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In praise of Beethoven, on his birthday

December 16, 2022

Beethoven is the most interesting human who ever lived. What a cat. What a story.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

If you made a movie about a deaf man becoming the greatest composer in the history of the world — including into the future — people would say, “Nah. Too corny: never happen.”

As if they knew better than the world.

What a load that man carried. He didn’t know he was carrying it for us, but he was, though we didn’t exist yet — no ears to hear.

Beethoven was a short, ugly, barrel-chested, swarthy, pockmarked guy with unruly black hair, a look in his eyes, and frustrated love in his heart ...

A letter survives from a princess to whom Beethoven proposed marriage. She wrote to another princess that perhaps she should have accepted, “because everyone says he’s a genius,” but that she couldn’t do it, because “he’s so ugly, and half crazy.”

Poor Beethoven. The most richly endowed of all of us … to have to live a life like that.

I find it remarkable that despite all the drama the tragedy of his life, no one yet has made a decent movie about him. Maybe it’s because there’s not much action in the last decades of his life: from the day he realized he was losing his hearing until the day he died in pain, miserably, in a rented room. 

I’ve spent years trying to write a screenplay about him: stalled in Act I, because what, really, can you do with Beethoven’s story, aside from letting him write the soundtrack?

All that any human hands could do with Beethoven’s story would detract from it.

The movie: Show Beethoven at his desk, pounding out contrapuntal rhythms with hands and feet, bellowing themes from the Grosse Fuge in his deaf man’s voice, occasionally putting quill to paper. For hours on end?

Who’d want to watch that?

That’s where the movie moguls have us. They can make things up to get out of a tight spot.

Most of us are not allowed to do that. Nor was Beethoven.

Some true tales from his life:

With the Turks’ cannons approaching the gates of Vienna, and severe political repression in the Homeland, Beethoven roared in his favorite tavern, in his deaf man’s voice, that the German Emperor should be hanged from the nearest tree.

And he got away with it.

‘Cause who’d want to be the guy who prosecuted Beethoven?

For what?

The best short reminiscences of Beethoven come from the wonderful, and cheap, Dover Books paperback: “Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries,” edited by Oscar Sonneck.

These are eyewitness reports from people who knew Beethoven or met him, or cast eyes upon him.

Beethoven hated to take pupils, unless they were young countesses — and then … maybe.

One of his favorite students was Carl Czerny, whose Etudes are way too familiar to anyone who ever tried to play Classical piano.

Czerny said that Beethoven didn’t mind technical mistakes — wrong notes — but he could not abide failures in expression: misinterpreting a musical phrase. Beethoven became so enraged during one piano lesson that he bit a student on the shoulder — not for wrong notes, but for misinterpreting Beethoven’s meaning — for playing it the wrong way.

One stormy night in Vienna, Beethoven was informed, or thought he had been informed, or imagined, that Prince Lobkowitz had said something slighting about one of Beethoven’s compositions. So Beethoven, in dudgeon, trekked through the muddy streets of Vienna, in a cold rainstorm, up to Lobkowitz’s castle. On the other side of town.

Now, Prince Lobkowitz was one of three nobles who was keeping Beethoven alive — paying his bills — through annual subsidies, so long as Beethoven stayed in Vienna: for the glory of the city. On this night, Beethoven found the Prince at dinner, with other noblemen, in the castle. 

Beethoven, covered with mud and dripping wet, marched past the table right up to the Prince, hollered, “Lobkowitz, you ass!” Then tromped on out of there, through the storm, to his rented room.

True story. Several witnesses.

When I cast my eyes up to Beethoven, day after day, he reminds me of all the times when I whined about trifles as a youngster, and my Mom said: “You ain’t got it so bad, Buster.”

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