The Friday Symposium: Beethoven Sells Out

The year 1812 began in the flower of spring for Beethoven–he was in love again. The identity of Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” has been debated endlessly, including by Hollywood in the risable film that bears her sobriquet. For those unfamiliar with the story, following Beethoven’s death, his executors found a set of letters Beethoven had written to an “Immortal Beloved.” Although the letters did not bear a date, they did specify the location where they were drafted–and those movements correspond to Beethoven’s whereabouts in early 1812. Regardless of her identity, I think the key fact is that Beethoven never mailed the letters, suggesting that once again Beethoven had set his sights on the unattainable, either due to her position or her marital status. Regardless, by mid-1812, the relationship appears to have been over and Beethoven emerged in a particularly foul mood.

The loss of love was bad enough, but Beethoven’s finances were failing as well. Having signed an annuity agreement with the Archduke Rudolf and two other princes in 1809, Beethoven assumed that he would be well-provided for indefinetly. Fate, however, had different plans. Although the Archduke was able to easily keep current on his share of the annuity, the other two princes fell behind. Austria, following years of war with Napoleon, was experiencing runaway inflation, ruining one of his other benefactors. The other prince died–and the estate refused to adjust Beethoven’s annuity payments for inflation. So Beethoven sued them–stopping all payments for years.

Not content with fighting with his benefactors, Beethoven set his sights on his family. His youngest brother had entered into a scandalous relationship with his housekeeper. Beethoven used his connections to force the woman to move away–but his brother married her instead. Foiled, Beethoven set his sights on his other sister-in-law (who he long despised). His other brother had recently died and Beethoven was not going to allow his much loathed sister-in-law to raise their child Karl. So Beethoven sued for custody. Incidentally, through this court case, it became known that Beethoven had been misrepresenting the “van” in his name as “von”, insinuating that he was German royalty. Fortunately for him, The New York Post was only publishing local stories at the time and passed on this tasty bit of scandal.

Distracted, Beethoven’s compositional output slowed to a crawl, the most notable of which are his lovley and light Eighth Symphony and the Tenth Violin Sonata, which was dedicated to Pierre Rode.

I will say no more about Beethoven’s personal life–but include these brief stories as a way of explaining what happened next. In one of the most perplexing shifts in all of music history, the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who had spent a career challenging (and often alienating) his audience, sold out. Bigly. And it began, naturally, with Napoleon.

While the Emperor was engaged in his ill-fated Russian campaign, the Duke of Wellington defeated Joseph Bonaparte’s army in Spain at the Battle of Vitoria in June 1813. As the news spread through Europe, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel convinced Beethoven to compose a “symphony” for his panharmonicon, a mechanical orchestra.


Beethoven did so, composing a work of stunning banality. It was, however, a hit. The success of Wellington’s Victory likely led to the organization of the benefit concert at which his Seventh Symphony had also premiered. Wellington’s Victory proved every bit, if not more, popular than anything Beethoven had ever written–and it was lucrative as well. This led Beethoven to compose more “popular” works, the best known of which is Der glorreiche Augenblick (“The Glorious Moment”). It is as awful as the name suggests.

I don’t actually recommend listening to any of this music. But if you choose to do so, there is only one drink to have. For relaxing times (and for contemplating the fine art of selling out), make it Suntory time.

Fortunately for all of us, Viennese music fans deplored what had become of their greatest citizen and the popularity of Beethoven’s popular music waned. Facing ruin, Beethoven turned inward and channeled his complex web of emotions into his music. The world had turned on Ludwig van Beethoven and now the great composer would no longer seek to appease the crowd at all. Starting in or around 1817, Beethoven was writing solely for himself and, he hoped, for posterity. The music he would produce over the last decade of his life are among the most remarkable compositions in history. Next week, the Late Period arrives.

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