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Three Beethoven Myths to Banish: Immortal by Jessica Duchen

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Memoir | Non-Fiction

By Jessica Duchen

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Writing Immortal, my historical novel about Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved”, I’ve ploughed through skyscrapers of books about the composer, so many that I’ve found myself wondering whether adding yet another is sensible. The bizarre thing, though, is how much we still seem not to know, even 250 years after his birth (the anniversary is in December) – and how many myths remain prevalent, despite all.

After Beethoven’s death in 1827, his secretary Anton Schindler and two friends found a hidden drawer in his apartment. It contained the “Heiligenstadt Testament”, in which he had attempted to confess his devastating deafness to his brothers; two miniature portraits of unknown women; and a scrawled letter in pencil declaring undying love to someone addressed only as “my Immortal Beloved”.

Her identity was so well concealed – not least by Beethoven himself – that it took around 100 years for anyone to begin figuring it out. Numerous red herrings have caused confusion, from the idea that she was merely his fantasy, to the ingenious but imaginary solution portrayed in the 1990s film Immortal Beloved.

The first myth to bust is the idea that we still do not know who she was. Thanks to recently published research – into a story that has been known of for nearly a century, but overshadowed by vitriolic academic fights – the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, the leading institution for Beethoven research, now acknowledges a 90 per cent likelihood that she was Countess Josephine Brunsvik von Korompa, a Hungarian noblewoman who became Beethoven’s pupil in 1799.

Unfortunately the only way to prove the final 10 per cent would involve exhuming the composer and Josephine’s daughter for a DNA test – an unlikely outcome. Still, Josephine’s story walks, talks and quacks like the finest of ducks. Its saga extends over more than 20 years, growing larger and more significant than has generally been thought and wielding a powerful influence upon Beethoven’s life and music.

Jessica Duchen

The next myth is related: it concerns Beethoven’s supposed lack of personal appeal. Legend suggests of a man who was some or all of ugly, uncouth, filthy and mad. What woman would fall in love with such an individual? This attitude ignores one truism that anybody with half an eye on today’s pop stars can see immediately: nothing attracts the adulation of the opposite sex as much as fame, charisma and musical talent.

Beethoven was no exception. He had a hell of a temper, he shouted through both deafness and frustration, and on one occasion (though only one) he was mistaken for a tramp – which was soon after Josephine’s death in 1821. But he was neither so ugly, nor (mostly) filthy, and his spirited letters and conversation books prove that he was saner than most. A portrait painted around the time he first met the Brunsvik sisters has often reminded me of someone else. I’ve just realised it’s Laurence Olivier.

“O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret causes of my seeming,” Beethoven wrote at the beginning of his “Heiligenstadt Testament”. Feeling humiliated by his hearing loss, he chose to avoid social situations. He writes: “…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.” His suffering breaks our hearts, but his resilience can inspire us all. “I shall seize fate by the throat,” he wrote soon afterwards to his friend Franz Wegeler. “It shall not wholly overcome me.”

Indeed, it did not. There, then, is the third myth to bust: that Beethoven was stone deaf. Obviously hisdeafness is not a complete myth, but although the condition began to develop while he was still in his twenties, it worsenws relatively slowly over the years and there is even some evidence that he retained a little bit of hearing in his left ear (see this article). Meanwhile he tried all manner of contraptions to help himself: specially designed ear-trumpets, a metal hood on top of his piano that amplified sounds, and a wooden stick that he could place against his jawbone to convey the vibration of notes from the piano to his inner ear.

It is to our advantage that he often conversed through asking visitors to write their words either in his “conversation books” or on an erasable slate. We know that the “Immortal Beloved” was a real person not least because he says, at the beginning of the famous letter, that he is writing it with her pencil. Imaginary muses do not generally carry pencils. And here we are, full circle…

(c) Jessica Duchen

About Immortal by Jessica Duchen:

Who was Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’?

After Ludwig van Beethoven’s death, a love letter in his writing was discovered, addressed only to his ‘Immortal Beloved’. Decades later, Countess Therese Brunsvik claims to have been the composer’s lost love. Yet is she concealing a tragic secret? Who is the one person who deserves to know the truth?

Becoming Beethoven’s pupils in 1799, Therese and her sister Josephine followed his struggles against the onset of deafness, Viennese society’s flamboyance, privilege and hypocrisy and the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars. While Therese sought liberation, Josephine found the odds stacked against even the most unquenchable of passions…

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Jessica Duchen writes for and about music, encompassing fiction, biography, journalism, plays, narrated concerts and opera librettos (notably Roxanna Panufnik’s Silver Birch at Garsington Opera, 2017). She was classical music correspondent for the Independent from 2004 to 2016 and has written for the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the Observer and BBC Music Magazine. Her biographies of the composers Gabriel Faure and Erich Wolfgang Korngold have met with wide acclaim and her novel Ghost Variations (Unbound, 2016) was chosen by John Suchet in the Daily Mail as his Best Read of 2016. Jessica was born in London and studied music at Cambridge. She lives in London with her violinist husband. @jessicaduchen

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