The letter to the so-called Immortal Beloved (now thought to be Antonie Brentano) is the only real love letter to survive from Beethoven. It’s one of the strangest ever written. It more or less says I love and long for you but it’s not possible. He’d spent his life craving domestic/sexual happiness, had suffered a series of rejections, and now, finally, when he’s offered it unreservedly, he withdraws.
The journey described in the letter mirrors the nightmare going on in him:
My journey was a fearful one; I did not reach here until 4 o’clock yesterday morning. Lacking horses the post-coach chose another route, but what an awful one; at the stage before the last I was warned not to travel at night; I was made fearful of a forest, but that only made me the more eager – and I was wrong. The coach must needs break down on the wretched road, a bottomless mud road…..
The letter is a confusion of longing and desperation, a cry for forgiveness, that she not abandon him, whatever his inability. Maynard Solomon writes: “His union with Antonie was barred, not by his need for a ‘steady, quiet life’ but by unspecified terrors which overwhelmed the possibilities of a fruitful outcome.
These terrors were the ‘fearful conditions’ referred to in a diary entry dated May 13, 1813:
To forego a great act which might have been and remains so – O, what a difference compared with an unstudied life which often rose in my fancy – O fearful conditions which do not suppress my feeling for domesticity – Ah, but to carry it out! O God, God, look down upon the unhappy B,. do not permit it to last much longer – “
It has a desperate and at times absurd pathos, which Barry’s setting wonderfully caught.
The resulting sound was comically galumphing. Imagine neo-classic Stravinsky drowning in mud.
This is a score of clarity and fastidiousness, though it sinks into allusiveness and eventual banality, when Beethoven’s closing words in his letter to his unidentified “Immortal Beloved” are muttered against the slow unfolding of Adeste Fideles – Beethoven signs off “faithful”
The Birmingham Post
Beethoven was premiered by BCMG conducted by Thomas Adès on 16 March 2008 at CBSO Centre, Birmingham.