Music

Behind the wild man of Vienna: Who was the real Beethoven?

Beethoven was the most famous composer who ever lived, but what do we really know about the man beyond the carefully curated chaos?

Beethoven

Image: Photo illustration; Photo: Shutterstock

Beethoven never owned a suit.

While he was getting dressed to conduct the premiere of the ninth symphony, friends found he didn’t have a conducting jacket and had to rustle around for one that fitted his ungainly frame. Beethoven was careless of his appearance and reckless in his public conduct. Staggering home one night from a Viennese tavern, he was picked up by a police patrol and charged under the vagrancy laws. When he announced himself as Beethoven, the cops escorted him, rather respectfully, home.

Everyone knew Beethoven. He was the wild man of Vienna and, at the same time, the most famous composer that ever lived. The question is, which was the essential Beethoven?

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

His volatility was a distinguishing feature. The Freudian psychoanalyst Theodor Reik writes: “One cannot say he lost control because he had almost none.” Household staff were forever leaving him, minutes before he threw things at them. Newcomers were warned to duck. After the tumultuous first performance of the ninth symphony he booked dinner for himself and three friends at a restaurant on the Prater. Before leaving the concert hall, Beethoven stopped by the box office to check the evening’s meagre takings. He arrived last at the restaurant, roaring at his friends that they were stealing from him. All three walked out on him. On the night of his greatest triumph, Beethoven was left to dine alone, an image so pathetic it is almost defining.

Why did he act like that? One root cause is an alcoholic father who beat him and left him untrusting of those around him. Then there’s the deafness and the loneliness. He lost almost all of his hearing by the time he reached 30, the worst tragedy that could befall a musician. Deafness cut him off from colleagues and companionship, making it impossible for him to form loving relationships – if, indeed, he ever wanted to. Beethoven fell in love with a string of pretty young women who were, invariably, out of his class and beyond his reach. They had an eye out for a rich count, not a disheveled musician. Time after time, it ended with Beethoven pouring his broken heart into a song cycle or a piano sonata. So consistent was his failure in love that it was as if he was attracted only to women who would reject him. He needed to experience the emotion of love without the physical engagement. So far as it is possible to ascertain, Beethoven never had sexual relations.

In other friendships he held himself apart, didn’t want to be known by anyone, could not risk the possibility that someone he trusted might turn against him. His closest confidante was Nannette Streicher, the wife of his piano maker. Before long, he bought his pianos elsewhere. His self-isolation is, however, sophisticated and acutely self-aware. A scrap of music that turned up at a posthumous auction of Beethoven’s effects was published under the title Rage Over a Lost Penny, and hyped as an instant hit. The little piece seems to describe a man driving himself to apoplexy over a coin he has lost down the back of a sofa. Some scholars have described this as a self-portrait of Beethoven in one of his curmudgeonly explosions. Maybe it is.

But listen to the piece again. The first half is certainly a depiction of pianistic rage, only for the second half to mock the previous scene, presenting the protagonist laughing at his own excesses. Reik, the first to point this out, argues that the composer is standing back from the scene and making fun of his own “unreasonableness”.

This, in a 19th-century composer, amounts to an unprecedented degree of self-detachment and self-knowledge. It tells us that much of Beethoven’s offensive conduct and noxious habits are designed for double-effect – to observe himself in rumbustious human interactions and to prevent others from catching sight of the real Beethoven.

Everything Beethoven did was calculated to hide himself in full sight, to be deliberately unknowable to his contemporaries and to posterity. The place to look for Beethoven is in the music, where tiny hesitancies and erasures expose an occasional fragility that is, at once, endearing and reassuring. Even in the music, though, he sows confusion. When, in the final string quartet he scrawls the words “Must it be? It must be?”, is he questioning the order of notes, or the existence of life on Earth?

The more time I spend with Beethoven the less I am bothered by physical manifestations and the more I cherish his principled self-absorption. Beethoven, at his most unwashed and ill-dressed, is actually putting out a message to humanity. He is telling us that external appearances and material possessions count for nothing. An artist should be concerned only with the bigger issues. Must it be?

Damn right, it must.

Why Beethoven book cover

Norman Lebrecht is a music journalist and author

Why Beethoven: A Phenomenon in 100 Pieces by Norman Lebrecht is out now (Oneworld, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Bob Vylan: 'Is it OK for me to cry? As a man you can feel there's not space to be vulnerable'
Bob Vylan
Music

Bob Vylan: 'Is it OK for me to cry? As a man you can feel there's not space to be vulnerable'

Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community
Soweto Kinch
Music

Soweto Kinch on ripping up the jazz rulebook and how his new BBC show is building community

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'
Ardavan of The Unknowns
Music

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'
Bruce Dickinson
Letter To My Younger Self

Iron Maiden legend Bruce Dickinson: 'You don’t need some rock star saying war is a bad thing'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know