Monday, August 12, 2013

Which bios d'ya read?

These days I’ve been breezing through Alan Pryce-Jones slim little study of Beethoven. The book repeats my favorite anecdote about the composer, which ends with his stunningly arrogant -- and accurate -- assertion of his own historical importance. I quote Pryce-Jones’ version in full (pp. 61-62):

In 1805, while Beethoven was staying at the Schloß Grätz with one of his earliest and kindest benefactors, Prince Lichnowsky, a French officer, among other French officers also staying at the house, was rash enough to ask Beethoven if he “also understood the violin.” This question so annoyed him that he flatly refused to play for the party, quarreled with the host, and left the house on foot, there and then, carrying the manuscript of the Appassionata sonata under his arm through heavy rain. On his arrival in Vienna he wrote to the Prince:

“What you are, you are through accident and birth. What I am, I am through my own efforts. There are princes and there will be thousands of princes more, but there is only one Beethoven.”

Yet, though this is only one example of his churlishness to Lichnowsky, their friendship was eventually restored. This particular piece of bad manners is sometimes excused by the picture of a patriot outraged by the presence of his conquerors; but since in the same year Beethoven played Gluck to a gathering of French generals who sang to his accompaniment, it does not seem a reasonable excuse

This account is contradicted on several points by Philippe A. Autexier, who also relates the incident in own slim (and beautifully illustrated) biography, Beethoven: The Composer as Hero. Again, I quote in full (p. 61):

One evening in October 1806, when Beethoven was staying at Prince Lichnowsky’s castle in Ostrava, his host promised his French guests the opportunity to hear Beethoven play piano. But Beethoven disappeared. He did not want to perform -- above all, not before officers in Napoleon’s army. The prince insisted. Beethoven became angry and fled the castle on foot, in the pouring rain. The next day, before returning to Vienna, he wrote Lichnowsky: “Prince! What you are, you are by chance and by birth. What I am, I am by myself. There have been, there will be, thousands of Princes. There is only one Beethoven.” Unhappily for Beethoven, however, there were few princes like Lichnowsky. The dispute that fall caused a total break. For the composer, it meant the loss of his 600 florins yearly and, most serious, of his most reliable friend, whose devotion never faltered in any circumstance.

The two versions agree on some particulars: Beethoven was staying with Prince Lichnowsky, there were French officers present, and it was raining. Everything else is open to question or interpretation: The year was 1805 or 1806. Beethoven’s departure was a patriotic act or a fit of pique over an unintended insult. The composer wrote his letter after his return to Vienna or just before, and the break it caused was either total or eventually repaired.

The letter is essentially the same in both instances, allowing for variations in translation, and for me, it has always been the best part of the story. There is only one Beethoven, and he is worth more than all the nobility combined. To say something so outrageous to a friend and a patron -- and to be right -- shows an awareness of one’s gifts and achievements few of us will ever experience, princes or not. Beethoven, whose personal and emotional life was a mess, must have felt a godlike sense of power and control while he was composing. He knew what he was, and what he was capable of.

Yet even the letter is doubtful. Wanting the original, definitive story --how naïve is that? -- I looked it up in Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, your one-stop shop for all things Ludwig, and found yet another version (p. 403), which differs in detail from both Pryce-Jones and Autexier. In this one, quoted verbatim from a mere appendix in Seyfried’s Studien, the French officers (not the prince) pestered Beethoven to play, which he refused to do because he regarded it as “menial labor,” and he stormed out only when one of them, in jest, threatened to have him arrested.

Thayer relegates the letter to a footnote with the following comment: “Authentic or not, it may well have come from the lips of Beethoven in a fit of anger.” In this telling, the titan’s manifesto is reduced to something he might have said.

Moreover, according to the footnote, the earliest mention of the letter dates from the Aug. 31, 1873, edition of the Wiener Deutscher Zeitung, which printed the recollections of a grandson of Dr. Weiser, Prince Lichnowsky’s house physician. It is therefore a second-hand recollection, told nearly seventy years after the event. Nor does the letter itself appear in my copy of Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations.

Surely, something happened that October night in 1806 (the year is confirmed by Thayer and Seyfried), but that wonderful, Nietzschean assertion of the will to power, which for me had become something of a creative ideal, remains at best a conjecture. It seems biographies are never definitive. They are rarely ever stable. I should remember that when I read any new study of Ives.

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