Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’


Luis Dias

In my last column, we saw how NBA legend Kobe Bryant turned to Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) when he wanted to make a romantic gesture to his wife Vanessa. Beethoven’s music must have kindled many a romance since his death, close to two centuries ago.

But Beethoven’s own love life was quite famously, a disaster, almost a ‘thema con variazone’ (theme and variations) revolving around unrequited love. Many of them were his own piano students, from ‘noble’ families, and therefore ‘above his station’, and any thoughts of a real relationship were doomed from the start.

His first love seems to have been Eleonore (‘Lorchen’) von Breuning (1771-1841), daughter of the elite Bonner family that allowed the teenage Beethoven into their home at a time of much turmoil in his life. Their house became a ‘home away from home’, refuge from an alcoholic father, and ailing mother struggling to pay bills and look after her little children, of whom Ludwig was the eldest.

Beethoven entered the von Breuning household to teach piano to Lorchen and her younger brother. On his twentieth birthday (December 16, 1790), Lorchen wrote him a birthday card containing a poem wishing him long life and “forbearance and patience”. Although the poem uses the familiar ‘du’ form of address, she signed it with the formal ‘Sie’.

But between then and November 1792 when Beethoven left Bonn (never again to return) for Vienna, the two obviously had a ‘quarrel’, which upset Beethoven greatly. We know this from a letter he wrote her a year later: “Often in thought I have conversed with you and your dear family, though not with that peace of mind which I could have desired. It was then that the wretched quarrel hovered before me and my conduct presented itself as most despicable, but it was too late; oh what would I not give to obliterate from my life those
actions so degrading to myself and so contrary to my character…”

Lorchen seemed less bothered by the incident, as she sent him gifts (a waistcoat, and a cravat that she made herself). The two apparently never met again, and Lorchen married physician Franz Wegeler, Beethoven’s childhood friend.

Beethoven would dedicate at least three works to his first known love: the Variations for piano and violin on ‘Se vuolballare’ from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro WoO 40 (Werkeohne Opus, works without an opus number), the Rondo for piano and violin WoO 41 and Piano Sonata in C WoO 51.

Another love interest was Baroness Wilhelmine de Westerholt, also his piano student and daughter of an official of the electoral stables. At some point he had sent her a card with a printed French verse ending, “For you, my very dear friend! My heart will never change, And will cherish you forever.”

Much later, a close Beethoven friend, cellist-composer Bernhard Romberg would recall the infatuation as a “Werther love”, a reference to Goethe’s doomed hero.

The adolescent Beethoven must not have been a pretty sight: “small, swarthy and slim, with a large head and a short neck”, “piercing, expressive dark eyes,” and scruffily dressed. His face had scars which some attribute to smallpox, although there is no record of him ever suffering from it; more likely it was residual scarring from severe acne. And a fiery temper couldn’t have helped.

Beethoven was also influenced by ideas prominent in Freemasonry, and his influential teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe may even have taken him to meetings of the Freemasons and the Order of the Illuminati. Some of Neefe’s maxims advised youth to view women with the purest ideals but keep his distance from them romantically. Perhaps a young Beethoven took this advice to heart.

His gauche, clumsy manner around women made the young man the butt of his friends’ pranks: on a trip with the orchestra (in which Beethoven played viola), some musicians set up a waitress to flirt with him. Outraged, he “boxed her ears.”

The list of other love interests is quite long, all vying for the title of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’.A letter written by Beethoven to a tantalisingly unnamed ‘Immortal Beloved’, written on July 6-7, 1812 in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz, was found among his personal effects after he died and has been analysed
endlessly by researchers
ever since.

The line-up of ‘suspects’ includes: Giulietta Guiccardi (countess and piano student, to whom he dedicated Piano Sonata no 14, ‘Moonlight’);Antonie Brentano (friend, philanthropist, arts patron and dedicatee of his ‘Diabelli variations’); Therese Brunsvik (countess, piano student, dedicatee for his Piano Sonata No 24 in F# major, Opus 78, nicknamed ‘à Thérèse’); Amalie Sebald (singer who Beethoven met in Teplitz in 1811); Dorothea von Ertmann (pianist, champion of Beethoven’s music and dedicatee to his Piano Sonata no 28); Therese Malfatti (close friend and possible dedicatee of Beethoven’s famous bagatelle, ‘Für Elise’, WoO 59); Anna Maria Erdödy (countess, close friend, dedicatee of four of his late chamber works); Bettina von Arnim (countess, novelist, friend) among several others.

A friend of mine in England, Jessica Duchen, is writing a book ‘Immortal’ (towards which I have made a small donation, and await eagerly) on the topic.Her latest update says that “around 99 per cent of researchers” now agree that Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’ was Josephine Brunsvik (1779-1821, Hungarian countess and sister of aforementioned Therese).

Beethoven wrote at least 15 love letters to Josephine, calling her his “only beloved”, being “eternally devoted” to her and “forever faithful”.

He dedicated a song ‘An die Hoffnung’ [To Hope], Opus 32to Josephine (a dedication later withdrawn, probably to spare her embarrassment), and the intensely lyrical piano piece ‘Andante
favoriWoO 57’, a musical declaration of love.

Josephine and her sister were taken to Vienna in 1799 for piano lessons with Beethoven. A romance certainly blossomed between them, but Josephine was given in marriage to a wealthy count
matching her social standing, and she bore him four children before his sudden death from
pneumonia in 1804.

Josephine’s romance with Beethoven continued secretly after this, despite her family’s disapproval. She couldn’t possibly marry Beethoven, a ‘commoner’, and lose the guardianship of her aristocratic children.There is speculation that Beethoven and Josephine consummated their illicit relationship, and that her daughter Minona, from her second (loveless, extremely unhappy) marriage to Baron Stackelberg, was actually Beethoven’s.

Josephine life was a litany of suffering and agony; she probably might have fared better as Frau Beethoven.

The year she died, aged 42, in 1821, Beethoven composed his very last Piano Sonatas No 31 (Op 110) and No 32 (Op 111), believed to be clearly like requiems, with discernible reminiscences to ‘Josephine’s Theme’, the Andante favori, which itself has been discerned to repeatedly chant ‘Jo-seph-ine, an idée fixe’.

Biographer Jan Swafford puts it well: “[Beethoven] loved solitude as much as he did a woman, …lost in his ‘raptus’, oblivious to everything except what was singing in his head.”

As his deafness worsened, that solitude and isolation only grew. Perhaps the “singing in his head”, his music, whether he realised it or not, was his true ‘Immortal Beloved’, his Valentine, if you will. Just as it is ours. Beethoven’s music is Immortally Beloved for all time.