Beethoven's last summer. What if he had indeed taken his life at the age of 31? Only two symphonies, no middle period, no late quartets …
John Drummond explores critical moments in the history of Western music when things might well have turned out very differently.
It is October 10th, 1802. Beethoven has just finished writing his last will and testament.
He puts down his quill pen. Next to it, on the writing table, lies the knife with which he has been sharpening it. It is sharp enough to cut the veins on a wrist. He looks at it, he picks it up.
We are at a turning point in music history. At this moment, in an upstairs room at No 6, Probusgasse in the village of Heiligenstadt near Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven, aged 31, is engaged in making a decision that will affect not only his own continued existence, but the whole of the future of Western classical music.
What is the issue? The answer lies, as it often does in such situations, in an incompatibility. Two aspects of Beethoven’s life were in deep and apparently irreconcilable conflict with each other. On the one hand, he was a person for whom nothing was more important than music. It had sustained him through a childhood and youth scarred by family abuse, caused by the irrational behaviour of a drunken father. In music he had found not merely consolation but an opportunity for self-expression, as a pianist and a composer. Music had brought him recognition and admiration.
But there was a problem. The worst problem a musician can have. A specialist nowadays would describe it as “otosclerosis of the mixed type, with parallel degeneration of the auditory nerve.” But the simple word to use is deafness.