“Pity, pity, too late.”
Those were the last coherent words Ludwig van Beethoven uttered before his death on March 26, 1827.
The much distinguished composer actually spoke this phrase two days prior to his passing: the last 48 hours of his life were spent in excruciating agony.
“His strong body and unimpaired lungs struggled titanically with approaching death,” remembered Gerhard von Breuning. “It was a terrible sight.”
So, what was Beethoven lamenting in his dying hours? His passing from this life at the age of 56? An unfinished composition which might soar with his previous masterpieces?
No, he was mourning because he would not have a chance to consume the expensive Rhine wines his publisher, Schott and Sons, had sent earlier in the day. Beethoven certainly enjoyed his alcoholic beverages.
It is said that at the hour of his death, a violent thunderstorm erupted from the heavens, and following one apocalyptic bolt, Beethoven was jolted awake, lifted his clenched fist and died in triumphant defiance.
As biographer Jan Swafford wrote, “It may well have happened that way as any other. What is certain is that Beethoven died the same death as any man, alone in his agony. But he was unafraid.”
Beethoven’s acceptance of mortality may have something to do with the numerous afflictions he endured while alive. These, according to Swafford, included deafness, colitis, rheumatism, rheumatic fever, typhus, skin disorders, infections, ophthalmia, inflammatory degeneration of the arteries, jaundice — and following an autopsy, it was discovered he had cirrhosis of the liver, no doubt related to his bibulous lifestyle. The brilliant musician was a diagnostic calamity.
Once he passed, Beethoven became the subject of what Viennese Society referred to as the “beautiful corpse.” In those days, funerals were elaborate, theatrical, and free to the very interested public. The passage from this life to the next was treated as a celebration full of the proverbial pomp and circumstance. His funeral was the most luxurious given to someone who was neither a royal nor prominent head of state.
Beethoven’s body was placed in a simple wooden coffin for visitation in his apartment in Vienna. Swafford noted that much of his hair had been cut off by souvenir seekers. A garland of white roses encased his head, and his hands were placed around a crucifix. A throng of visitors respectfully filed by the remains.
The body was then transported to the Church of the Holy Trinity for the funeral service. Afterwards, the cathedral and adjoining courtyard were so packed, it was difficult to maneuver the casket to the front of the procession line.
At least 10,000 — some accounts have the crowd estimate at 30,000 — watched as Beethoven’s cortege marched to the cemetery. Local schools were closed for the event — the atmosphere was soaked in import.
Outside the graveyard gates, a renowned actor, Heinrich Anschutz, delivered the eulogy written by playwright Franz Grillparzer. Beethoven was described as “among the great of all ages…we were there when they buried him, and when he died, we wept.” The eulogy was probably shouted, as was the custom of the time.
Beethoven left behind 722 compositions. Among them, his 9 symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 string quartets represent the finest catalog of classical music ever written. He lived in tempestuous times–the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars– and his music reflected that turbulence.
E.T.A. Hoffmann, a highly influential critic, wrote, “Beethoven’s music opens the floodgates of awe, fear, horror, suffering…the romanticism of the music springs from a source deep in Beethoven’s heart, to be expressed in his works with exalted genius and deep thought.”
What’s truly incredible is that Beethoven wrote these masterworks while suffering the slow onset of diminished hearing. His condition began with tinnitus (ringing and buzzing noises) when he was in his 20’s — eventually he became deaf. This condition forced him to give up his prosperous concert career as a piano virtuoso, but he refused to stop composing.
The root cause of his hearing loss has never been established. Some think it was the result of either typhus or a sexually transmitted disease. A recent DNA analysis of Beethoven’s hair revealed an abnormally high level of lead. The wine of Beethoven’s time contained lead, so it is possible his chronic consumption may have had a damaging auditory impact.
While generally portrayed as a grouchy, ill-tempered genius, contemporary biographers note a gentler side to Beethoven’s personality.
For instance, even though he had an ambivalent relationship with his mentor and fellow composer, Joseph Haydn, Beethoven demonstrated appropriate collegial respect for the man. He deliberately avoided composing any string quartets or symphonies until it was clear Haydn was done with both of those forms. Beethoven also dedicated three piano sonatas to him. Not the actions of a petty man.
Then, there’s the mysterious “Immortal Beloved” letter, which still has scholars guessing.
After Beethoven’s death, a ten-page love letter was discovered in a hidden drawer in his apartment. The letter appears to have been written in 1812 when the composer was fully seized by passion. For whom, we will never know because it was not addressed to anyone by name.
Here’s the most famous passage: “my thoughts rush toward you my Immortal Beloved now and then happy, then again sad, awaiting fate, if it will grant us a favorable hearing…”
It is impossible to discover if the letter was sent, unsent, returned, rejected. As Swafford wrote, “In the next two hundred years of speculation, history turned up no decisive answer, only a welter of tantalizing but inconclusive facts trailing off into uncertainties buttressed by guess and suppositions.”
Barring any future findings, the fate of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” will remain unknown.
In closing, please enjoy the last movement of Ode to Joy. Beethoven composed this when he was completely deaf: sadly, he only heard this wonderful music in his imagination. Pity, pity.