The Man


     Beethoven has the answers to all of life’s problems, and the more we learn about Beethoven, the more answers he has.
     He lived on the edge of destitution for years, but we’ve forgotten, or never learned why – or they never told us, and we didn’t bother to ask.
     For the last 18 years of his life, Beethoven was promised 4,000 florins a year from three noble sponsors. It should have been plenty. But in those 18 years Austria suffered 3,000 percent inflation.
     This was because the emperor waged two wars – one unnecessary, against “the Turk;” and one necessary, against Napoleon – and rather than alienate the spoiled aristocracy by taxing them, the emperor just printed money.
     The aristocrats were the only people who had enough money to be worth taxing, but the aristos were the emperor’s pals.
     So Austria went bankrupt.
     Twice.
     Imagine such a thing.
     Beethoven wasn’t the only one who became destitute, of course. But he’s a more interesting fellow than the aristos who were willing to see their country laid waste rather than part with a few of their inherited florins.
     The year after Austria declared bankruptcy the first time, Beethoven got a letter from a 9-year-old piano student named Emilie, who also sent a wallet she had knitted for him.
     “My Dear, Kind Emilie, My Dear Friend!” Beethoven wrote.
     “… Persevere, do not only practice your art, but endeavor also to fathom its inner meaning; it deserves this effort. For only art and science can raise men to the level of gods.
     “If, my dear Emilie, you should ever desire to have anything, do not hesitate to write to me. The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague idea how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps be admiring him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point toward which his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.
     “I should probably prefer to visit you and your family than to visit many a rich person who betrays a poverty of mind. If I should ever go to H, then I will call on you and your family. … When I find people of that sort, there is my home.”
     What a great letter, from a world-famous composer, already suffering from deafness, chronic illness and social isolation, to a little girl. It shows why people remember Beethoven today, and always will remember him, but no one remembers the pampered rulers who ruined Beethoven’s country.
     Because Beethoven had his priorities straight.
     “Only art and science can raise men to the level of gods.”
     What have we heard about art and science in this country for the past eight years? We’ve been forced to watch the aristos desecrate both of them for their own ends. And while they were at it, they did the same thing to God.
     Oh, well. Maybe things will get better now. Beethoven would want us to think so.
     Beethoven became a great man and a great artist because he faced his problems squarely. In his art, he showed us desolation and utter abandonment, but he always showed us a way out.
     Beethoven never in his life made up a way out of desolation, or promised anyone a way out; he worked his way through it. That’s why Beethoven has done more for humanity, and will continue to do more for it, than many a rich person who betrays a poverty of mind.

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