Beethoven. Sure, he was the deaf, scowling musical genius with the wild hair. But those who knew him thought of him a little differently. We’ll take a look at some little-known quirks of the great composer, culled from documented recollections of his friends and acquaintances, biographies, and my conversation with John Suchet, author of Beethoven: The Man Revealed.
Suchet, a classical music radio host at London's Classic FM, spoke with me on Zoom about his chatty, personal look at the man behind the music. Our conversation covered not only Beethoven's music, but many other aspects of his complex personality including his romantic life, his health, and his characteristic stubbornness.
There's no dearth of quirky details about this musical great; from the historically documented to the charming anecdotal rumors; stories collected in the standard biographies by Schindler, Solomon, and Thayer as well as in books such as Beethoven: Impressions of Contemporaries (G. Schirmer Inc.1926), The Letters of Ludwig Van Beethoven (J.M. Dent 1909), Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music, by Robert Haven Schauffler (Doubleday Doran 1929), The Changing Image of Beethoven by Alessandra Comini (Rizzoli 1987).
While it's certainly possible to love Beethoven's music without knowing very much about the man who wrote it, the complexities of his character add layers of depth that make the music all the more poignant and meaningful. Here are some of the stories I found compelling that show this musical genius in a more human light.
Even though he is often portrayed with a scowl, he loved to laugh and was a practical joker. One of his favorite pranks was to hide behind an open door and jump out to scare his visitors. His friends were often the butt of musical jokes. He wrote little songs about them.
The same man who wrote the powerful "Ode to Joy" poked fun at his overweight violinist friend with a work he called "In Praise of the Fat One," which includes the line "Schuppanzigh ist ein Lump" or "Schuppanzigh is a Rogue" (although the German word Lump sounds funnier) and he concludes the piece with the lyrics "we all agree that you are the biggest ass."
In Beethoven: Impressions of his Contemporaries, one woman described him as "short and insignificant with an ugly red face full of pockmarks. His hair was very dark and hung tousled about his face. His attire was very ordinary and not remotely of the choiceness that was customary in our circles."
Another described his hair as "untouched by scissors or comb." He certainly didn't care much about his appearance. Some friends even went so far as to steal his old worn out clothes from where he had tossed them about his room and replace them with new outfits. He never even noticed. He put on his new pants and jackets without a second glance.
His teeth were very white and straight and they made such an impression that two of his friends even remarked on them in writing.
Food and Drink:
As Impressions of his Contemporaries makes clear, he was very particular about his food and his servants. He loved a sort of bread pudding soup, which he ate on Thursdays with 10 eggs on a separate plate. He carefully examined the eggs, breaking them and sniffing them before stirring them into the mush.
He once fired a cook for lying because as he put it, "Anyone who tells a lie has not a pure heart and cannot make a good soup."
He felt that 60 coffee beans made the perfect cup of coffee and he counted them out himself!
Sorry to say, but Beethoven was a klutz. Another of his contemporaries remembered, "His clumsy movements lacked all grace. He seldom picked up anything with his hand without dropping it or breaking it. No furniture was safe from him, least of all a valuable piece; all was overturned, dirty and destroyed."
The same went for his pianos. On several occasions, he upset his inkwell into the piano. And he was often breaking piano strings with his exuberant playing. His biggest requirement of a piano was that it be "sturdy."
Another acquaintance mused, "How he managed to shave himself is hard to understand, even making allowance for the many cuts upon his cheeks. And he never learned to dance in time to the music."
Beethoven acknowledged it, writing to the composer Ferdinand Ries: "Beethoven can write music, thank God, but he can do nothing else on Earth." (The Letters of Ludwig Van Beethoven, by Dr. A.C. Kalischer (J.M. Dent and Company 1909)
Beethoven was a hopeless romantic and fell in love many times with women who ultimately rejected him. He proposed marriage to three different women, each of whom turned him down. He had very few friends, because he usually managed to insult or upset them.
And yet, Beethoven had plenty of self-esteem.
A well-known tale that pops in almost every biography goes like this: While playing a private piano recital for one of his royal patrons, Beethoven happened to glance at the audience and noticed a certain Count Palffy chatting with a woman, paying no attention to the music. Beethoven stopped playing, slammed his fists on the keyboard, shouted at the audience "I won't play for swine!" and stormed out.
And in The Letters of Ludwig Van Beethoven, there is one to his patron Prince Lichnowsky, in which he wrote: "Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am of myself. There are and there will be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven."