This week, we are celebrating the literary love letter (or love letters from the literary) as our contribution to your Valentine’s Day celebrations. Today, we focus on perhaps the most famous love letter of all times, not only because of the timeless composition it inspired, but because of the mystery in which it is shrouded…
Ludwig von Beethoven was never known to be a very charming individual. He suffered from chronic stomach pains from his early twenties and began going deaf at about age 26, and both conditions made him quite short-tempered (to learn more, I can’t recommend Beethoven’s Hair any more highly). He was known to stop performances in the middle of a piece if he thought the audience was not giving him the attention and respect he deserved. His patron in Vienna, Archduke Rudolf, was forced to decree that the composer was exempt from the standard etiquette rules of court, so that his grumpiness wouldn’t cause a scandal.
But despite the stomach pains and the chronic curmudgeonliness , Beethoven had the soul of a Romantic–wild, passionate…and secretive. Historians are still working to uncover the truth about a number of his relationships, particularly those that inspired him to compose. Für Elise, perhaps one of his best known pieces, is believed to be a audible love letter to one of his students–who turned him down, truth be told. But that shouldn’t detract (too much) from the beauty of the piece, or the sentiment behind it. Have a listen for yourself:
But the best, the most important love letter was yet to come. The missive that has become known as the “Immortal Beloved” letter was discovered among Beethoven’s papers after his death in 1827, by his secretary, who kept it hidden for the remainder of his own life. Thus, it was in 1880 that the letter made its way to the Berlin State Library, setting off a firestorm of speculation as to the letter’s intended recipient, when it was drafted, and why it never reached her.
Tests were performed on the watermark of the paper sometime in the 1950’s, and showed that the paper on which the letter was written was made in 1812, which was the year that Beethoven spent in the Czech city of Teplice. Though we will presumably never know the truth about Beethoven’s “Unsterbliche Geliebte”–or “Immortal Beloved”–but it is generally assumed now that she was Josephine Brunsvik, another of Beethoven’s piano students.
Josephine was 20 years old when Beethoven (who was 29 at the time) was hired to give her and her sisters piano lessons at their Vienna home. According to his letters to her, it was nearly love at first sight for young Ludwig, but that same year, Josephine’s mother forced her to marry the exceptionally wealthy Count von Dehm, who was not only twice her age, but hated music.
Von Dehm died of pneumonia five years later, but being a widow didn’t allow Beethoven to press his suit. Beethoven was a commoner, you see, and marriage to him would have forced Josephine to relinquish custody of her children. Nevertheless, it is evident through their letters that the two remained close, visiting several times. Beethoven wrote around April of 1805, in his characteristically dash-ridden way: “beloved J., it is not the drive to the opposite sex that attracts me to you, no, only you, the whole of your Being with all its singularities – has my respect – all my feelings – all of my sensibility is chained to you…Long – long – time – may our love last – it is so noble – so founded on mutual respect and friendship.”
The correspondence between Beethoven and Josephine ended with Josephine’s marriage to Baron Christoph von Stackelberg, her children’s tutor. It was a disastrous marriage, and the baron left her in 1812. Desperate for money, Josephine set off to see a family friend in Prague, stopping along the way in Teplice, where Beethoven was also visiting. His sister took care of Josephine’s children during her visit, and there is no reason not to assume that the two caught up–and strengthened the bonds that had grown between them so many years earlier. If indeed Josephine was the “Immortal Beloved” of Beethoven’s letter, it was this meeting that inspired him to write. A few highlight of that letter are below…The full text of the letter is here, courtesy of the glorious Letters of Note:
Good morning, on 7 July
Even in bed my ideas yearn towards you, my Immortal Beloved, here and there joyfully, then again sadly, awaiting from Fate, whether it will listen to us. I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. Yes, I have determined to wander about for so long far away, until I can fly into your arms and call myself quite at home with you, can send my soul enveloped by yours into the realm of spirits — yes, I regret, it must be. You will get over it all the more as you know my faithfulness to you; never another one can own my heart, never — never! O God, why must one go away from what one loves so, and yet my life in W. as it is now is a miserable life. Your love made me the happiest and unhappiest at the same time. At my actual age I should need some continuity, sameness of life — can that exist under our circumstances? Angel, I just hear that the post goes out every day — and must close therefore, so that you get the L. at once. Be calm — love me — today — yesterday.
What longing in tears for you — You — my Life — my All — farewell. Oh, go on loving me — never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
We can only speculate whether Josephine was the intended recipient of this letter, but we do know that Beethoven composed several pieces of music for her, among them “An die Hoffnung [To Hope]“, which bore a dedication to her on the original manuscript. For fans of Pride and Prejudice, this is the song that Lizzie sings while Darcy gives her The Look. His final two piano sonatas (Opus 110 and Opus 111), which were written just after her death, recall the melody of that song, perhaps offering a final farewell to the woman who would live forever in his heart, and in his music….