What drove Beethoven's nephew to suicide?
In 1826 Beethoven’s tormented nephew pulled the trigger on himself
On 29 July, 1826, a young man climbed up to the hillside ruins of Castle Rauhenstein in Baden, a spa town 20 miles south of Vienna. Arriving at his destination, he drew two pistols from his pocket. Aiming one at his head, he pulled the trigger, but the bullet either missed or misfired in the chamber.
The second pistol, however, partially found its target. The bullet gouged the left-hand side of the shooter’s skull without entering his brain, leaving him slumped and barely conscious.
Who was the unfortunate individual? It soon emerged his name was Karl van Beethoven, nephew of the famed composer Ludwig, and that his attempted suicide was anything but a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Just days earlier Karl’s landlord, Schlemmer, had warned Beethoven that the 19-year-old ‘intended to shoot himself next Sunday at the latest’. Schlemmer found two pistols in Karl’s room, but Karl had pawned his watch to buy replacements.
Why did Karl van Beethoven attempt suicide?
What pushed him to such a desperate situation? Karl himself had no doubt what had caused it. His uncle Ludwig had ‘tormented him too much’, he told police investigating the incident. ‘I became worse because my uncle wanted me to be better’.
Posterity has tended to agree with the unfortunate Karl’s analysis. Beethoven’s fraught involvement with his nephew began 11 years earlier, when the composer’s younger brother Kaspar died, leaving behind his wife Johanna and nine-year-old Karl.
Kaspar’s will originally made both Johanna and Beethoven Karl’s guardians, but Johanna’s name was subsequently deleted, seemingly at Beethoven’s insistence. ‘I did not wish to be bound up with such a bad woman in a matter of such importance as the education of the child,’ he wrote.
More like this
What exactly was ‘bad’ about Johanna? Her conviction for embezzlement in 1811, after purloining a set of pearls that she was selling on consignment, was one notorious mark against her. Johanna was also, Beethoven believed, an adulteress – perhaps a prostitute – who had killed her husband by poisoning (Kaspar actually died from consumption). Morally outraged, he vowed to ‘wrest a poor, unhappy child’ from the clutches of a ‘vicious’, ‘bestial’ mother.
Beethoven’s jaundiced view of Johanna was unquestionably exaggerated – ‘an obsession bordering on the insane’, one commentator has called it. She herself lived in a toxic relationship, with an abusive husband who allegedly once pinned her hand with a knife to the dinner table. Kaspar also beat his son, and likely Johanna too. Beethoven knew about the turmoil, and wanted to remove Karl from any further possibility of domestic upset.
Instead, he achieved exactly the opposite. Five years of legal wrangling for custody of his nephew followed, which only traumatised Karl further. Beethoven repeatedly tried to stop the boy seeing his mother, and exerted an iron control over his education. Unsurprisingly, Karl reacted badly, fleeing Beethoven’s home, stealing money and at one point even striking his uncle.
By July 1826, Beethoven’s stifling protectiveness had pushed Karl to breaking point. His attempted suicide at Castle Rauhenstein was, however, a turning point of sorts. On recovery, he joined the army, married and fathered five children. When Beethoven died in 1827, he left everything to Karl, making him financially comfortable for the future.
In truth, Beethoven had never stopped loving the nephew he called ‘my son’. He dreamed of shaping a young man to be proud of, one to fill the void of loneliness that Beethoven’s own failure to build lasting emotional relationships had created. But as one Beethoven biographer has put it, ‘he never realised that a child cannot be shaped like a piece of music’.
Main image by Ludwig Beethoven, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons