Quasi una tragedia

I got my first computer when I was ten. It was an 8088 PC XT-compatible machine with two 5.25” floppy drives (no hard disk) and a black-and-white screen. I had a few DOS games that I inherited with that PC: timeless classics like Digger, Pcman, Sokoban… I discovered Prince of Persia a few years later and wrote a program that would respond to a keyboard interrupt and dump the game memory to a file — it was really annoying that every time the Prince was pierced by the spikes planted by evil Jaffar in every imaginable place, the game restarted da capo. But my favorite game was Thexder. Thexder’s character was a robot that could transform into a spaceship — in the later configuration it was able to fly over bottomless abysses, while in the former it could blast alien enemies with a self-homing laser beam. I spent hours flying through lonely corridors filled with alien stuff to the sounds of poignant music playing in the background, very much in tune with the desolate views, rendered in CGA’s brilliant four colors (well, shades of grey, really). When the robot’s earthly remains fell to the ground (nothing lasts forever), the grim view of motionless debris was accompanied by the Moonlight Sonata, faithfully reproduced by the PC speaker. I let Thexder die a cruel death an uncountable number of times to hear Beethoven’s immortal triplets.

It has always been, and probably still remains, my favorite piano piece. Around the same age as my first steps with the 8088 PC, I had an old Russian piano textbook with yellowed pages and had programmed all the tunes I found there in GW-BASIC. It had to be only the upper voice — GW-BASIC’s PLAY didn’t support polyphony. This is how I learned to read music. However, I didn’t have any of Beethoven’s sonatas sheet music, and so it happened that I actually held the score of my favorite sonata in my hands many many years later.

Beethoven composed his opus 27 comprising two piano sonatas — an Eb-major and a C#-minor sonata sometime around 1801, under the common title quasi una fantasia (almost like a fantasy) — the latter title probably as an apology that he was really done with the classical and rigid sonata form. The relatively unimpressive first piece received number 13 in Beethoven’s list of piano sonatas, while the second one, number 14, immediately became and stayed hugely popular, especially its first slow movement (to composer’s annoyance, who later remarked “I’ve surely written better things”). Published stand-alone in 1802, the C#-minor “sonata quasi una fantasia per il clavicembalo o piano-forte” was dedicated “alla Damigella Contessa Giulietta Guicciardi da Luigi van Beethoven”. I will get back to this damsel dedicatee shortly.

The sonata, composed in Beethoven’s very favorite C#-minor key, was all but usual in its day, both structurally and stylistically. No sonatas back then started with such a slow dreamy movement. The famous ostinato triplets that give the first movement its characteristic melancholy and the sensation of impending doom are actually very much inspired by the assassination scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In the opera, Commendatore, a respectable nobleman and father, rushes furiously into his home to rescue his daughter, Donna Anna, from Don Giovanni’s indecent advances with a sword in his hand. Disregarding his age and the sheer advantage of his younger and stronger adversary (like another operatic character once exclaimed, nulla in terra un uomo paventa se dei figli difende l’onor — nothing on earth would a man fear when defending his children’s honor), he challenges Don Giovanni to a duel, only to succumb a few moments later. Mortally wounded, the wretched father summons his last forces, curses Don Giovanni, and dies singing the famous lines

Ah, soccorso! son tradito!
L’assassino m’ha ferito,
e dal seno palpitante
sento l’anima partir,

while the orchestra plays a kind of a funeral march — the triplets that Beethoven “adopted” for his sonata transposing them to C#-minor. (Commendatore will eventually have his revenge and take the irreverent lover to hell, but that is an entirely different story.)

Interestingly, the composer wrote that the entire movement needs to be played “delicatissimamente” and “senza sordino” (without dampers, that is, with the sustain pedal continuously pressed). While nowadays nobody would ever play the piece with the pedal continuously pressed, the sustain times of the first piano-fortes were much shorter than those of today’s Steinway behemoths, so Beethoven’s remark actually made sense.

The poignant adagio sostenuto is followed immediately by a short and rather pale middle movement (here as well Beethoven broke the canons and requested all the movements to be played without separation as if they were a single entity). “A little flower between two chasms,” as Liszt would later poetically describe this little intermezzo that channels all the energy into the tempestuous presto. Beethoven himself premiered the sonata in 1802 and played the finale with such explosive passion and vigor that several strings snapped and got entangled in the imperfect hammerwork of the early piano action. He already started losing his hearing and was known to play with a heavy hand to better hear the high notes.

Insanely fast and notoriously hard to play, the last movement still strikes with its untamed emotion. It is quite likely that Beethoven’s presto has been the inspiration for Frédéric Chopin’s equally passionate (and difficult to play) Fantaisie-Impromptu.

Commendatore’s funeral march, a cheerful flower between the abysses, and the furious finale — what is the connection to Earth’s natural satellite and its electromagnetic emission? There is absolutely none. The nickname originated from Ludwig Rellstab’s comment — after the composer’s death — that the first movement klingt wie Mondschein, der auf den Vierwaldstättersee scheint (sounds like moonlight shining on Lake Lucern). Yes, the very same Rellstab whose poems were set to music by Schubert in his Schwannengesang, including the famous serenade Ständchen. The poet made his innocent remark, and the rest is history; by the end of the 19th century Beethoven’s masterpiece has become universally known as Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight sonata, Sonata al chiaro di luna, Sonate au claire de lune, Лунная соната, and so on). Music critics and pedants may be furious as much as they want, but if the “moonlight” picture didn’t have any appeal at all, it would have been long forgotten.

The sonata dedicatee, Countess Julie Guicciardi, deserves special attention. Julie (or Giulietta all’italiana) was the daughter of Count Franz Joseph Guicciardi and Countess Susanna von Brunswik to whom for a short period around 1801 the thirty-year-old composer was giving piano lessons. Giulietta, sixteen at the time, was an extraordinarily beautiful and charming young lady, full of life, and it was only a question of time for Beethoven to become infatuated with her. In a letter to a friend, he mentions a “sweet, enchanting girl” who loves him and whom he loves — however, totally excluding any idea of marriage — in part because of the difference in social status. Only to contradict himself, Beethoven did actually propose to Guicciardi, only to be rejected in favor of a boring amateur composer (yet a von) Gallenberg with whom the Countess left to Italy and was lost from Beethoven’s sight for some twenty years.

Besides the fact that she broke the composer’s heart, what is so special about the young contessa who by the caprice of circumstance became the dedicatee of one of the most famous pieces ever composed for the piano? She was definitely not the first nor the last woman in the list of Beethoven’s sentimental shipwrecks. And Beethoven back then was more often in love than out of it — Vienna supplied no shortage of sweet, enchanting girls out of his station.

Fast-forward to 1827. On March 26th (in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, to add some drama) Ludwig van Beethoven dies following a prolonged illness, aged only 56. The composer’s body is still lying in his bed when Beethoven’s personal secretary and later his biographer Anton Schindler ransacks through the musician’s papers and finds two curious letters kept separate from the rest of Beethoven’s correspondence.

The first letter written in Heiligenstadt (“Heiglnstadt” as the composer himself insisted on writing, never able to spell the town’s name correctly) on October 6th, 1802 is addressed to Beethoven’s brothers, with an ominous addendum appended a few days later — “to be read and executed after my death”. The letter opens with these words:

O ye men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do ye wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming, from childhood my heart and mind were disposed to the gentle feelings of goodwill, I was even ever eager to accomplish great deeds, but reflect now that for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of a lasting malady (whose cure will take years or, perhaps, be impossible), born with an ardent and lively temperament, even susceptible to the diversions of society, I was compelled early to isolate myself, to live in loneliness, when I at times tried to forget all this, O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men “speak louder, shout, for I am deaf.”

Despite his meteorically ascending career on century’s turn, Beethoven was gradually driven to despair by his encroaching deafness after his doctors’ remedies failed one after the other. And the painful ruins of his unsuccessful romance with Giulietta Guicciardi was the last drop in the already unbearable sense of impending personal shipwreck. It was in Heiligenstadt’s countryside where, ironically, Beethoven was sent by his physician to recover his hearing that somebody drew the composer’s attention to a distant flute tune or a shepherd’s song and he heard nothing. There and then did Beethoven ink his famous testament, being a mere step from suicide.

Fate was cruel with Beethoven depriving the musician of the most important of all senses. But he was an Artist, and it seemed impossible for him to leave the world before granting humankind all the melodies and the harmonies he was called to compose. “To my art I owe the fact that I did not end my life with suicide,” as the composer himself admitted; he pictured himself as a Greek hero seizing Fate by the throat. In a sense, Ludwig van Beethoven died and was reborn in October 1802 in Heiligenstadt’s picturesque countryside. He who returned to Vienna was a different person and a different musician. In the decade that followed, Beethoven reached the peak of his creativity and established himself as probably the most important composer of his epoch, and, possibly, of all times.

There was another letter, though, among the composer’s papers revealed after his death. Unlike the “Heiligenstadt testament”, this one was undated — well, not really undated — it said “Monday, July 6 in the morning”, but no mentioning of the year. Neither did it include an addressee, except that it was most likely addressed to an unidentified woman around thirty years of age, whose miniature portrait on ivory was found next to the letter. In those few pages written over the course of two days, Beethoven never calls her by her name. He only refers to her as meine Unsterbliche Geliebte (my Immortal Beloved).

More than two centuries have since passed and the great-grandchildren of the involved characters (at least, of those who had ones) are long dead. And yet… it doesn’t feel right to rummage through a person’s love letter — however important that person was. This passionate letter, exalted in tone, confused in thoughts, and ridden with conflicting feelings is the only known evidence of a woman in Beethoven’s life whom he loved and who fully reciprocated his love. The Immortal Beloved.

This mysterious lady’s identity puzzled a host of musicologists and music historians. She even became the protagonist of a homonymous film — Immortal Beloved — in which Beethoven is masterly played by Gary Oldman. In that movie, Schindler embarks on a search of the letter’s addressee to confer to her the letter and the composer’s estate which, according to the film, was left to her in Beethoven’s last will.

Movies tend to take a certain degree of artistic license and depict real facts in a melodramatic manner. That movie, however, is not even wrong.

First of all, Beethoven didn’t really leave an “estate” — deducing the considerable sums of money he owed to various people, the bottom line was rather modest. As befits a great man, his true legacy could not be gauged with the florin sign. And he certainly was lucid enough in his deathbed to address his testament to concrete people rather than ephemeral ladies from his past.

Secondly, the real Anton Schindler was very distant from that noble paladin that the movie tries to depict. The scoundrel took to his possession a lion’s share of Beethoven’s private correspondence (including the conversation notebooks that the composer used when his deafness became total) — many of those invaluable materials became lost forever after Schindler’s death.

Schindler, being Beethoven’s earliest biographer, identified the addressee as Giulietta Guicciardi and dated the letter as 1806. To dispel any doubt, he actually wrote the year three times in Beethoven’s letter! (There are many other crimes against history on Schindler’s list, but let’s focus on the letter.) So certain was Schindler’s aplomb that nobody dared challenge him for nearly fifty years… until someone opened a calendar and noticed that July 6th, 1806 didn’t fall on a Monday.

The only candidate year that satisfies the spatio-temporal constraints is 1812. Historians and musicologists carried out a true detective investigation, including cross-referencing other Beethoven’s letters, notebooks and even examining Teplitz’ police records and hotel registration books, as Teplitz spa resort town is known with certainty to be the place where the letter was written. (The very fact that such records exist, having survived two centuries, two world wars, and changing a handful of states without moving a meter, fills me with a mixture of bewilderment and admiration of Teutonic ordnung.)

Importantly, this investigation narrowed down the candidate list to a handful of women. By no force in the universe could it be Giulietta Guicciardi, as at the time of the events the countess was living (happily, I presume) with her von Gallenberg in the remote Naples that would certainly beat Teplitz in terms of thermal water quality.

Who was she then? The riddle remains subject to debate until today; however, numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence — such as the fact that Beethoven’s beloved’s name started with both an A and a T as well as her striking resemblance to the little portrait that was found with the letter — those little pieces all conflow to a strong suggestion that the Immortal Beloved was Antonie (Toni) Brentano.

Antonie Brentano (neé von Birkenstock) was thirteen years Beethoven’s younger. Born in Vienna to an aristocratic family, at the age of 18 she married (or, to more accurately capture the customs, was married off to) a Frankfurt merchant Franz Brentano who was about Beethoven’s age. Shortly after the wedding, she relocated from her beloved Vienna to an alien city following the stranger who became her husband and whom she continued to address with the formal Sie for many months until she got used to the friendlier du.

At the end of 1600, a Swiss physician Johannes Hofer wrote a medical dissertation in which he described a particular malady that afflicted some Swiss mercenaries — they became melancholic and depressed. The ailment seemed to be triggered when the men heard a milking song from their Helvetic valleys, and the only cure that worked for sure was to discharge the soldier and send him back home. Hofer coined the term nostalgia — from νόστος meaning “homecoming”, and ἄλγος meaning “pain” — probably as a calque of mal du pays.

Toni’s affliction with homesickness was particularly painful — she actually never recovered from it. And, besides, her life was marked by a sequence of tragic events — first the separation from her hometown, then the sudden death of her firstborn daughter Mathilde (infant mortality was very high back then and the death of a child before one year of age was considered normal — but try to tell this to a heartbroken inconsolable mother), and, shortly after, the death of her father.

Despite his busy work schedule, Franz really did his best to surround his aristocratic wife with care and make her happy — Toni’s correspondence and diaries are filled with her impressions of journeys and vacations during the first decade of their marriage. She always speaks of Franz as of a very good and caring man.

One word is missing, though, from these descriptions. The most important one — love.

Toni and Franz were and remained strangers brought by circumstance into the bonds of Catholic matrimony and the parenthood of their five children. They probably never had that level of intimacy and openness that would have allowed Toni to confess her suffering and profound unhappiness. Franz was very skilled at running his business and household, but much less so at deciphering his wife’s feelings. Without an emotional counterpart, Toni wept her untold tears in solitude and gradually descended into illness.

That period, around 1809, coincided with the news of von Birkenstock’s nearing death. Toni rushed to her father’s death bed only to see him in a coffin shortly after. She then compelled Franz and their children to stay in Vienna for three long years — beyond any reason — with the excuse of personally supervising the disposition of von Birkenstock’s vast art and manuscript collection. Franz surrendered to his wife’s request transferring his Frankfurt business to an associate and opening a Viennese branch. He was, indeed, a good man and an affectionate husband.

Albeit shattered by her father’s death, Toni for the first time in many years was able to find a shard of solace and even happiness barred from her in Frankfurt. It was then, during that bittersweet temporary residence in Vienna that she met Beethoven. Her admiration — if not veneration — of his music quickly grew into a tender friendship. During her darkest and most desolate moments, Toni would withdraw to her room unwilling to accept visitors. And then Beethoven would come, sit at the pianoforte, and play. Play his ordinarily beautiful music. One that was never dignified with an opus number. One that remained only between Toni and Ludwig. And then he would leave as he had come — without a word. How could words compete with the universe of feelings that the skilled fingers extracted from the ebonies and the ivories?

When did this earnest friendship transform into love?

It is very difficult to tell with certainty, as there exist only circumstantial bits of evidence. In 1811, Beethoven puts to music Josef Stoll’s song entitled An die Geliebte (To the beloved — not to be confused with the song cycle An die ferne Geliebte — To the distant beloved — composed in 1816, even though they are likely to address the same woman.) Anyway, I’m referring to the song whose first stanza goes like this:

O daß ich dir vom stillen Auge
In seinem liebevollen Schein,
Die Thräne von der Wange sauge,
Eh’ sie die Erde trinket ein.
O, if only from your quiet eye
in its love-filled gleam
I might drink the tears from your cheek,
before the earth drinks them in!

The song bears no dedication, but the accompaniment is composed for “guitar or klavier” — a rather unusual choice for the composer. Considering that Antonie Brentano was a skilled guitarist, that song was, undoubtedly, a token of Beethoven’s appreciation. This means that by 1811 Ludwig and Toni were already more than “just friends”.

What happened then in that summer 1812, what caused Beethoven to scribble that letter, those ten tiny pages filled with longing and desire for the unnamed woman, the hopes for the relationship with whom grow darker with every line and end with a resignation to the impossibility of their love?

And, more importantly, how did it so happen that the letter was found in the composer’s drawer fifteen years later?

It is very unlikely that this secret will ever be resolved. In the absence of certainty, I invite you, my reader, to let your fantasy (or almost) fly.

The Brentanos arrived in Prague on July 3rd following to Karlsbad (or, as it is called nowadays, Karlovy Vary — Král Karel craved for Clara’s corals… but also loved to bathe) — in any case, they proceeded to Karlsbad the following morning staying in the Das Auge Gottes (God’s Eye) guesthouse. The same guesthouse where Beethoven arrived several days later — also from Prague. What did exactly god’s eye witness that night in Prague?

Could it be that that night Antonie promised to leave her husband and her family and stay in Vienna with Ludwig in her desperate pursuit of happiness? And Beethoven — for whom accepting Antonie’s love meant betraying a friend who esteemed him and whom he loved and esteemed dearly — after a few days of hell and heaven, decided that he could not. He rejected the offer of the only woman in his life who reciprocated his love, sacrificing her and his own happiness. But then, he never had the courage to mail that letter — like a decade before when he couldn’t pull that trigger…

Or, maybe he did and she gave him his letter back when she came to say her farewell on her way to Frankfurt.

Or, perhaps, it was Antonie who decided to extinguish her romantic outburst to save herself and her family from ruin. Could it be that that summer she came to terms with her husband, stopped chasing chimeras, and found her quiet happiness with him and their children? And little Karl Josef, born in Frankfurt eight months later, was a token of that reconciliation?

Or could it be that she realized too late that she allowed herself to get carried away, but nonetheless was able to stop a step before the abyss? At the expense of not allowing Karl Josef’s real father to ever see his son. Could it be then that several years later the irreverent rationalist Ludwig van Beethoven composed a Catholic mass — his magnum opus, Misa Solemnis — to console the wretched pious mother whose youngest child was diagnosed with an incurable devastating illness (of probable neurologic nature)?

Despite the obvious anachronism, when I listen to or play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata’s slow movement, I simply can’t refrain from thinking of this unhappy love story that was subordinated to morals. Fortunately, the beauty of music is that it allows ample interpretation…

Following the fateful summer of 1812, the composer’s emotional and creative life suffered a meltdown resulting in a barren period — until nearly the end of the decade. Not exactly barren, though — it was as if a titan was asleep accumulating forces to burst out and reinvent his music — for the second and final time…

The Brentanos returned to Frankfurt shortly after their summer voyage, and Antonie dedicated the rest of her life to charity and culture, almost single-handedly creating the city’s salon tradition. She died in 1869, aged 89, outliving her husband Franz by twenty-five years and witnessing the deaths of five of her six children. And she had never ever returned to Vienna again.

Among the numerous letters left after Antonie’s death, a few yellowed pages were found filled with the names of her friends who had died. A memento mori she started recording at some point in her life.

The first entry reads “Beethoven, March 26, 1827.”

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