Ludwig van Beethoven is perhaps the most famous and celebrated classical composer of all time (the New York Times puts him second, behind Bach). But Beethoven's grim life was depressing, lonely, and difficult. That he went deaf, surely an impediment to a musician and composer, was but one of the many physical and emotional challenges he faced in his relatively brief life (though he looks old as hell in portraits, he died at 56).
Beethoven's musical immortality and body of work is even more remarkable in light of his family life and romantic disappointments. The man the New Yorker called "a singularity in the history of art—a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force" faced almost relentless hardship in his personal life; there are many depressing facts about Beethoven, anchored by sobering stories about Beethoven.
Here are some harrowing highlights from the composer's life, including grim Beethoven stories concerning the triumph and tragedy of one of mankind's most phenomenal talents.
As a young man, Beethoven was mentored by Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, who was by all accounts a kind man. Childless, Haydn saw himself as a father figure; in addition to helping Beethoven as a composer, he offered advice and guidance, and passed Beethoven's work around to all the right people. He expected Beethoven would "in time fill the position of one of Europe’s greatest composers," called his protégée "my dear pupil Beethoven," and once wrote "‘I shall be proud to call myself his teacher; I only wish that he might remain with me a little while longer."
While Beethoven was polite to Haydn, his inherent mistrust of father figures made him incredibly suspicious of his mentor's motives. According to Oxford University Press, Beethoven saw Haydn, a musical genius himself, as a rival as much as a mentor. His mistrust eventually turned to paranoia; he suspected Haydn "was not well minded" towards him, and developed an unfounded theory that Haydn was sabotaging his development.
Eventually, Haydn left Vienna and passed Beethoven off to another mentor, though their relationship had fractured before that, thanks to the latter's skepticism.
Beethoven's personality, comportment, and hygiene left a lot to be desired, judging from some of the quotes about him. "As a young man, Beethoven was frank to the point of rudeness. Headstrong and proud, he was never willing to conform in his behaviour..."
Of course, being desperately alone and beaten by your alcoholic father for much of your childhood might do that to you. Another revealing comment came from a visitor to Beethoven's home:
"Picture to yourself the dirtiest, most disorderly place imaginable - blotches of moisture covered the ceiling, an oldish grand piano, on which dust disputed the place with various pieces of engraved and manuscript music; under the piano (I do not exaggerate) an unemptied pot de nuit; ... the chairs, mostly cane-seated, were covered with plates bearing the remains of last night's supper and with wearing apparel etc."
Beethoven seems anything but a smooth sophisticate:
"Beethoven was most awkward and bungling in his behaviour; his clumsy movements lacked all grace. He rarely picked up anything without dropping or breaking it... Everything was knocked over, soiled, or destroyed. How he ever managed to shave himself at all remains difficult to understand, even considering the frequent cuts on his cheeks. - He never learned to dance in time with the music."
According to Grove Music Online, a digital resource of Oxford University Press, Beethoven was incredibly impatient and mistrustful. These qualities, combined with a pronounced inability to discern motive, put tremendous strain on many of the composer's personal relationships. Compounded misunderstandings, exacerbated by Beethoven's temper, led to serious, long-lasting arguments and, in some cases, fist fights.
A look at Beethoven's pattern of friendship shows the effect his mistrust and skepticism. His two closest friends - Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a physician Beethoven knew since childhood, and theologian Carl Amenda - lived in different countries for most of their adult lives. Stephan von Breuning was his closest friend in Vienna, and he and Beethoven went through years of not talking to one another due to tension in their relationship.
Ludwig van Beethoven never married. He proposed marriage to several women, though was rejected by all of them. Among other reasons for these rejections was his physical appearance. Countess Julia Guicciardi, a piano pupil in her teens and the object of the Sonata No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor (Moonlight), described Beethoven as "very ugly, but noble..." Yeah, sure, musical genius. But dag, so fugly.
Of course, looks aren't everything. Beethoven was also arrogant and unpleasant. In 1810, he was romancing Therese Malfatti, long-rumored to be the inspiration for Beethoven's Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (Fur Elise). As things heated up between them, Beethoven contemplated a marriage proposal, but was banned from the Malfatti household for offending everyone in it.
There also was the matter of social class. Beethoven circulated in high society, so he was exposed to woman with titles and wealth. Even though he achieved great success, he was a musician and, therefore, in the early 19th century, still thought of as a veritable servant.