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The Heiligenstadt Testament of Ludwig Van Beethoven

Notes by W. T. S. Thackara

The Heiligenstadt Testament,* an early will written by Ludwig van Beethoven to his brothers Carl and Johann, is a remarkable document. In view of the artistic achievement he reached after writing this letter, it stands as a luminous tribute to the saving power of virtue. Moreover, it provides helpful insights into the problem of suffering.

*Beethoven’s Letters (1790-1826), translated by Lady Wallace, pp. 45-9.

Unquestionably for many, living means having to shoulder terrific burdens, and valleys of adversity certainly belong to the life-path of everyone, regardless of attainment. Yet, as was the case with Beethoven, difficult trials can also be an enabling factor to express the depth and art of one's inmost being.

In his twenty-eighth year Beethoven discovered he was losing his hearing, which at that time he considered a composer's indispensable tool. Three years later, in 1801, he complained of continual whistling and buzzing in his ears, day and night. "I can say that I am living a wretched life," he wrote an old friend. On the advice of a physician, he went in the summer of the following year to Heiligenstadt, a picturesque country village near Vienna, seeking a more effective cure. He was then thirty-one and had finished only one symphony. Yet he was soon to find his hopes shattered; and his despondency, further aggravated by other troubles, brought him to an abyss. His agonies we may only surmise; but what sustained him we learn of in the outpouring of his heart to his brothers.

For my Brothers Carl and [Johann] Beethoven.

Oh! ye who think or declare me to be hostile, morose, and misanthropical, how unjust you are, and how little you know the secret cause of what appears thus to you! My heart and mind were ever from childhood prone to the most tender feelings of affection, and I was always disposed to accomplish something great. But you must remember that six years ago I was attacked by an incurable malady, aggravated by unskillful physicians, deluded from year to year, too, by the hope of relief, and at length forced to the conviction of a lasting affliction (the cure of which may go on for years, and perhaps after all prove impracticable).

Born with a passionate and excitable temperament, keenly susceptible to the pleasures of society, I was yet obliged early in life to isolate myself, and to pass my existence in solitude. If I at any time resolved to surmount all this, oh! how cruelly was I again repelled by the experience, sadder than ever, of my defective hearing! — and yet I found it impossible to say to others: Speak louder; shout! for I am deaf! Alas! how could I proclaim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men, — a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, to an extent, indeed, that few of my profession ever enjoyed! Alas, I cannot do this! Forgive me therefore when you see me withdraw from you with whom I would so gladly mingle. My misfortune is doubly severe from causing me to be misunderstood. No longer can I enjoy recreation in social intercourse, refined conversation, or mutual outpourings of thought. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like art exile. In company I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions, from the dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed. It was the same during the last six months I spent in the country. My intelligent physician recommended me to spare my hearing as much as possible, which was quite in accordance with my present disposition, though sometimes, tempted by my natural inclination for society, I allowed myself to be beguiled into it. But what humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce? And thus I spared this miserable life — so utterly miserable that any sudden change may reduce me at any moment from my best condition into the worst. It is decreed that I must now choose Patience for my guide! This I have done. I hope the resolve will not fail me, steadfastly to persevere till it may please the inexorable Fates to cut the thread of my life. Perhaps I may get better, perhaps not. I am prepared for either. Constrained to become a philosopher in my twenty-eighth year! This is no slight trial, and more severe on an artist than on any one else. God looks into my heart, He searches it, and knows that love for man and feelings of benevolence have their abode there! Oh! ye who may one day read this, think that you have done me injustice, and let any one similarly afflicted be consoled, by finding one like himself, who, in defiance of all the obstacles of Nature, has done all in his power to be included in the ranks of estimable artists and men. My brothers Carl and [Johann], as soon as I am no more, if Professor Schmidt be still alive, beg him in my name to describe my malady, and to add these pages to the analysis of my disease, that at least, so far as possible, the world may be reconciled to me after my death. I also hereby declare you both heirs of my small fortune (if so it may be called). Share it fairly, agree together and assist each other. You know that anything you did to give me pain has been long forgiven. I thank you, my brother Carl in particular, for the attachment you have shown me of late. My wish is that you may enjoy a happier life, and one more free from care, than mine has been. Recommend Virtue to your children; that alone, and not wealth, can ensure happiness. I speak from experience. It was Virtue alone which sustained me in my misery; I have to thank her and Art for not having ended my life by suicide. Farewell! Love each other. I gratefully thank all my friends, especially Prince Lichnowsky and Professor Schmidt. I wish one of you to keep Prince L — — — 's instruments; but I trust this will give rise to no dissension between you. If you think it more beneficial, however, you have only to dispose of them. How much I shall rejoice if I can serve you even in the grave! So be it then! I joyfully hasten to meet Death. If he comes before I have had the opportunity of developing all my artistic powers, then, notwithstanding my cruel fate, he will come too early for me, and I should wish for him at a more distant period; but even then I shall be content, for his advent will release me from a state of endless suffering. Come when he may, I shall meet him with courage. Farewell! Do not quite forget me, even in death; I deserve this from you, because during my life I so often thought of you, and wished to make you happy. Amen!

Ludwig van Beethoven.

6th October 1802

[Written on the outside]

To be read and fulfilled after my death by my brothers Carl and [Johann].

 Heiligenstadt, 10 October 1802

Thus, then, I take leave of you, and with sadness too. The fond hope I brought with me here, of being to a certain degree cured, now utterly forsakes me. As autumn leaves fall and wither, so are my hopes blighted. Almost as I came, I depart. Even the lofty courage that so often animated me in the lovely days of summer is gone forever. O Providence! vouchsafe me one day of pure felicity! How long have I been estranged from the glad echo of true joy! When! O my God! when shall I again feel it in the temple of Nature and of man? — never? Ah! that would be too hard!

*    *    *

Despite his hearing impairment, Beethoven did not leave Heiligenstadt as he had come. It was here that a large portion of his Third Symphony, Eroica, was composed — and which he dedicated, not to Napoleon as he had originally intended, but "for the memory of a great man." This work is thought by many as pivotal in Beethoven's development. Up to this time his compositions had adhered closely to the musical forms of 18th-century convention, and he was esteemed primarily for his piano performances. Eroica, finished in 1804, clearly shows his attitude toward the threat of defeat: symphony on an unprecedented scale and the beginning of his most creative period.

As the years passed, Beethoven's deafness worsened, yet his compositions seemed to flow from an infinite well of inspiration — quartets, sonatas, overtures, symphonies, concertos, and so on. In 1819 he lost his hearing completely, in spite of which he was able to complete, both in 1823, his monumental Ninth or Choral Symphony, embracing Schiller's Ode to Joy, and the Missa Solemnis (Mass in D), which he considered the crown, the best of all his compositions. One of his last great works, its dedication is unusual: "From the heart — may it speak to the heart." Four years later, Beethoven passed away at the age of fifty-six, a quarter century of prodigious creativity after Heiligenstadt.


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To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be universal sense; for always the inmost becomes the outmost . . . A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. — Ralph Waldo Emerson