Immortal Beloved

14 Jul

Ludwig van Beethoven remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, a household name even for non-musicians. He was a virtuoso pianist and composed 9 symphonies, 5 concertos for piano, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. What he is lesser known for, perhaps, is the Unsterbliche Geliebte (German for ‘Immortal Beloved’) – the mysterious addressee of a love letter which he wrote on 6–7 July 1812 in Teplitz. The apparently unsent letter, written in pencil and consisting of three parts, was found in the composer’s estate after his death. At the time even an exact dating of the letter and identification of the addressee was speculative, since Beethoven did not specify a year or a location. It was only in the 1950s that an analysis of the paper’s watermark yielded the year, and by extension the place. To this day, however, scholars have been divided on the intended recipient of the Immortal Beloved letter. This intriguing musical mystery inspired a Hollywood adaptation, 1994’s Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven, which focuses on the efforts of the great composer’s biographer Anton Schindler to ascertain the identity of the intended recipient of the famous letter. While the film, and the many theories put forward in the years both before and since, have identified some likely candidates, a definitive solution to this particular mystery remains somewhat elusive.

Beethoven’s musical talents alone make him an impressive figure – what has given him semi-mythical status is the fact that many of his most admired musical works were composed in the last decade of his life, when he was almost totally deaf. Beethoven composed his own early works in the shadow of Mozart (there are unconfirmed reports that the two musical legends once met in Vienna) but he soon developed his own distinctive style, which swiftly gained him widespread recognition in lofty places. In May 1799, Beethoven taught piano to the daughters of Hungarian Countess Anna Brunsvik. During this time, Beethoven fell in love with the younger daughter Josephine, who has therefore been identified as one of the more likely candidates for the addressee of his Immortal Beloved letter (even though, shortly after these lessons, Josephine was married to Count Josef Deym). What is known for certain is that it was at the spa town of Teplitz in 1812, where he was resting on doctor’s orders, that Beethoven wrote the love letter. The entire letter is written on 10 small pages, in Beethoven’s rather inconsistent handwriting, and makes interesting reading. It is full of almost over the top declarations of the composer’s love for his Immortal Beloved: he describes her as “My angel, my everything, my very self”, he describes their love as “a true edifice in Heaven” and he begs her never to misjudge his “most faithful heart”. The letter famously ends: “Forever thine, forever mine, forever us”.

Speculation as to the identity of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved really took off in the 1840s after the publication of Schindler’s biography of the great composer. Schindler seemed to suspect Julie Guicciardi, an Austrian countess who was briefly a piano student of Beethoven’s. However, Schindler’s biography was long ago found to be extremely unreliable, with many well-documented forgeries (including the destruction of documents, letters and conversation books). A candidate who was more preferred by scholars was Antonie Brentano, a philanthropist, art collector, and arts patron whose husband briefly made the acquaintance of Beethoven. The evidence in support of this theory is, however, at best circumstantial. Most scholarly theories these days seem to point back to Josephine Brunsvik, mainly on the basis that her husband was away for a long period in 1812 (when the letter was written). Supporters of the ‘Antonie theory’ point out, in return, that during this period Beethoven was actually spending more time with her and that Antonie gave birth to a child less than nine months after the letter was written. There is no proof, however, that Beethoven was sexually involved with his Immortal Beloved – or anyone else for that matter. Yet she was the object of his deep desire to be married. Without her, Beethoven seemingly gave up hope for such a life and all that we are left with is a love letter frozen in time – perhaps the ultimate testament to unrequited love.

2 Responses to “Immortal Beloved”

  1. Bruce Orton July 15, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    Nothing like an immortal mystery to provide grist for writers.


  1. Anilbalan tackles Beethoven enigma: Immortal Beloved | Hugh Paxton's Blog - July 14, 2013

    […] Immortal Beloved […]

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