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Beethoven’s conversation books: how they give us unique insights into the composer’s life

Beethoven’s conversation books, through which the deaf composer communicated with those around him, offer a fascinatingly detailed insight into his life. Michael Church takes a look at a new translation

Beethoven’s conversation books: how they give us unique insights into the composer's life

Paper. Barber’s razor. Archduke’s receipt. Watch. Suspenders. Blotting paper. Shoe-horn for Karl. Chamber pot.’ In this to-do memo by the 49-year-old Beethoven, the humble items to be dealt with indicate the parameters of his universe.

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They touch on everything from his composition and business activities to his punctilious control of domestic matters; to his dishevelled dandyism, his attempts to keep dirt at bay and his avuncular concern for his needy nephew, Karl.

The daily list was his mainstay, and sometimes it has a terse kind of poetry: ‘Sugar. Spice. Wine. Macaroni. Tooth powder.’ Other times, especially when fuelled by drink, it can reflect manic impulses and nagging worries: ‘Fluff up mattresses. Pillow cases. Towels. Has a prohibition appeared at the cashier’s? [Piano device] of wood or brass. Look for white sugar – have a sugar tin made. Have a walking stick made. Dust-broom. Hemp cord. Lettuce, bread, she is bringing it too, but how much vinegar and oil does one need with it? Show around the catalogue [of my collected works].’ These lists, of course, reflected his dialogue with himself, but the prime function of the conversation books was to facilitate his dialogue with colleagues, friends and family, he often being the silent audience while others took the stage. 

When did Beethoven start using conservation books?

Beethoven's conservation books

Beethoven started using these little notebooks in 1818, by which time his hearing had badly deteriorated. They served many purposes as well as conversation – as shopping lists, for noting errands to run, and for drafting memoranda pertaining to the lawsuits over the guardianship of his nephew. Beethoven also habitually copied out adverts from newspapers, particularly for novelties. ‘Swimming belt, invented by someone in Verona early in 1820. The swimming belt is strapped over the hips and around the body, inflated, and then put in place.’ 

The books also became his forum for debate with friends about life, love and art, and sometimes he jotted down musical themes as they occurred to him. It’s oddly thrilling to find him working out ideas for the ‘Credo’ of the Missa solemnis in a downtown coffee shop, or casually jotting down the serene opening theme of the Sonata Op. 109 while pursuing a discussion about the measurement of his shutters. 

He may have had servants, but he was hands-on with everything, obsessively counting the chickens in his larder, wanting to know prices right down to the cost of the smallest kitchen utensil. Music sales and the performance of his bank shares are one of the leitmotifs of his discourse. There is a two-year gap in continuity, thanks to a trunkful of the early books falling off the back of a wagon transporting his effects from his summer residence to his winter one, but otherwise these books give a detailed reflection of his day-to-day doings until the tormented final weeks of his life.

How did the books survive?

Given their subsequent chequered history, it’s remarkable that 139 of these little books should have survived at all. They were first taken in hand in 1822 by Anton Schindler, who made himself Beethoven’s secretary and first biographer. His devotion knew no bounds – he liked to wear the dead composer’s threadbare dressing gown when receiving visitors – and for many years his testimony was largely taken as biographical truth. In 1977, however, his reputation took a fatal hit thanks to detective work by the musicologist Peter Stadlen, who revealed in The Musical Times that whenever Schindler had found a blank page in the conversation books, he’d filled it himself with forged entries.

Moreover, custody of the books followed a tangled path. Schindler eventually sold them to the Prussian Royal Library in Berlin; there, the 19th-century American scholar Alexander Wheelock Thayer worked on them for his great biography. In 1943, the books were removed to a rural place of safety, and after the war went back to their Unter den Linden home, now in the Communist side of the city. In 1951, the head of the museum’s music department stole the books and took them to the West, claiming that he had saved them from being purloined by the Soviet Union. His successor tracked the books to the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, which returned them to their rightful owners in Berlin.

The publishing of Beethoven’s conservation books

Several attempts were made to publish extracts, but the first scholarly edition began appearing in 1968 thanks to a cross-border collaboration between the Berlin museum and its Viennese counterpart; the whole laborious process took 33 years. The first English translation, published by Boydell Press, began to appear in 2018 and – spanning the years 1818-23 – has now reached volume three. Edited, copiously annotated, and rendered into modern conversational American English by Theodore Albrecht, this is a brilliantly accessible piece of scholarship.

What do the books tell us about Beethoven’s life?

Since Beethoven was a creature of habit, Albrecht prefaces the book with a sketch of his daily routine, which began with concentrated work from five o’clock onwards. At noon he would wash and go out to the shops, and at two he would lunch at his apartment, often with guests. At 3.30 there would be more errands and shopping, and at five he would repair to a coffee house to smoke a pipe, read the papers, and note down advertisements; then he might have a meeting. After a light supper and some reading he would be in bed by ten.

Beethoven was always restlessly on the move, endlessly noting down the addresses of possible apartments to rent. He loved walking in the Vienna woods, and in one entry described his dream home thus: ‘Build a house: at the gate to the right, toward the hills. The view is finer; also the building gate could be incorporated. The desired position: toward morning and what a sunrise!’

He was a big eater – ‘wild duck – large’ is his barked command as he walks through the game market – and an entry from his nephew’s worldly co-guardian Karl Peters suggests a different kind of appetite as well: ‘The girl at the Birne wasn’t bad. I shall procure her for you… [pause for Beethoven’s spoken reply] You disdain all of them.’ Was he sexually choosy? What might he have replied? Maybe this is something we should set against the composer’s celebrated protestation of his moral rectitude, as he fought for custody of his nephew: ‘Socrates and Jesus were my models’.

With its constant stream of visitors – musicians, composers and poets – his apartment was a humming social centre where the conversation could take a learned turn, with Beethoven not always coming off best. The premiere of Christus am Ölberge is fulsomely praised in the conversation books by the sycophantic Schindler, but the leading tenor gives it a pasting: it’s not theatrical enough, there are too many solos, and the audience has no idea when to applaud. The composer, apart from writing down two gnomic chords, gives no reply.

One of Beethoven’s regular guests, meanwhile, is a travelling salesman who is also hard of hearing, and he and the composer have many an earnest dialogue of the deaf. And as might be expected, plans for an instrument to counteract Beethoven’s disability are constantly surfacing. ‘Haven’t you tried playing on an upright piano?’ asks the piano-maker Stein. ‘I am of the opinion that you could have nothing better. We want to put it in front and place two horns in it, which will be directed towards your ears. It won’t do well if made of brass… I believe your ears would comprehend more with tin…’ Stein even offers to make a prototype out of cardboard.

One ‘off-stage’ figure is Karl’s mother Johanna, whose reputation Beethoven besmirches at every opportunity. ‘Born for intrigue, trained in deception, mistress in all the arts of pretence,’ is his summing up of her character. And her entries in Albrecht’s index seem to bear this out: ‘Embezzlement, Petty crimes, Says Beethoven was in love with her, Whore, Bad influence on Karl…’

What about Karl?

Karl, meanwhile, is omnipresent. Aged 13 when the conversation books get going, he comes across as a pathetically mixed-up teenager, plaintive and provocative by turns, desperately concerned to stay close to his mother, but equally concerned not to arouse his uncle’s fiery temper. Reading between the lines as we must do – when a written question clearly gets an oral reply – we can deduce at one point that poor young Karl is fending off his uncle’s derision over his lack of a manly beard. On the other hand, Karl sails close to the wind when the thorny question of lice crops up: ‘I don’t know where the many lice are coming from now, but it is healthy to have lice.’

‘I am very hungry today,’ Karl announces when they’ve sat down in a restaurant, earning his uncle’s written warning that this is an expensive gourmet haunt. At another point we seem to be eavesdropping on a furious row between Beethoven and his put-upon housekeeper, in which Karl staunchly defends her. ‘I cannot eat before I get this out of my system,’ says the boy of his pent-up feelings. ‘It would be poison if I were to eat when so upset.’ Karl’s close interest in a news story about an actor who shot himself is a clear portent of his own attempted suicide with a pistol a few years later.

In these first three volumes, there is just one reference to Beethoven’s hopelessly abortive love life. Having received a congratulatory visit from the husband of his former piano student Julie Guicciardi, he bitterly reminisces: ‘I was beloved by her, and more than her husband ever was. He was always my enemy, and this was precisely the reason that I did everything as well as possible for him.’ (The man had been on his beam-ends, and Beethoven had selflessly bailed him out.) But then Beethoven recalls the purpose of his existence: ‘If I had wanted to devote my life’s power to such a life, what would have remained for the nobler, the better things?’ For him, love is a mere diversion – the demands of his art trump everything.

Contemporary stars make rare appearances in these books. One is the 11-year-old Franz Liszt, who breezes in to invite Beethoven to a recital he is about to give. No response to this invitation is recorded, but it’s clear from Liszt’s tone that they know each other, and Liszt later gave his own highly atmospheric account of how an earlier meeting went: he played for Beethoven, who asked for a difficult transposition which he accomplished with ease; after Liszt had played the first movement of Beethoven’s C major Concerto, the master planted his celebrated kiss of blessing on the boy’s forehead.

The first five years of the conversation books cover the days when Haydn’s Creation and The Seasons were popular in Vienna, and when Rossini’s music was the talk of the town. Beethoven was holding his own with performances of Fidelio, but in secret he was brewing works which pointed far into the future: the Ninth Symphony, the vertiginous Diabelli Variations, the craggy Missa solemnis and the late sonatas and quartets, each of which created divine order out of a life which on the surface seemed hopelessly rough and rackety. As they flash from scene to scene, with a huge cast of characters taking turns in the spotlight, these extraordinary little books read like a film script, with a laconic but massive presence at its heart. It’s a goldmine for music historians, and a riveting saga for the rest of us. 

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Beethoven’s Conversation Books, Vols 1-3, edited and translated by Theodore Albrecht, are published by Boydell Press