweet sighs of love and the embrace of family stolen by gods capricious and uncaring? Are they so vengeful? So embittered by spite? Like Prometheus, have I dared too close to revelations reserved for them alone?
The clouds grow ever darker, ominous.
Must I embrace death silently ere my last symphony suffuses the stage? Is this my end? To be cast out as by our Creator as history’s cruel joke, a deaf musician? A composer unable to know the vibrancy of his own scores?
Tell me why your Beethoven, your servant whose hearing once surpassed all others in sensitivity and degree, must suffer such humiliation and torment?
Are the crowds laughing? Ja oder nein? Yes or no. I know not. Am I such a failure, such a disgrace to be shoved off the stage without your mercy or compassion?
As surely as the warmth of summer vanishes and the leaves of autumn crumble beneath the crush of winter, has all hope been stolen? Can I escape this fate? What path must I travel? What tasks of redemption are to be mine and mine alone?
Come death; am I to meet your shadow with courage? Must I depart in this winter of anguish before the renewal of spring?
Can I not find release from this cycle of sufferings like a saint or a Hindoo holy man following the dance of Shiva or a Bodhisattva, back bent upon the path of the great Buddha?
The last echoes of joy inside my heart are already fading. Will I never hear or feel those vibrations again? Never? Nein. Forever. Lost for eternity in the fog on the road to Elysium; that is too hard, too harsh.
But surely a loving father must dwell in the starry canopy above. Are you there, oh sweet Isis, my goddess of compassion? Help me, help guide me.
Please Providence; grant me this, my final wish… Grant but one day, just one day, one day of pure joy to your poor Beethoven.
Is this too much to ask before I embrace darkness forever? Oh, to be in her arms once again.
Koblenz, April 1827
It was long after midnight and Leonore von Breuning Wegeler could not sleep. She sat up quietly so as not to awaken Franz who slept soundly in the bed beside her. Twenty-five years of marriage and she loved him as dearly now as when they were teenagers in Bonn. He was a good man of great intellect, infinitely kind and gentle, inquisitive and patient, all the skills needed for the husband, the friend and the physician he was.
And all the more reason the letter she had received only that afternoon from her brother Steffen in Vienna kept her from sleeping. Not only had Steffen describe Beethoven’s final days and death - marked by that surprise spring thunderstorm that had shaken Beethoven from his coma one last time - he also gave a sketchy account of the funeral procession and the subsequent search through his apartment for Beethoven’s important papers. Leonore had re-read the letter over several times, and even then she could not fathom how much of the truth Steffen had actually shared with her and how much he held in reserve. True to her brother’s years as one of the emperor’s top legal practitioners – he was a master of the fine art of obfuscation.
Only one fact remained incontrovertible, Beethoven, or “Louis” as he was known to his friends, their beloved Beethoven – her beloved Beethoven - was dead.
In the beginning, she remembered, in the beginning it was the pianoforte that brought them all together. And Louis brought them music, the most glorious music: Bach, Mozart and ultimately his own compositions. And now that he was gone, would their secrets, some bitter, some sweet, follow him to the grave, food for the worms? Or would they emerge from the earth like nettles and weeds to once again abuse her tranquility as he had so many years earlier? And Franz, what would he think had he known? Friendship was an odd horse and carriage that conveyed the clutter of their lives to God knows where. Their young lives had been messy. Far messier than she was ever comfortable with - and with Louis, “messy” was merely the starting point – a point of departure that filled her with a disturbing cascade of emotions that flowed as dangerous and intoxicating as the Rhine in flood season. Or a long ago November bath in the mineral hot springs hidden in the woods above Bonn.
Arising from the bed with stealth intended more to secure her secrets from Franz than to avoid waking him, she drew on her slippers and dressing gown. Yes, even the dressing gown – a red silk Japanese kimono – had been a tenth anniversary gift from Louis that he bought for her when the Oriental treasures from the estate of Toni Brentano’s father Baron Johann von Birkenstock were auctioned off in 1811 or 1812. Memories of Beethoven were as inescapable as was her jealousies.
Though Leonore had never met this Toni, she knew of the woman but couldn’t recall if it was through her brother’s occasional letters from Vienna or notes Louis himself had passed along to her husband, Franz. Reading between the lines it had always seemed obvious to Leonore that Toni Brentano, a married mother of four or was it five, had been one of Louis’ more secretive dalliances in that city. Even Franz had once confided to her that when their Beethoven arrived in Vienna, he was always involved in a love affair and sometimes made conquests which would have been very difficult indeed, if not impossible, for many an Adonis.
Toni must have been special enough that when her father, a statesman who had travelled the continent on behalf of the Hapsburg rulers, passed away, the rumors were that Louis took uncommon interest in helping her sell off an estate so large and rich in paintings, sculptures and Asian artifacts, that it could have filled half the Louvre. The cataloging, auctions and estate sales, which included paintings from Rembrandt, Raphael, Durer, Holbein and Van Dyck, took almost three years.
Louis had sent her this particular kimono as recompense for an angora jacket vest Leonore had knitted for him years earlier – part of a childhood pledge they had each made to keep each other warm and held close within the confines of their respective hearts.
Lenore reached inside the pocket and confirmed that a small key with a purple ribbon tied to it was still there. Satisfied she then stepped one foot at a time as slowly as possible so as to prevent any of the floor boards from creaking until she reached the fireplace. Nights in Koblenz were still cold. She poked the coals in the bedroom fireplace, knowing full well that Franz, who preferred a toasty room at night, would hopefully sleep well past dawn if their bed chamber stayed warm. She then headed out of the bedroom and secured the door behind her. In the dark Leonore found her way to the stairs and made her way down two flights to a room that doubled not only as the family study and library but as the music room.
Yes, it began with the pianoforte, this intertwining of the lives of the von Breuning clan with the Wegelers and the Beethovens. Yes, Leonore reflected back, way back to the 1780’s when she was but a teenager and lived with her three younger brothers, Christoph, Steffen, and Lorenz, in Bonn. Leonore, whose name everyone close to her had either shortened from the more formal “Eleonore” or altered into its affectionate diminutive, “Lorchen”, was the eldest. Christoph, later a physician like Franz, followed her by two years. Steffen, now a great bear of a man, and a fixture in the War Department at the Emperor’s Court, was then just a thin slip of a boy and was three years behind her.
Their father, a Court Councilor to the Elector of Bonn had died in a fire just before Lenz, the youngest, was born, leaving the four of them in the sole care of their mother, Helene. As the eldest and without a father around, Leonore became the responsible one often tasked with watching over her brothers. Growing up in a court household in those times, it was naturlich – taken for granted - that all of them received a well-rounded education in Latin, all the basic sciences, French, the arts and most especially music – and that meant the pianoforte. It pleased Leonore that her family also maintained a music room on the lower level of their house in Bonn and filled it with string instruments and a pianoforte. Typical for the times, their keyboard was small and certainly nothing as robust as Beethoven’s by now famous Broadwood, which itself was now being dwarfed by ever greater, sturdier instruments with cast iron, instead of wooden frames.
They all played, but to advance and gain the requisite skills necessitated a teacher. Franz Wegeler, who in those years was their neighbor and friend and but a teenager himself – yes, albeit a handsome one - told of a young composer he had befriended, who – though only fourteen - played all the keyboard instruments as well as the violin and viola in the court orchestra. Quoting a notice that had appeared in the Magazin der Musik Franz read how the young Beethoven, “plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, and reads at sight very well,” and “he would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun.”
Franz had described the boy’s family as dirt poor. Louis’ father, the court singer, Johann van Beethoven, was an unrepentant alcoholic who practically drank more florins worth of wine than his meager salary as a member of the choir could ever bring in. Louis had two younger brothers and a baby sister, all of whom he cared about deeply – especially Margaretha, the baby, the one he called, mon petit papillon – my little butterfly. More mouths than an incompetent musician such as Johann van Beethoven could easily feed.
Suffice to say, the von Breunings needed a piano teacher and poor young Louis needed the work. None of them had ever seen Louis play, and Leonore every the practical and insightful one asked Franz if they could audition this young musician before bringing him into their home.
An audition? Reflecting back, she could only shake her head at the audacity of her wanting to audition the boy who as a man destiny would proclaim as perhaps the greatest composer of all time. What had Steffen written in his letter about the funeral to her? “Mozart was an angel sent from heaven to charm us on a Saturday night. But Beethoven… Our beloved Beethoven was born of the black earth to entertain the gods for eternity.”
And bring him into their home? Oh yes, Leonore’s mother, Helene and her brothers would welcome Louis into their home as if he was one of their own. And she, well, that was another story, wasn’t it? Oh, and Mozart and his “Don Giovanni,” what she could have told Steffan about this “angel’s” devilish influence upon Louis – none of it good – at least not as far as she was concerned.
Franz, whose natural skills at friendship enabled him to succeed in getting along with people, especially difficult people, knew even back then that Louis hated having anyone watch him play in private. Eccentric? Neurotic? What new words would the men of the medical world create to describe Beethoven? He would have absolutely rebelled at the notion of an audition. Louis had his quirks, even as a child. It was one thing to perform as part of an orchestra or to steal the stage with his keyboard work in front of an audience of his own choosing, but quite another to be watched and studied in private. It didn’t necessarily make sense but a lot about Louis then and now never made sense to her. Franz had shared with Leonore how Louis as a child had routinely been forced by his father to practice on the pianoforte for endless stretches during the day and again at all hours of the night so as to entertain his father’s friends while they engaged in some drunken sing along.
It had been the elder Beethoven’s dream to parade Louis about as a prodigy much as the child Mozart had been run through all the capitals of Europe a generation earlier. Talented as Louis was though, he was no Amadeus. And yes, given a childhood marked by such blatant paternal abuse, it was more a wonder Louis had not come to hate music. Somehow the inheritance of harmony and melody Beethoven received from his Grossvater captured young Louis’ soul as a child far more than his father’s rough ways repelled him. And though Louis had suffered at his father’s hands, in the end were we not all the better for it?
Leonore lit several candelabras and placed them on tables around the music room, including one upon her letter desk. She then stoked the fire and banked the coals. Returning to the desk, she sat before the mirror and lifted off her night cap. Unpinning her hair, it fell to her waist. Leonore studied her own reflection. She had aged, but well. A few wrinkles here and there – perhaps more than few but save for the streaks of gray, her auburn hair was still as dense and wavy as when she was teenager. Leonore slid open a draw from which she lifted out a wooden box. With the key from her dressing gown, she unlocked it.
Inside the wooden box was a small stack of letters neatly tied up in more of the same purple ribbon. She started to untie the ribbon, but abruptly stopped. Was he really dead? Never to laugh again? Never to cry? Never to touch her soul? Tears that had welled up in her eyes, rolled off her checks and fell onto the stack, staining the paper. She knew what was inside and had no need to open the faded and yellowed envelopes. She retied the bow, then set the stack aside. At the bottom of the box were pieces of equally ancient sheet music written in B’s own hand. These she lifted out and carried to the piano.
In the beginning it was music that united them. She began to play – for him – in memory of him – in memory of her own remembered pain. It was one of Louis’ earliest compositions, one he dedicated to her, variations on a theme from Mozart’s “Figaro.” Damn that Mozart.
She could hear Louis’ voice as if it hung in the ethers, ‘The variations will prove a little difficult to play, particularly the trills in the coda, but do not let that frighten you. You need only concern yourself with the trills; omit the other notes as they are also in the violin part.”
She let her sadness, her grief, her love, her memories flow through her fingers, which were long and unusually graceful, as she sought consolation at the departure of a man who had changed her life forever. “ I would never have written such a piece of this kind had I not often noticed here and there in Vienna a man who after I had improvised one evening, would write down some of my peculiarities and boast of them as his own the next day.”
This was the man she didn’t marry - kind, generous, brilliant but with a fire, an inner anger, a temper, “Foreseeing that these things would be stolen and soon appear in print, I made up my mind to anticipate and embarrass these local pianoforte masters, many of whom I consider my mortal enemies. I wanted to have my revenge in this way, for I knew in advance that my variations would be put before them and that they would make poor exhibitions of themselves.” Yes, this was the man she didn’t marry. The man who had been her husband’s lifelong friend. The man who had been…
She remembered what Franz had warned her about all those many years ago: there was no way Louis would have sat still for an audition, so if they wanted to see their potential tutor at work, Leonore had best come up with a better plan. She did. Leonore knew the buildings of the Elector of Bonn’s court inside and out as if the chambers had been her playground – which they were in the day when her father was still alive and served the Elector. She proposed that the best way to observe this “Louis van Beethoven” was to sneak into one of the lofts above the main hall so that they could watch this young genius without him knowing. And if they liked what they saw, they would hire him as their teacher.
In those days, the keyboard for the pipe organ that Louis played was off in a separate room behind the main hall where the rest of the Elector’s music ensemble would gather. Elector Max Franz, the ruler of the Germanic states along the Rhine and the younger brother of the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, loved music, played not a little himself and cultivated one of Europe’s best orchestras outside of Vienna. The string, horn and woodwind players – all world class musicians themselves - would sit on chairs arranged in a semi-circle around any singer that might be performing for the Elector and his guests.
Over the years Leonore and Franz had gotten to know them all for among the musicians were many who would long play a role in Louis’ career. Principal among them was Christian Neefe who had joined the orchestra in 1779, and had not only introduced Louis to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, which were little known outside Leipzig at that time, he also tutored him in composition and would help publish B’s first work. Then there was Franz Ries, Ferdinand Ries’s father who was not only the orchestra’s lead violinist, he taught Louis the violin and viola. Years later in Vienna, Beethoven would return the favor as he was wont to do by taking Ferdinand in as his student. The court cellist was Joseph Reicha who introduced Louis to that instrument and it was his son Anton Reicha who would later perform most of Beethoven’s string quartets for him in Vienna. Even the chief horn player, Nikolaus Simrock, later turned publisher and produced many of Beethoven’s work.
The organ room was situated in the back of the main hall so as to not only accommodate the many pipes needed to produce its sounds but to also avoid overwhelming the rest of the players with its power. Above the organ room was a loft which allowed one to observe the organ below and also gain access through a trap door to the tallest of the organ pipes so they could be cleaned and serviced when necessary.
Franz, whose father also had much business at the court, didn’t think it wise for all five of them to go sneaking around and thus suggested that just he and Leonore – “Meine Lorchen,” go alone, a prospect that Leonore, who already had an eye on Franz, thoroughly appreciated. Even as a teenager Franz Wegeler exuded a maturity and male strength that not only reminded Leonore of her own father’s presence when he was still alive but also made her feel secure and confident whenever he was around her.
And he called her “Meine Lorchen,” a term of endearment which pleased her almost as much.
It was late on a Sunday afternoon when Franz and Leonore slipped into the court building and hid up in the lofts above the great hall where the court orchestra was to rehearse Mozart’s opera, Abduction from the Seraglio and several Bach chorales for a performance in front of the Elector later that week.
The Kapellmeister at the time was a Venetian named Andrea Lucchesi more known for his pomposity and girth than talent. Old school and rigid, Lucchesi had taken on the position not long after the death of Beethoven’s grandfather and in so doing blocked young Louis’ father from that title – not that the Elector would have ever placed such responsibility in the hands of Johann van Beethoven. Though Louis detested his father’s behavior toward him, Johann was still his father and the boy felt some loyalty toward him and not a little antipathy toward Lucchesi – an attitude that that often resulted in Lucchesi becoming the butt of Louis’ practical jokes.
Although she and Franz would be able to watch Louis from their hide-away in the loft and satisfy their initial purpose, Leonore found herself increasingly distracted by the sheer pleasure of being this close to Franz. Even when he had reached for her hand to pull her up into the loft, it seemed to awaken her in ways beyond her imagination. She only reluctantly let go of his hand as they wedged themselves into a corner of the loft. Here she was alone with a boy, tucked into their tight hiding space with her body pressed up against his and it felt good, very good. And why not, at this same age were not many of her girlfriends already engaged or married?
“A sword,” mused Leonore to herself as she recalled that day. Those of us who knew Beethoven as the grand eminence of Viennese music, a man of powerful stature and imposing presence, would struggle to imagine him as a young teen. Like the other members of the court orchestra Louis wore a military style uniform complete with a sea-green frock coat, matching green knee britches with buckles, stocking of white silk, shoes with black bowknots, an embroidered vest with pocket flaps - the vest bound with real gold cord, - his hair curled and with a queue, a crush hat on his head, and a sword on his left side with silver belt.
It was near impossible for Leonore to compare the Beethoven she knew – a man of immense majesty - with this image of a green-suited performing monkey. And even more amusing to think that Louis actually loved that suit, especially in the beginning. It gave him a stature he had not experienced elsewhere. It was one thing to be a boy genius, another to have it recognized.
And that day, when Louis dove into the Bach with all the verve of a Bohemian cliff diver, Leonore knew right off she was witnessing something revolutionary. Whereas most keyboardists back then sat up straight like a squirrel with paws perched on keys as if at prayer, Louis, after first quietly and serenely nodding his head in the direction of the sheet music, veritably threw himself into every gesture as if he was wrestling the very soul of the music out of the organ’s pipes. None of the daintiness of a periwigged court fop for Louis. She had never seen anyone’s hands fly across the keys with such frenzy. His entire body rocked and swayed with an intensity as rare as diamonds. His arms darted first left, then right, then back again. And in him, in his movements she divined something special that she had observed nowhere before: Passion, passion, and more passion.