Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Music

August excerpt: Beethoven for a Later Age


“Opus 18, no. 1: Beethoven’s Painful Secret”*

From his earliest days in Vienna Beethoven associated some of his compositions with friendship—a means by which to repair a disagreement or cement a relationship threatened by separation. One year after his arrival in Vienna, the twenty-three-year-old composer wrote to Eleonore von Breuning, his piano student and close childhood friend in Bonn. Beethoven blamed himself for a quarrel between them and hoped he could make amends by dedicating a short piano piece to her. In a lighter vein Beethoven composed his duet for viola and cello, ‘With Two Eyeglasses Obbligato,’ to play with his friend, the amateur Viennese cellist Nikolaus Zsemskall—both men were short-sighted.

In the second half of 1798, the Bohemian Prince Franz Joseph Maximilian von Lobkowitz—himself a competent singer, violinist and cellist—commissioned both the aging Haydn and his talented student to write six string quartets. Haydn would compose only the two Opus 77s and the unfinished Opus 103, hindered by other obligations and failing health. Towards the end of 1798 Beethoven began work on what would become his six Opus 18 quartets, and had probably finished them by 18 October 1800, when he received the second installment of a fee totaling four hundred florins from Prince Lobkowitz. This was a significant sum,more than half the amount it is estimated that someone in Beethoven’s situation would have needed to support himself for a year.

Beethoven’s work on his new quartets became intertwined with old and new relationships. By 25 June 1799, he had finished the first version of Opus 18, no. 1 and gave it as ‘a small token’ of friendship to Karl Amenda, a violinist with whom he had become friends following Amenda’s arrival in Vienna in spring 1798. Amenda was a year older than Beethoven and had trained in Lutheran theology at the University of Jena. After he moved to Vienna, he became the music teacher of Mozart’s children. Later in the summer of 1799, the death of his brother forced Amenda to return to his home town of Courland, in Latvia. In honor of their friendship Beethoven made him a gift of Opus 18, no. 1, entreating him to remember the times they had spent together.

Beethoven complained to Amenda at this time of a broken heart, likely caused not so much by Amenda’s imminent departure as by the marriage plans of one of Beethoven’s piano students, Joesphine von Brunsvik. In May that year, Josephine’s mother Anna had brought Josephine and her sister Therese to Vienna and persuaded Beethoven to give them piano lessons. Beethoven’s acquaintance with the family and possible infatuation with Josephine seems to have caused an interruption to his work on Opus 18, no. 1. Five years later, after the death of Josephine’s first husband, Beethoven would repeatedly declare his love for her, recalling that when he had first met her in 1799 he had been determined not to let himself fall in love. It seems rather more likely that Josephine was responsible for discouraging his overtures than that the young musician heroically repressed the desires of his heart. Whether or not her impending marriage was the cause of Beethoven’s distress in the summer of 1799, Beethoven fell in love easily and frequently: a broken heart was a common emotional state for the sensitive composer who craved depth and intensity in his relationships.

Amenda’s departure from Vienna may have contributed to Beethoven’s anguish. Over a year later, Amenda wrote to Beethoven explaining that he had fallen in love and was likely to settle for good in Courtland, but that when he played or listened to Beethoven’s music, ‘All of the ardent feelings awaken in me in the liveliest manner, [feelings] that your company itself inspired in me. It seems to me as if I must then get away from here and go to you, to the source of my most tender and most animated sentiments.’ Amenda feared—correctly—that hey might never see each other again, and entreated Beethoven never to forget him.

The overt emotion in Amenda’s letter was reciprocated. In the summer of 1801 Beethoven shared a painful secret with him:

How often would I like to have you here with me, for your B is leading a very              unhappy life and is at variance with Nature and his Creator. Many times already        I have cursed Him for exposing His creatures to the slightest hazard, so that the        most beautiful blossom is thereby often crushed and destroyed. Let me tell you          that my most prized possession, my hearing , has greatly deteriorated. When you      were still with me, I already felt the symptoms; but I said nothing about them.          Now they have become very much worse.

Franz Wegeler was another of only a few close friends in whom Beethoven confided: ‘For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social functions, just because I find it impossible to say to people: I am deaf.’

Beethoven’s professional situation, however, was now much better than it had been during his first years in Vienna. Publishers competed to publish his works, and as a result he was able to charge a higher fee for his compositions. He could now afford his own apartment and servant, although the increased independence was itself facilitated by Prince Lichnowsky, who paid him an annuity of six hundred gulden (or florins).

Some time after the composition and publication of Opus 18, Lichnowsky further demonstrated his belief in Beethoven’s string quartet projects by purchasing a quartet of Italian string instruments for him: violins by Joseph Guarnerius and Nicolò Amati, a viola by Vincenzo Rugeri and a cello by Andreas Guarnerius. The seal of Beethoven, stamped under the neck of the instruments, must have not seemed adequate proof of ownership: Beethoven took matters into his own hands, scratching a big B on the back of each instrument. Although Beethoven himself played the violin and viola, given his hearing problems it seems most likely that the primary beneficiaries of this purchase would have been Schuppanzigh and his quartet colleagues.

Thus Beethoven composed his Opus 18 quartets at a time when considerable professional recognition could not keep at bay feelings of social isolation, caused in a large part by his increased deafness and frustrations about his Viennese friends, many of whom he dared not to tell about his condition. To Amenda he worried not so much about the danger to his professional abilities as about the devastating effect on the his social interactions. In 1824 Goethe would describe a string quartet as ‘four rational people conversing with each other.’ Grieving the loss of companionship, Beethoven created his own ideal dialogues in his Opus 18 quartets, conversations in which he held complete control.

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets by Edward Dusinberre (2016).


To read more about Beethoven for a Later Age, click here.