A guide to Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament and what drove him to write it
Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament reveals the composer's pain over his encroaching deafness
In April 1802 Beethoven travelled north of Vienna, a couple miles away from the bustling city and towards the small village of Heiligenstadt, where he would end up writing his Heiligenstadt Testament.
This idyllic spot was a popular retreat for rest and relaxation among wealthy citizens and so, concerned for his patient’s deteriorating mental and physical wellbeing, Dr Johann Schmidt had advised the composer to seek peace and quiet there for a few months.
The main source of Beethoven’s angst was the loss of his hearing, something he had started to notice in 1796 at the age of just 25. As the condition worsened, he became increasingly alarmed, revealing his anxieties in his letters to close friends.
Writing to physician Franz Wegler in November 1801, he despaired he was ‘forced to appear a misanthrope’ due to the torment it caused him – Beethoven described not only suffering from physical pain, but also his worry over the effect his deafness would have on his place in society.
Dr Schmidt’s hopes were that in the seclusion of Heiligenstadt – an area surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards – a daily routine of gentle country walks and occasional visits to the sulphur baths would calm Beethoven’s unsettled mind. Nor did his advice go unheeded, as the composer significantly reduced his workload. However, the isolation only added to his loneliness and fear of becoming a recluse, while his frustration over his worsening health merely increased.
When did Beethoven wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament?
On 6 October 1802 Beethoven reached the point of despair, as he sat down and set out his thoughts in a letter intended for his two brothers, Carl and Johann.
What was is the 'Heiligenstadt Testament'?
The result was the four-page Heiligenstadt Testament, as it has become known, a candid and moving description of his physical suffering and feelings of seclusion and loss. ‘How could I possibly admit weakness of the one sense which should be more perfect in me than in others,’ he wrote, ‘a sense which I once possessed in the greatest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession have or ever have had.’
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The sounds of the countryside that were meant to soothe his state of mind simply added to his distress. Or, rather, the lack of them did: ‘What humiliation for me when someone standing near me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents almost brought me to despair; a little more and I would have ended my life.’
As it was, explains the letter, music itself prevented this ultimate decision – ‘it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me’ – though much of the Heiligenstadt Testament continues to read like a suicide note-cum-will: as well as advising Carl and Johann to divide his properly evenly, Beethoven asks them to persuade Dr Schmidt to describe his illness in writing.
What happened to the Heiligenstadt Testament?
Carl and Johann never received these instructions, however. Including an addendum on 10 October, Beethoven chose not to send his heartfelt letter but instead kept it on his person as he headed back to Vienna soon afterwards.
And with his return came a major new opportunity – the city boasted a new venue, the Theater an der Wien, to which Beethoven was appointed house composer. In April 1803, more than 2,000 people attended a concert there to see him appear as soloist and conductor in the premieres of his Third Piano Concerto, oratorio Christus am Ölberge and Symphony No. 2, a work completed during his stay in Heiligenstadt.
The generally light spirits of the new symphony can have given its first audience little idea of the emotional pain experienced by its composer at the time of its writing. In fact, only after his death in 1827, when the Heiligenstadt Testament was discovered among his possessions, was the true extent of Beethoven’s misery finally revealed
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