Immortal Beloved Controversy
Beethoven wrote his famous love letter to a woman he named only as “my immortal beloved” – his metaphor for “my eternally beloved one.” Her identity is a mystery that has tantalized scholars and classical music lovers for almost two hundred years, resulting in a short list of competing candidates, whose supporting “search parties” each claim to have solved the mystery.
I myself do not claim to have “solved the mystery,” but based on existing evidence, I accept one as the only possible candidate. My original contribution is of providing a new reading of Beethoven’s letter and of “cleaning” the evidence of many layers of obstructing speculations that scholarly research has added during the last one hundred-odd years, and thus give the reader the opportunity to reach their conclusion … hopefully not different from mine.
The first chapter of the book displays the “exhibit zero”: Beethoven’s letter to his Immortal Beloved. It sums up the long history of the scholarly detective work, which has to cope with sparse and conflictual evidence. Ultimately, the only detail established with certainty is the when and where of the letter: Beethoven wrote it in Tepliz (a Bohemia spa in what was then part of the Habsburg Empire; now Teplice in the Czech Republic) on July 6-7, 1812; he intended to mail it to Karlsbad, another Bohemian spa, where he thought his beloved was. There is no consensus for the identity of the beloved, but only a sketchy profile of her: she was a former love of Beethoven; she was married and very likely an aristocrat living in Vienna; and she had children – the latter being the only circumstance that would create, in the patriarchal world of the time and under the nobility code, a moral dilemma for her that would eventually force her to end their relationship. There was one more unanimous conclusion: Beethoven’s consistent use of the intimate second person singular pronoun (“du” in German) to address his beloved (a unique case in his many known letters to women) is significant: according to the custom and social etiquette of the upper educated classes of the time, “du” was used only between very intimate partners (spouses and lovers), and only in private, as it acknowledged the sexual fulfillment of a relationship between adults.
The book proceeds, in Part I, to present the “cleaned” evidence in the case. Since this is a love story mystery, Chapter 2 builds a portrait of “Beethoven in love” prior to the Immortal Beloved episode, drawing also portraits of the known women of his heart, several of whom became candidates who are still in contention. These portraits display Beethoven’s dominant “love pattern” – he almost always fell for unobtainable aristocratic women: Countess Julie Guicciardi (1802), soon to be married within her class; her cousin Josephine Brunsvik-Deym (1804-7), when she was a widow; Countess Marie Erdödy (1808-9), whom her husband had abandoned with three small children; Baroness Therese Malfatti (1810), who was set to marry within her class. As the nobility code of the time made it impossible for Beethoven to “marry up” into the aristocracy, Solomon claimed that Beethoven’s “loving up” pattern was only a stratagem – “falling for the unattainable,” so that he could pretend to “virility” while in fact unable to maintain a “normal” sexual and/or conjugal life; his actual goal, Solomon would have us believe, was to retreat from any love relationship. The reality is that Beethoven was, in his search for love, confined to the world of his pupils, almost all aristocratic offspring and endowed with the qualities he expected from a woman: beauty, refinement and musicianship. When he found those qualities in a commoner, such as Bettina Brentano (1810) or Amalie Sebald (1811), he fell for her, too. But the former was already set to marry her Baron von Arnim, and the latter, whom he met when taking a water cure in Teplitz, lived in Berlin. Another significant feature evidenced by the list: Beethoven mourned lost love only a short time before continuing to look around, because a beautiful female presence was a refreshing, encouraging source of life and inspiration for him. Clearly, he was by no means a “one love man,” as some of the search parties claim.
The next three chapters of the book focus on the evidence from the crucial year 1812, when the Immortal Beloved love story developed, reaching the acme during Beethoven’s summer travel, during which (July 6-7) he wrote his Immortal Beloved letter, before collapsing toward the end of the year. From Beethoven’s short stay in Prague at the beginning of July, while on his way to Teplitz, we get a
relevant point: he missed a date with an acquaintance due to “a circumstance which I could not foresee,” as he later explained. That circumstance has been unanimously accepted as an unexpected but crucial meeting with his beloved.
The central Chapter 4 presents a new, unbiased reading of Beethoven’s letter to the Immortal Beloved, very different from all previous ones in that it is not tailored to support a particular candidate. In my reading, this letter evidences two apparently incongruent certainties: the two lovers’ “common goal of living together,” but also a strong disagreement about the way to reach that goal. A third certainty in the letter is Beethoven’s belief that the beloved can do something to make that goal reachable, pushing him to give her an ultimatum – “I will stay away from you until you have done whatever it takes for us to live together my way.” There are also strong reasons to believe that Beethoven mailed his letter but the beloved never read it: she did not travel to Karlsbad; he traveled there to retrieve his compromising letter.
The next chapter presents the evidence from Beethoven’s further trips to several other Bohemia spas and then to his brother Johann in Linz. He did not return to Vienna until the beginning of December – his longest absence from the city. During his travels, he meets Amalie Sebald and plays an innocent but still intense flirtation with this young lady (as we glean from several notes he sent her, which she kept). Amalie even seems receptive and willing to wait for an explicit declaration, leaving Beethoven in a difficult dilemma. He eventually decides to stay true to his Immortal Beloved and to give up Amalie. All this time during his summer, Beethoven observes the terms of his “ultimatum” to the beloved: he stays away from Vienna, where she is, waiting full of hope for her positive answer. He gets her “No” sometime in late November or early December, which throws him in deep depression, as he confesses in letters: “I have been ailing mentally more than physically.”
Further evidence comes from his so-called Tagebuch diary. The first entry, marked simply “1812,” is a long cry of despondency ending, “In this way with A everything goes to ruin.” This has become a crucial piece of evidence, under the assumption that “A” was the Immortal Beloved. Thus, every search party claimed the initial to point to their candidate, by recurring to unbelievable speculations (which I later review for each candidate). All parties discount the remainder of the entry, which is a long paragraph including very incongruous statements besides the “A” sentence, which shows that the entry reflects two pieces of bad news received almost instantaneously – the Immortal Beloved’s negative answer and a discouraging message from a disappointed A[malie]. His distress reflects this double blow: he had given up Amalie for the sake of his Immortal Beloved, and ultimately lost both.
Chapter 6 is a review of the post-1812 evidence invoked and (abundantly and wildly) speculated upon by each search party in favor of their candidate. There is indeed evidence of some mysterious women in Beethoven’s life, as well as in his thoughts, but no clues point to the Immortal Beloved. Two have been claimed to do so indirectly. The first is “The Faraway Beloved” in the song cycle Beethoven composed in 1816; yet, even in this case, the connection cannot be substantiated. The second is his statement, recorded by a reliable witness (Fanny Giannatasio) in 1816, about a woman that he had known “five years ago” (that is, c. 1811), who would have been his ideal woman and wife (the “only one”). This unknown woman has triggered the wildest speculations of the search parties, but she could not have been the Immortal Beloved because Beethoven mentions that this relationship “had never reached a declaration”; clearly, his relationship with the Immortal Beloved had. In fact, the only known woman in his life who fits the specifications is again Amalie. I also introduce in this chapter some evidence ignored by all search parties, recorded by the same reliable witness, which demonstrates the tenuousness of all the speculations intended to show a continuous presence of the Immortal Beloved in Beethoven’s life or, at least, in his thoughts, after 1812.
The next chapter (7) debunks a few unusual types of evidence, sometimes vehemently argued about by the search parties: portraits found in Beethoven’s legacy, hidden close to his July 6-7, 1812 letter; Beethoven’s dedications of his music; and the music itself, with some pieces invoked repeatedly as leimotivic occurrences of the Immortal Beloved.
The evaluation of the candidates in Part II begins by presenting (chapter 8) the most likely scenario of the love-story, based on the available evidence, especially pertaining to the year 1812, among which is my reading of Beethoven’s letter to his Immortal Beloved. This scenario is centered on the couple’s shared goal of living together, unfortunately undermined by their divergence on how to accomplish it, which determines the events of the summer of that year. I then evaluate every candidate (chapters 9 through 14) first by appraising how well she fits this most likely scenario, and then evaluating the merits of the scenario that her proponent(s) advance, in light of the existing evidence.
I begin (chapter 9) by examining and discarding several “implausible” candidates: Baroness Dorothea Ertmann, an exceptionally gifted pianist whom Beethoven highly appreciated, and Countess Almerie Esterhazy, otherwise unknown in his circle. Both are known to have been in the Karlsbad when Beethoven thought his beloved was there, but that is the only evidence to support their cases, and the scholarly world was right to rejected them. I also included here “the Hollywood Candidate,” no other than Beethoven’s sister-in-law Johanna, launched in Bernard Rose’s 1995 movie Immortal Beloved, a production true to Hollywood’s commitment to sensationalism and neglect of biographical truth.
Bettina Brentano (chapter 10) was proposed by Edward Walden in a 2011 book peremptorily subtitled “Solving the Mystery.” Bettina was Beethoven’s short-lived “flame” in 1810, but is only another very implausible candidate. As a married aristocrat with a child, Bettina fills the beloved’s profile up to a point, but the good evidence for her stops there. A lawyer-turned-scholar, Walden builds his argument like a defense attorney in a desperate case: he invents evidence (facts inexistent in the very Bettina Brentano’s biographies he otherwise quotes), twists existing evidence beyond endurance, and ignores any evidence clearly denying his theory.
Antonie Brentano (chapter 11), the wife of a Frankfurt rich banker and socialite, is known in the literature as a friend in whose house Beethoven was a frequent guest during the years 1809-12, when she was back in her native Vienna to take over her late father’s estate. But Antonie was clearly not an old love of Beethoven (although she might have met him before marrying her husband in 1796 and relocating to Frankfurt), so she does not fit the most likely scenario of the Immortal Beloved. Her proponent, Maynard Solomon, argued that she fits the “when and how” conjectures of Beethoven’s letter to the Immortal Beloved: she was in Prague (with her husband and a child) on July 3-4, 1812, and she could have met Beethoven there; because she was in Karlsbad with her family after the 5th of month, she could have been the addressee of his July letter. This persuaded most of the English- speaking Beethoven scholarship – including the editors of the eminent New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians – to endorse Antonie. This is despite the shakiness of a number of Solomon’s suppositions, namely: Antonie was unhappy in her marriage; her “tender friendship” with Beethoven during the years she was in Vienna evolved into love sometime in late 1811 or early 1812; Antonie fit the “fall for the unattainable” love pattern that Solomon assigns to Beethoven (i.e., she was married), which would have yielded the final breakup in the love story, of which his July 6-7 letter was, in Solomon’s reading, the message.
Solomon’s scenario is very different from the scenario that I present as most likely. But even considered independently, it has many flaws, some of which have been exposed by other scholars before me; here, I enhance their arguments. The evidence shows that Solomon’s alleged Vienna love story is based on a misconstruction, and the circumstantial Prague and Karlsbad evidence he relies upon is also very tenuous. I add additional factual and psychological incongruities of the evidence that Solomon’s proffers and of his many speculations.
Countess Marie Erdödy is generally disregarded as a candidate, because Beethoven described her as his “father confessor,” which would seem fit only for a friend. But in fact, in 1959 Dana Steichen, a perceptive amateur scholar, revealed evidence for a complex relationship similar to Beethoven’s previous relationship with Countess Brunsvik-Deym: he tried to push the friendship into love and, when Marie failed to reciprocate, he broke up with her (March 1909), committing a most
monumental gaffe (Steichen’s great discovery). The relationship was renewed a year later on the Countess’ terms – friendship – but very little is known about it. A former love, the Countess fits the general profile of the beloved. Altman, Marie’s more recent (1996) promoter, made a decent case for her candidacy, albeit one marred by some far-fetched speculations. Even Barry Cooper, who duly rejected such speculations, accepted that “psychologically and emotionally, Marie Erdödy makes a good candidate for the Immortal Beloved.” Although, the Countess’s whereabouts in the summer of 1812 are unknown, I can fit her in the most likely scenario, at least to a point. However, I cannot explain how, when she re-entered in Beethoven’s life in 1815, he constantly addressed her as “friend” in his letters, if he had called her “my immortal beloved” three years before. I deem her a possible but unlikely candidate.
Countess Josephine Brunsvik is, based on the existing evidence, the Immortal Beloved. Her supporters, particularly Elisabeth-Marie Tellenbach and (beginning in 2000) Rita Steblin, have gathered evidence capable of fitting her to the most likely scenario, but they failed to make the strongest case this evidence allowed. Their reading of the July 6-7 letter was shallow, missing the notes of disagreement. They also failed to discriminate between different pieces of evidence and to draw all inferences, especially those concerning Josephine’s life without Beethoven before and after 1812. Even Steblin, who brought in a new and crucial document discovered in the family archives – the Memoirs of Josephine’s son Fritz Deym – failed to recognize their importance. This document reveals that after 1814, when Josephine’s second husband moved out (taking with him the children she had given him), Josephine had an affair with her son’s math tutor (who happened to be an impoverished baron!) and had to hide in order to give birth to a child whom she sent away together with the child’s father. Accordingly, their proposed scenario has several deep flaws. Obsessed with a slogan they had adopted – “Beethoven’s Only Beloved” – Josephine’s supporters recurred to speculations often verging on the absurd to ensure every piece of evidence pertaining to Beethoven’s feminine attachments pointed to her, including evidence in the wake of the 1812 episode.
After I debunk such speculations (chapter 13), I build the most likely scenario of the love story centered on a new portrait of Josephine (chapter 14), as revealed in the recently discovered evidence. Josephine emerges as a tragic character, a sexually liberated woman living in a time with no reliable birth control, and a prisoner of the nobility code – a tragedy that touched Beethoven, too, perhaps to her own regret. In this most likely version, the Immortal Beloved, although the most intense love known in his life, is still a relatively short-lived episode, like several others.
This being said, I repeat: I do not claim to have solved the mystery once and for all. New evidence from other family archives may throw all conclusions into question and even bring forward “the unknown woman,” a possibility that one cannot dismiss. Having said that, this volume presents the current state of our understanding of Beethoven’s famous affair. It leaves us with the most plausible account of Countess Josephine Brunsvik as Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved – an account that highlights the inherent tragedy of both figures.
Unfortunately, the book has not been yet published, but one can find the essentials of the argument in the Abridged version, downloadable for free as a .pdf file.