Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries compiles remembrances of the great composer by his friends, teachers and fellow artists. The collection, now in public domain, presents “a remarkably full and convincing picture of Beethoven and his time.” In honor of the worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, here’s a sample of the volume’s many vignettes.
Biographer Anton Schindler, who proudly printed on his visiting card “L’ami di Beethoven” (A friend of Beethoven), offered this snapshot of Beethoven when he was in travail with his Missa solemnis in 1819. Fellow biographer Alexander Whitlock Thayer, when quoting Schindler, observed that Beethoven “presents us with a pathetic, impressive, almost terrifying picture of the state to which his labor lifted” him.
Toward the end of August, accompanied by the musician Johann Horsalka, still living in Vienna, I arrived at the master’s home in Modling. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. As soon as we entered, we learned that in the morning, both servants had gone away, and that there had been a quarrel after midnight which had disturbed all the neighbors; as a consequence of a long vigil, both had gone to sleep and the food which had been prepared had become unpalatable. In the living room, behind a locked door, we heard the master singing parts of the fugue in the Credo, singing, howling, stamping.
After we had been listening a long time to this almost awful scene and were about to go away, the door opened, and Beethoven stood before us with distorted features, calculated to excite fear. He looked as if he had been in mortal combat with the whole host of contrapuntists, his everlasting enemies. His first utterances were confused, as if he had been disagreeably surprised at our having overheard him.
Then with obvious restraint, he remarked: “Pretty doings, these! Everybody has run away, and I haven’t had anything to eat since yesternoon!” I tried to calm him and helped him to make his toilet. My companion hurried on in advance to the restaurant of the bathing establishment to have something made ready for the famished master. Then he complained about the wretched state of his domestic affairs, but here, for reasons already stated, there was nothing to be done. Never, it may be said, did so great an artwork as is the Missa solemnis see its creation under more adverse circumstances.
Note: As part of its multi-season tribute to Beethoven on his 250th birth anniversary, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform the composer’s Missa solemnis under Riccardo Muti on Sept. 24-26.