On this day in 1827, Ludwig van Beethoven died at the age of 57. He completed nine symphonies, twelve concertos, numerous arrangements, sonatas, trios, and quartets. He was a prolific composer whose impact on the musical world and western art is immeasurable. He was young when be began to lose his hearing, and there was at least one distinct moment when he weighed the burden of his life against the value of his art. At that moment, Beethoven considered the possibility of ending his life.
In 1802, he moved to Heiligenstadt, a short distance from Vienna, to rest while facing the reality of his deafness. In October, he wrote a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann in which he expressed his grief and anguish over his loss of hearing, lamenting incidents when, for instance, a flute played but he could not hear it. Of these incidents he wrote the following: “Little more and I would have put an end to my life –only art it was withheld me, as it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce.” He was twenty-eight years old when he wrote this letter, but kept it secret. It was only made public after his death.
I have always been fascinated and inspired by his reasoning to refrain from ending his life, that the world demanded he keep composing. I think of it as a humble and intellectually sophisticated approach to his struggle; he could not hear music, but his community could, and he felt he had an obligation to contribute. His life could continue so long as his ability to compose remained, even if he could only imagine the music he produced, the applause he received, and the praises of his family.
Although I find it inspiring that he allowed his art to take precedence over his misery, I wonder about other artists, musicians, and writers who chose to commit suicide. Could Ernest Hemingway have written one more novel? Was Sylvia Plath depleted of poems? What more would Vincent van Gogh have painted had he held out a few more years? I cannot speculate about most artists, but I know that if Beethoven had chosen to end his life when he seems to have considered it most seriously, we would not have his third symphony Eroica, his D Major violin concerto, or my favorite of his late string quartets.
I know too many people who contemplate suicide regularly. They are my close friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Today, I think, it is easy to romanticize Beethoven’s life and call him a tortured artist. In truth, there is nothing romantic about considering suicide. Most, if not all, writers who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder will tell you that it’s detrimental to creativity. But despite the darkness that so many of us inhabit, I know many people for whom art is the only sustenance. I know poets, musicians, painters, and writers who contemplate suicide but feel joy and meaning in their creative outlets. For them, art is a necessity during the worst periods of depression, no matter how difficult creativity can become during those periods.
I don’t know if we can determine that Beethoven suffered depression by current medical standards, but I think more honestly we can say that he found himself questioning the value of life and decided that there existed something more important than, and yet at the same time dependent upon, his life. I think that this is a great paradox for artists: what sustains the artist is a product of the artist’s own efforts. It is a positive cycle. I know that when life no longer feels worth living, I can take comfort in Beethoven’s decision, and like him I can treat my life like the rough draft of a magnum opus.
Fantastic and thoughtful post. I love the late quartets, too. I didn’t know that Beethoven considered ending his life in his 20s when he started to lose his hearing. Up till that point, I think he was treated like a rock star of his age–his performances were sold out. Would he have created such masterpieces had he not gone deaf, which probably deepened his emotional response to life. Now that I’m almost two years older than he when he died, I find his desire to keep contributing inspiring. Thanks. Do you mind if I reblog this entry?
Thanks! And feel free to reblog it.
Reblogged this on Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac and commented:
A very thoughtful post from a fellow blogger which leads me to ask the question, would Beethoven: would Beethoven have been as great a composer if he hadn’t lost his hearing in his late twenties? Let me know what you think.
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