The Loves of Great Composers Beethoven and his "Immortal Beloved" byGustav Kobbé
One day when Baron Spaun, an old Viennese character and a friend of Beethoven's, entered the composer's lodgings, he found the man, every line of whose face denoted, above all else, strength of character, bending over a portrait of a woman and weeping, as he muttered, "You were too good, too angelic!" A moment later, he had thrust the portrait into an old chest and, with a toss of his well-set head, was his usual self again.
As Spaun was leaving, he said to the composer, "There is nothing evil in your face to-day, old fellow."
"My good angel appeared to me this morning," was Beethoven's reply.
[Illustration: Ludwig van Beethoven]
After the composer's death, in 1827, the portrait was found in the old chest, and also a letter, in his handwriting and evidently written to a woman, whose name, however, was not given, but who was addressed by Beethoven as his "Immortal Beloved." The letter was regarded as a great find, and biographer after biographer has stated that it must have been written to the Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, to whom he dedicated the famous "Moonlight Sonata." There was, however, one woman, who survived Beethoven more than thirty years, and who, during that weary stretch of time, knew whose was the portrait that had been found in the old chest and the identity of the woman who had returned to him the letter addressed to his "Immortal Beloved," after the strange severance of relations which both had continued to hold sacred. But she suffered in silence, and never even knew what had become of the picture.
This precious picture, which Beethoven had held in his hands and wetted with his tears, passed, with his death, into the possession of his brother Carl's widow. No one knew who it was, or took any interest in it. In 1863 a Viennese musician, Joseph Hellmesberger, succeeded in having Beethoven's remains transferred to a metallic casket, and the Beethoven family, in recognition of his efforts, made him a present of the portrait. Later it was acquired by the Beethoven Museum, in Bonn, where the master was born in 1772. There it hangs beside his own portrait, and on the back still can be read the inscription, in a feminine hand:
"To the rare genius, the great artist, and the good man, from T. B."
Who was "T. B."? If some one who had recently seen the Bonn portrait should chance to visit the National Museum in Budapest, he would come upon the bust of a woman whose features seemed familiar to him. They would grow upon him as those of the woman with the yellow shawl over her light-brown hair, a drapery of red on her shoulders and fastened at her throat, who had looked out at him from the Bonn portrait. The bust, made at a more advanced age, he would find had been placed in the museum in honor of the woman who founded the first home for friendless children in the Austrian Empire; and her name? Countess Therese Brunswick. She was Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved." "T. B." - Therese Brunswick. She was the woman who knew that the portrait found in the old chest was hers; and that the letter had been received by her shortly after her secret betrothal to Beethoven, and returned by her to him when he broke the engagement because he loved her too deeply to link her life to his.
[Illustration: Countess Therese von Brunswick.
From the portrait by Ritter von Lampir in the Beethoven-Haus at Bonn.
Redrawn by Reich.]
The tragedy of their romance lay in its non-fulfilment. Beethoven was a man of noble nature, yet what had he to offer her in return for her love? His own love, it is true. But he was uncouth, stricken with deafness, and had many of the "bad moments" of genius. He foresaw unhappiness for both, and, to spare her, took upon himself the great act of renunciation. We need only recall him weeping over the picture of his Therese. And Therese? To her dying day she treasured his memory. Very few shared her secret. Her brother Franz, Beethoven's intimate friend, knew it. Baron Spaun also divined the cause of his melancholy. Some years after the composer's death, Countess Therese Brunswick conceived a great liking for a young girl, Miriam Tenger, whom she had taken under her care for a short period, until a suitable school was selected for her in Vienna. When the time for parting came, Miriam burst into tears and clung to the Countess's hand.
"Child! Child!" exclaimed the lady, "do you really love me so deeply?"
"I love you, I love you so," sobbed the child, "that I could die for you."
The Countess placed her hand on the girl's head. "My child," she said, "when you have grown older and wiser, you will understand what I mean when I say that to live for those we love shows a far greater love, because it requires so much more courage. But while you are in Vienna, there is one favor you can do me, which my heart will consider a great one. On the twenty-seventh of every March go to the Wahringer Cemetery and lay a wreath of immortelles on Beethoven's grave."
When, true to her promise, the girl went with her school principal to the cemetery, they found a man bending over the grave and placing flowers upon it. He looked up as they approached.
"The child comes at the request of the Countess Therese Brunswick," explained the principal.
"The Countess Therese Brunswick! Immortelles upon this grave are fit from her alone." The speaker was Beethoven's faithful friend, Baron Spaun.
In 1860, when the leaves of thirty-three autumns had fallen upon the composer's grave and the Countess had gone to her last resting-place, a voice, like an echo from a dead past, linked the names of Beethoven and the woman he had loved. There was at that time in Germany a virtuosa, Frau Hebenstreit, who when a young girl had been a pupil of Beethoven's friend, the violinist Schuppanzigh. At a musical, in the year mentioned, she had just taken part in a performance of the third "Leonore" overture, when, as if moved to speak by the beauty of the music, she suddenly said: "Only think of it! Just as a person sits to a painter for a portrait, Countess Therese Brunswick was the model for Beethoven's Leonore. What a debt the world owes her for it!" After a pause she went on:
"Beethoven never would have dared marry without money, and a countess, too - and so refined, and delicate enough to blow away. And he - an angel and a demon in one! What would have become of them both, and of his genius with him?" So far as I have been able to discover, this was the first even semi-public linking of the two names.
Yet all these years there was one person who knew the secret - the woman who as a school-girl had placed the wreath of immortelles on Beethoven's grave for her much-loved Countess Therese Brunswick. Through this act of devotion Miriam Tenger seemed to become to the Countess a tie that stretched back to her past, and though they saw each other only at long intervals, Miriam's presence awakened anew the old memories in the Countess's heart, and from her she heard piecemeal, and with pauses of years between, the story of hers and Beethoven's romance.
Therese was the daughter of a noble house. Beethoven was welcome both as teacher and guest in the most aristocratic circles of Vienna. The noble men and women who figure in the dedications of his works were friends, not merely patrons. Despite his uncouth manners and appearance, his genius, up to the point at least when it took its highest flights in the "Ninth Symphony" and the last quartets, was appreciated; and he was a figure in Viennese society. The Brunswick house was one of many that were open to him. The Brunswicks were art lovers. Franz, the son of the house, was the composer's intimate friend. The mother had all possible graciousness and charm, but with it also a passionate pride in her family and her rank, a hauteur that would have caused her to regard an alliance between Therese and Beethoven as monstrous. Therese was an exceptional woman. She had an oval, classic face, a lovely disposition, a pure heart and a finely cultivated mind. The German painter, Peter Cornelius, said of her that any one who spoke with her felt elevated and ennobled. The family was of the right mettle. The Countess Blanka Teleki, who was condemned to death for complicity in the Hungarian uprising of 1848, but whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment - she finally was released in 1858, - was Therese's niece, and is said to have borne a striking likeness to her. It may be mentioned that Giulietta Guicciardi, of the "Moonlight Sonata," was Therese's cousin. There seems no doubt that the composer was attracted to Giulietta before he fell in love with his "Immortal Beloved." That is why his biographers were so ready to believe that the letter was addressed to the lady with the romantic name and identified with one of his most romantic works.
Therese herself told Miriam that one day Giulietta, who had become the affianced of Count Gallenberg, rushed into her room, threw herself at her feet like a "stage princess," and cried out: "Counsel me, cold, wise one! I long to give Gallenberg his congé and marry the wonderfully ugly, beautiful Beethoven, if - if only it did not involve lowering myself socially." Therese, who worshipped the composer's genius and already loved him secretly, turned the subject off, fearful lest she should say, in her indignation at the young woman who thought she would be lowering herself by marrying Beethoven, something that might lead to an irreparable breach. "Moonlight Sonata," or no "Moonlight Sonata," there are two greater works by the same genius that bear the Brunswick name, - the "Appassionata," dedicated to Count Franz Brunswick, and the sonata in F-sharp major, Opus 78, dedicated to Therese, and far worthier of her chaste beauty and intellect than the "Moonlight."
It will be noticed that Giulietta called Therese the "cold, wise one." Her purity led her own mother to speak other as an "anchoress." Yet it was she who from the time she was fifteen years old to the day of her death cherished the great composer in her heart; and of her love for him were the mementos that he sacredly guarded. When Therese was fifteen years old she became Beethoven's pupil. The lessons were severe. Yet beneath the rough exterior she recognized the heart of a nobleman. The "cold, wise one," the "anchoress," fell in love with him soon after the lessons began, but carefully hid her feelings from every one. There is a charming anecdote of the early acquaintance of the composer and Therese.
The children of the house of Brunswick were carefully brought up. During the music lessons the mother was accustomed to sit in an adjoining room with the door between open. One bitterly cold winter day Beethoven arrived at the appointed hour. Therese had practised diligently, but the work was difficult and, in addition, she was nervous. As a result she began too fast, became disconcerted when Beethoven gruffly called out "Tempo!" and made mistake after mistake, until the master, irritated beyond endurance, rushed from the room and the house in such a hurry that he forgot his overcoat and muffler. In a moment Therese had picked up these, reached the door and was out in the street with them, when the butler overtook her, relieved her of them and hurried after the composer's retreating figure.
When the girl entered the doorway again, she came face to face with her mother, who, fortunately, had not seen her in the street, but who was scandalized that a daughter of the house of Brunswick should so far have forgotten herself and her dignity as to have run after a man even if only to the front door, and with his overcoat and muffler. "He might have caught cold and died," gasped Therese, in answer to her mother's remonstrance. What would the mother have said had she known that her daughter actually had run out into the street, and had been prevented from following Beethoven until she overtook him only by the butler's timely action!
Therese's brother Franz was devoted to her. As a boy he had taken his other sister (afterward Blanka Teleki's mother) out in a boat on the "Mediterranean," one of the ponds at Montonvasar, the Brunswick country estate. The boat upset. Therese, who was watching them from the bank, rushed in and hauled them out. Franz was asked if he had been frightened. "No," he answered, "I saw my good angel coming."
When he became intimate with Beethoven, he told the composer about this incident, and also how, after that stormy music lesson, Therese had started to overtake him with his coat and muffler. Knowing what a lonely, unhappy existence the composer led, he could not help adding that life would be very different if he had a good angel to watch over him, such as he had in his sister.
Franz little knew that his words fell upon Beethoven like seed on eager soil. From that time on he looked at Therese with different eyes. His own love soon taught him to know that he was loved in return. No pledge had yet passed between them when, in May, 1806, he went to Montonvasar on a visit; but one evening there, when Therese was standing at the piano listening to him play, he softly intoned Bach's -
"Would you your true heart show me,
Begin it secretly,
For all the love you trow me,
Let none the wiser be.
Our love, great beyond measure,
To none must we impart;
So, lock our rarest treasure
Securely in your heart."
Next morning they met in the park. He told her that at last he had discovered in her the model for his Leonore, the heroine of his opera "Fidelio." "And so we found each other" - these were the simple words with which, many years later, Therese concluded the narrative of her betrothal with Beethoven to Miriam Tenger.
The engagement had to be kept a secret. Had it become known, it would have ended in his immediate dismissal by the Countess' mother. In only one person was confidence reposed, Franz, the devoted brother and treasured friend. Therese's income was small, and Franz, knowing the opposition with which the proposed match would meet, pointed out to Beethoven that it would be necessary for him to secure a settled position and income before the engagement could be published and the marriage take place. The composer himself saw the justice of this, and assented.
[Illustration: "Beethoven at Heiligenstadt."
From the painting by Carl Schmidt.]
Early in July Beethoven left Montonvasar for Furen, a health resort on the Plattensee, which he reached after a hard trip. Fatigued, grieving over the first parting from Therese, and downcast over his uncertain future, he there wrote the letter to his "Immortal Beloved," which is now one of the treasures of the Berlin Library. It is a long letter, much too long to be given here in full, written for the most part in ejaculatory phrases, and curiously alternating between love, despair, courage and hopefulness and commonplace, everyday affairs. Nor will space permit me to tell how Alexander W. Thayer, an American, who spent a great part of his life and means in gathering detailed and authentic data for a Beethoven biography, - which, however, he did not live to finish, - worked out the year in which this letter was written (Beethoven gave only the day of the month); showed that it must be 1806; proved further that it could not have been intended for Giulietta Guicciardi, yet did not venture to state that Countess Therese Brunswick was the undoubted recipient. Afterward, I believe, he heard of Miriam Tenger, entered into correspondence with her, and the letters doubtless will be found among his papers; but he did not live to make use of the information.
One of the reasons why the identity of the recipient of Beethoven's letter remained so long unknown was that he did not address her by name. The letter begins: "My angel, my all, myself!" In order to secure a fixed position, Beethoven had decided to try Prussia and even England, and this intention he refers to when, after apostrophizing Therese as his "immortal beloved," he writes these burning words:
"Yes, I have decided to toss abroad so long, until I can fly to your arms and call myself at home with you, and let my soul, enveloped in your love, wander through the kingdom of spirits." The letter has this exclamatory postscript:
Eternally one another's!"
The engagement lasted until 1810, four years, when the letters, which through Franz's aid had passed between Beethoven and Therese, were returned. Therese, however, always treasured as one of her "jewels" a sprig of immortelle fastened with a ribbon to a bit of paper, the ribbon fading with passing years, the paper growing yellow, but still showing the words: "L'Immortelle à son Immortelle - Luigi."
It had been Beethoven's custom to enclose a sprig of immortelle in nearly every letter he sent her, and all these sprigs she kept in her desk many, many years. She made a white silken pillow of the flowers; and, when death came at last, she was laid at rest, her head cushioned on the mementos of the man she had loved.