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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Title:     Ludwig Van Beethoven
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

Melody has by Beethoven been freed from the influence of Fashion and changing Taste, and raised to an ever-valid, purely human type. Beethoven's music will be understood to all time, while that of his predecessors will, for the most part, only remain intelligible to us through the medium of reflection on the history of Art.

---Richard Wagner

Music is the youngest of the arts. Modern music dates back about four hundred years. It is not so old as the invention of printing. As an art it began with the work of the priests of the Roman Catholic Church in endeavoring to arrange a liturgy.

The medieval chant and the popular folk-song came together, and the science of music was born. Sculpture reached perfection in Greece, painting in Italy, portraiture in Holland; but Germany, the land of thought, has given us nearly all the great musicians and nine-tenths of all our valuable musical compositions.

Holland has taken a very important part in every line of art and handicraft, and in way of all-round development has set the pace for civilization.

Art follows in the wake of commerce, for without commerce there is neither surplus wealth nor leisure. The artist is paid from what is left after men have bought food and clothing; and the time to enjoy comes only after the struggle for existence.

When Venice was not only Queen of the Adriatic but of the maritime world as well, Art came and established there her Court of Beauty. It was Venice that mothered Giorgione, Titian, the Bellinis, and the men who wrought in iron and silver and gold, and those masterful bookmakers; it was beautiful Venice that gave sustenance and encouragement to Stradivari (who made violins as well as he could) up at Cremona, only a few miles away.

But there came a day when all those seventy bookmakers of Venice ceased to print, and the music of the anvils was stilled, and all the painters were dead, and Venice became but a monument of things that were, as she is today; for Commerce is King, and his capital has been moved far away.

So Venice sits sad and solitary--a pale and beautiful ruin, pathetic beyond speech, infested by noisy shop-keepers and petty pilferers, the degenerate sons of the robbers who once roamed the sea and enthroned her on her hundred isles.

All that Venice knew was absorbed by Holland. The Elzevirs and the Plantins took over the business of the seventy bookmakers, and the art-schools of Amsterdam, Leyden and Antwerp reproduced every picture of note that had been done in Venice. The great churches of Holland are replicas of the churches of Venice. And the Cathedral at Antwerp, where the sweet bells have chimed each quarter of an hour for three centuries, through peace and plenty, through lurid war and sudden death--there where hangs Rubens' masterpiece--that Cathedral is but an enlarged "Santa Maria de' Frari," where for two hundred years hung "The Assumption," by Titian.

In these churches of Holland were placed splendid organs, and the priests formed choirs, and offered prizes for the best singing and the best compositions. Music and painting developed hand in hand; for at the last, all of the arts are one--each being but a division of labor.

The world owes a great debt to the Dutch. It was Holland taught England how to paint and how to print, and England taught us: so our knowledge of printing and painting came to us by way of the apostolic succession of the Dutch.

The march of civilization follows a simple trail, well defined beyond dispute. Viewed in retrospect it begins in a hazy thread stretching from Assyria into Egypt, from Egypt into Greece, from Greece to Rome--widening throughout Italy and Spain, then centering in Venice, and tracing clear and deep to Amsterdam--widening again into Germany and across to England, thence carried in "Mayflowers" to America.

That remark of Charles Dudley Warner, once near neighbor to Mark Twain, that there is no culture west of Buffalo, was indelicate if not unkind; and residents of Omaha aver that it is open to argument. But the fact stands beyond cavil that what art we possess is traceable to our masters, the Dutch.

It must be admitted that the art of printing was first practised at Mayence on the Rhine, leaving the Chinese out of the equation; but it had to travel around down through Italy before it reached perfection. And its universality and usefulness were not fully developed until it had swung around to Holland and was given by the Dutch back to Germany and the world. And as with printing, so with music. Germany has specialized on music. She has succeeded, but it is because Holland gave her lessons.

* * * * *

During the fore part of the Seventeenth Century, there lived in Antwerp, Ludvig van Biethofen, grandfather of the genius known as Beethoven. A life-size portrait of him can be seen in the Plantin Musee, and if you did not know that the picture was painted before Beethoven was born, you would say at once, "Beethoven!" There is a look of stern endurance, as if the artist had admired Rembrandt's "Burgomaster" a little too well, yet that sturdiness belonged to the Master, too; and there are the abstracted far-away look, the touch of proud melancholy, and the becoming unkemptness that we know so well.

The child is grandfather to the man. Beethoven bore slight resemblance to his immediate parents, but in his talent, habits and all of his mental traits, he closely resembled this sturdy Dutchman who composed, sang, led the military band, and played the organ at the Church of Saint Jacques in Antwerp.

Being ambitious, Ludvig van Biethofen, while yet a young man, moved to Bonn, the home of Clement Augustus, Archbishop-Elector of Cologne.

The chief business of elector was, in case of necessity, to elect a King. America borrowed the elector idea from Germany. But our "electoral college" is a degenerate political appendicle that is continued, because, in borrowing plans of government, we took good and bad alike, not knowing there was a difference. The elector scheme in the United States is occasionally valuable for defeating the will of the people in case of a popular majority.

In justice, however, let me say that the original argument of the Colonists was that the people should not vote directly for President, because the candidate might live a long way off, and the voter could not know whether he was fit or not. So they let the citizen vote for a wise and honest elector he knew.

The result is that we all now know the candidates for President, but we do not know the electors. The electoral college in America is just about as useful as the two buttons on the back of a man's coat, put there originally to support a sword-belt. We have discarded the sword, yet we cling to our buttons.

But the electors of Germany, in days agone, had a well-defined use. The people were not, at first, troubled to elect them--the King did that himself, and then as one good turn deserves another, the electors agreed to elect the successor the King designated, when death should compel him to abdicate. Then to fill in the time between elections, the electors did the business of the King. It will thus be seen that every elector was really a sort of King himself, governing his little State, amenable to no one but the King.

And so the chief business of the elector was to keep the people in his diocese loyal to the King.

There have always existed three ways of keeping the people loving and loyal. One is to leave them alone, to trust them and not to interfere. This plan, however, has very seldom been practised, because the politicians regard the public as a cow to be milked, and something must be done to make it stand quiet.

So they try Plan Number Two, which consists in hypnotizing the public by means of shows, festivals, parades, prizes and many paid speeches, sermons and editorials, wherein and whereby the public is told how much is being done for it, and how fortunate it is in being protected and wisely cared for by its divinely appointed guardians. Then the band strikes up, the flags are waved, three passes are made, one to the right and two to the left; and we, being completely under the hypnosis, hurrah ourselves hoarse.

Plan Number Three is a very ancient one and is always held back to be used in case Number Two fails. It is for the benefit of the people who do not pass readily under hypnotic control. If there are too many of these, they have been known to pluck up courage and answer back to the speeches, sermons and editorials. Sometimes they refuse to hurrah when the bass-drum plays, in which case they have occasionally been arrested for contumacy and contravention by stocky men, in wide-awake hats, who lead the strenuous life. This Plan Number Three provides for an armed force that shall overawe, if necessary, all who are not hypnotized. The army is used for two purposes--to coerce disturbers at home, and to get up a war at a distance, and thus distract attention from the troubles near at hand. Napoleon used to say that the only sure cure for internal dissension was a foreign war: this would draw the disturbers away, on the plea of patriotism, so they would win enough outside loot to satisfy them, or else they would all get killed, it really didn't matter much; and as for loot, if it was taken from foreigners, there was no sin.

A careful analyst might here say that Plan Number Three is only a variation of Plan Number Two--the end being gained by hypnotic effects in either event, for the army is conscripted from the people to use against the people, just as you turn steam from a boiler into the fire-box to increase the draft. Possibly this is true, but I have introduced this digression, anyway, only to show that the original office of elector was a wise and beneficent function of the Government, and could be revived with profit in America, to replace the outworn and useless vermiformis that we now possess in way of an electoral college.

* * * * *

When Kings allowed Church and State to separate they made a grave mistake. With the two united, as they were until a more recent time, they held a cinch on both the souls and the bodies of their subjects.

In the good old days in Germany the elector was always an archbishop. Our bishops now are a weakling lot. With no army to back their edicts the people smile at their proclamations, try on their shovel hats, and laugh at their gaiters. Or if they be Methodist bishops, who are only make-believe bishops, having slipped the cable that bound them to the past, we pound them familiarly on the back and address them as "Bish."

Clement Augustus, Elector of Cologne, maintained a court that vied with royalty itself. In his household were two hundred servants. He had coachmen, footmen, cooks, messengers, a bodyguard, musicians, poets and artists who hastened to do his bidding. He patronized all the arts, made a pet of science, offered a reward for the transmutation of metals, dabbled in astrology and practised palmistry.

Into this brilliant court came the strong and masterful Ludvig van Biethofen.

In a year his gracious presence, superb voice and rare skill as a musician, pushed him to the front and into favor with the powers, with a yearly salary of four hundred guilders. The history of this man is a deal better raw stock for a romance than the life of his grandson.

From Seventeen Hundred Thirty-two, when he entered the court as an unknown and ordinary musician with an acceptable tenor voice, to Seventeen Hundred Sixty-one, when he was Kapellmeister and a member of the private council of the Elector, his life was a steady march successward. Strong men were needed then as now, and his promotion was deserved. Various accounts and mention of this man are to be found, and one contemporary described him as he appeared at sixty. The only mark of age he carried was his flowing white hair. His smoothly shaven face showed the strong features of a man of thirty-five; and his carriage, actions and superb grace as an orchestra-leader made him a conspicuous figure in any company.

Ludvig van Biethofen had one son, Johann by name. This boy resembled his gifted father very little, and his training was such that he early fell a victim to arrested development.

If a parent does everything for a child, the child probably will never do anything for himself. It is Nature's plan--she seems to think that no one needs strength excepting the struggler, and being kind she comes to his rescue; but the man who puts forth no effort remains a weakling to the end.

Johann placed success beyond his reach very early in life by putting an enemy into his mouth to steal away his brains. His marriage to a daughter of a cook in Ehrenbreitstein Castle did not stop his waywardness, or give him decision as was hoped. Marriage as a scheme of reformation is not always a success, and women who lend themselves to it take great chances.

Mary Magdalena was a widow, and some say possessed of wiles. That she was beneath Johann in social station, but beyond him in actual worth, there is no doubt. And whether she snared the incautious man, or whether the marriage was arranged by the elder Biethofen as a diplomatic move in the interests of morality, matters little. The end justifies the means; and as a net result of this mating, without putting forward the circumstance as a precedent to be religiously followed, the world has Beethoven and his work.

* * * * *

A plate affixed to Number Five Hundred Fifteen Bonngasse, Bonn, gives the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven as December Seventeenth, Seventeen Hundred Seventy. He was the second-born child of his mother, and after him came a goodly assortment of boys and girls. Two of his brothers lived to exercise a sinister influence over the life of the Master, and to darken days that should have been luminous with love. Little Ludwig was the pet and pride of the grandfather. The grandfather had even insisted that the baby should bear his name. Disappointment in his own child caused him to center his love in the grandchild. This instinct that makes men long to live again in the lives of their children--is it reaching out for immortality? And as the grandfather virtually supported the household, he was allowed to have his own way, and indeed that strong, yet cheery will was not to be opposed. The old man prophesied what the boy would do, just as love ever does, and has done, since the world began.

But only in his dreams was Ludvig van Biethofen to know of the success of his namesake. When the boy was scarce four years old, the old man passed away. The place in the orchestra that Johann held through favor was soon forfeited, and times of pinching poverty followed, and sorrows came like the gathering of a winter night.

Have you never shared the mocking shame and biting pain of a drunkard's household? Then God grant you never may. When the world withdraws its faith from a man through his own imbecility, and employment is denied; when promises are unkept; when order and system are gone, and foresight fled, and loud accusation, threat and contumely vary their strident tones with maudlin protestations of affection, and vows made to be broken, easily change to curses; when the fire dies on the hearth, and children huddle in bed in the daytime for warmth; when the scanty food that is found is eaten ravenously, and blanching fear comes when a heavy tread and fumbling at the lock are heard in the hall--these things challenge language for fit expression and cause words to falter.

The moody and dispirited Johann one day conceived a bright thought--a thought so vivid that for the moment it cleared the cobwebs from his mind and sobered his boozy brain--the genius of his five-year-old boy should be exploited to retrieve his battered fortunes!

The child was already showing signs of musical talent; and diligent practise was now begun. Several chums at the beer-gardens were interviewed and great plans unfolded in beery enthusiasm. The services of several of these men were secured as tutors, and one of them, Pfeiffer, took lodgings with the Biethofens, and paid for bed and board in music-lessons.

A new thought is purifying, ideas are hygienic; and already things had begun to look brighter for the household. It wasn't exactly prosperity, but Johann had found a place in the band, and was earning as much as three dollars a week, which amount for two weeks running he brought home and placed in his wife's lap.

But things were grievous for young Beethoven: he had two taskmasters, his father and Pfeiffer. One gave him lessons on the violin in the morning, and the other took him to a tavern where there was a clavichord and made him play all the afternoon.

Then occasionally Johann and Pfeiffer would come home at two o'clock in the morning from a concert where they had been playing and where the wine was red and also free, and they would drag the poor child from his bed to make him play. This was followed up until the boy's mother rebelled, and on one occasion Pfeiffer and Johann were sent to the military hospital and dry-docked for repairs.

On the whole, this man Pfeiffer was kindly and usually capable. In after-years Beethoven testified to the valuable assistance he had received from him; and when Pfeiffer had grown old and helpless, Beethoven sent funds to him by the publishers, Simrock.

Young Ludwig was a stocky, sturdy youth, decidedly Dutch in his characteristics, with no nerves to speak of, else he would have laid him down and died of heart-chill and neglect, as did four of his little brothers and sisters. But he stood the ordeals, and at parlor, tavern and beer-garden entertainments where he played, although his cheeks were often stained with tears, he took a sort of secret pride in being able to do things which even his father could not. And then he was always introduced as "Ludvig Biethofen, the grandchild of Ludvig van Biethofen," and this was no mean introduction. His appearance, even then, bore strong resemblance to the lost and lamented grandfather; and Van den Eeden, the Court Organist, in loving remembrance of his Antwerp friend, took the lad into his keeping and gave him lessons. When Van den Eeden retired, Neefe, his successor, took a kindly interest in the boy and even protected him from his father and the zealous Pfeiffer. So well was the boy thought of that when he was twelve years of age Neefe established him as his deputy at the chapel organ.

Shortly after this, the new Elector, Max Friedrich, bestowed on "Louis van Beethoven, my well-beloved player upon the organ and clavichord, a stipend of one hundred fifty florins a year, and if his talent doth increase with his years the amount is to be also increased."

In token of the Elector's recognition Beethoven wrote three sonatas, the earliest of his compositions, and dedicated them to Max Friedrich in Seventeen Hundred Eighty-two.

In Seventeen Hundred Eighty-four, Elector Max Friedrich died, and Max Franz was appointed to take his place. His inauguration was the signal for a renewal of musical and artistic activity. Concerts, shows and military pageants followed the installation. In a list of court appointments we find that Louis van Beethoven is put down as "second organist" with a salary of forty-five pounds a year. Below this is Johann Beethoven with a salary of thirty pounds a year. And in one of the court journals mention is made of Johann Beethoven with the added line, "father of Ludwig Beethoven," showing even then the man's source of distinction.

In Seventeen Hundred Eighty-seven, when in his eighteenth year, Beethoven made a visit to Vienna in company with several musicians from the Elector's court at Bonn. This visit was a memorable event in the life of the Master, every detail of which was deeply etched upon his memory, to be effaced only by death.

It was on this visit to Vienna that he met Mozart, and played for him. Mozart gave due attention, and when the player had ceased he turned to the company and said, "Keep your eye on this youth--he will yet make a noise in the world!"

The remark, if closely analyzed, reveals itself as noncommittal; and although it has been bruited as praise the round world over, it was probably an electrotyped expression, used daily; for great musicians are called upon at every turn to listen to prodigies. I once attended "rhetoricals" where the Honorable Chauncey M. Depew was present. Being called upon to "make a few remarks," the Senator from New York arose and referred to one of the speeches given by a certain sophomore as "unlike anything I ever heard before!" Genius very seldom recognizes genius.

Beethoven had a self-sufficiency, even at that early time, that stood him in good stead. He felt his power, and knew his worth. That steadfast, obstinate quality in his make-up was not in vain. He let others quote Mozart's remark; but he had matched himself against the Master, and was not abashed.

* * * * *

Kinship is a question of spirit and not a matter of blood. How often do we find persons who, in feeling, are absolutely strangers to their own brothers and sisters! Occasionally even parents fail to understand their children. The child may hunger for sympathy and love that the mother knows nothing of, and cry itself to sleep for a tenderness withheld. Later this same child may evolve aspirations and ambitions that seem to the other members of the family mere whims and vagaries to be laughed down, or stoutly endured, as the mood prompts.

Knowing these things, do we wonder at the question of long ago, "Who is my mother, and who are my brethren"? Beethoven was a beautiful brown thrush in a nest of cuckoos. He could sing and sing divinely, and the members of his household were glad because it brought an income in which they all shared.

About the year Seventeen Hundred Ninety-five, Beethoven went to Vienna, and as he had been heralded by several persons of influence, his reception was gracious. Charity has its periods of evolving into a fad, and at this time the fashion was musical entertainments in aid of this or that. Slight suspicions exist that these numerous entertainments were devised by fledgling musicians for their own aggrandizement, and possibly patrons fanned the philanthropic flame to help on their proteges. Beethoven was of too simple and guileless a nature to aid his fortunes with the help of any social jimmy, but we see he was soon in the full tide of local popularity. His ability as a composer, his virile presence, and his skill as a player, made his company desired. From playing first for charity, then at the houses of nobility, and next as a professional musician, he gradually mounted to the place to which his genius entitled him.

Then we find his brothers, Carl and Johann, appearing on the scene, with a fussy yet earnest intent to take care of the business affairs of their eccentric and absent-minded brother. Ludwig let himself fall into their way of thinking--it was easier than to oppose them--and they began to drive bargains with publishers and managers. Their intent was to sell for cash and in the highest market; and their strenuous effort after the Main Chance put their gifted brother in a bad plight before the world of art. Beethoven's brothers seized his very early and immature compositions and sold them without his consent or knowledge. So humiliated was Beethoven by seeing these productions of his childhood hawked about that he even instituted lawsuits to get them back that he might destroy them. To boom a genius and cash his spiritual assets is a grave and delicate task--perhaps it is one of those things that should be left undone. Much anguish did these rapacious brothers cause the divinely gifted brown thrush, and when they began to quarrel over the receipts between themselves, he begged them to go away and leave him in peace. He finally had to adopt the ruse of going back to Bonn with them, where he got them established in the apothecary business, before he dared manage his own affairs. But they were bad angels, and the wind of their wings withered the great man as they hovered around him down to the day of his death.

* * * * *

Then silence settled down upon Beethoven, and every piano was for him mute, and he, the maker of sweet sounds, could not hear his own voice, or catch the words that fell from the lips of those he loved, Fate seemed to have done her worst.

And so he wrote: "Forgive me then if you see me turn away when I would gladly mix with you. For me there is no recreation in human intercourse, no conversation, no sweet interchange of thought. In solitary exile I am compelled to live. When I approach strangers a feverish fear takes possession of me, for I know that I will be misunderstood. * * * But O God, Thou lookest down upon my inward soul! Thou knowest, and Thou seest that love for my fellowmen, and all kindly feeling have their abode here. Patience! I may get better--I may not--but I will endure all until Death shall claim me, and then joyously will I go!"

The man who could so express himself at twenty-eight years of age must have been a right brave and manly man. But art was his solace, as it should be to every soul that aspires to become.

Great genius and great love can never be separated--in fact I am not sure but that they are one and the same thing. But the object of his love separated herself from Beethoven when calamity lowered. What woman, young, bright, vigorous and fresh, with her face to the sunrising, would care to link her fair fate with that of a man sore-stricken by the hand of God!

And then there is always a doubt about the genius--isn't he only a fool after all!

Art was Beethoven's solace. Art is harmony, beauty and excellence. The province of art is to impart a sublime emotion. Beethoven's heart was filled with divine love--and all love is divine--and through his art he sought to express his love to others.

But his physical calamity made him the butt and byword of the heedless wherever he went. Within the sealed-up casements of his soul Beethoven heard the Heavenly Choir; and as he walked, bareheaded, upon the street, oblivious to all, centered in his own silent world, he would sometimes suddenly burst into song. At other times he would beat time, talk to himself and laugh aloud. His strange actions would often attract a crowd, and rude persons, ignorant of the man they mocked, would imitate him or make mirth for the bystanders, as they sought to engage him in conversation. At such times the Master might be dragged back to earth, and seeing the coarse faces and knowing the hopelessness of trying to make himself understood, he would retreat in terror.

Six months or more of each year were spent in the country in some obscure village about Vienna. There he could walk the woods and traverse the fields alone and unnoticed, and there, out under the open sky, much of his best work was done. The famous "Moonlight Sonata" was shaped on one of these lonely walks by night across the fields when the Master could shake his shaggy head, lift up his face to the sky, and cry aloud, all undisturbed. In the recesses of his imagination he saw the sounds. There are men to whom sounds are invisible symbols of forms and colors.

The law of compensation never rests. Everything conspired to drive Beethoven in upon his art--it was his refuge and retreat. When love spurned him, and misunderstandings with kinsmen came, and lawsuits and poverty added their weight of woe, he fell back upon music, and out under the stars he listened to the sonatas of God. Next day he wrote them out as best he could, always regretting that his translations were not quite perfect. He was ever stung with a noble discontent, and in times of exaltation there ran in his deaf ears the words, "Arise and get thee hence, for this is not thy rest!"

And so his work was in a constant ascending scale. Richard Wagner has acknowledged his indebtedness to Beethoven in several essays, and in many ways. In fact it is not too much to say that Beethoven was the spiritual parent of Wagner. From his admiration of Beethoven, Wagner developed the strong, sturdy, independent quality of his nature that led to his exile--and his success.

Behold the face of Ludwig Beethoven--is there not something Titanic about it? What selfness, what will, what resolve, what power! And those tear-stained eyes--have they not seen sights of which no tongue can tell, nor tongue make plain?

His life of solitude helped foster the independence of his nature, and kept his mind clear and free from all the idle gossip of the rabble. He went his way alone, and played court fool to no titled and alleged nobility. The democracy of the man is not our least excuse for honoring him. He was one with the plain people of earth, and the only aristocracy he acknowledged was the aristocracy of intellect.

In the work done after his fortieth year there is greater freedom, an ease and an increased strength, with a daring quality which uplifts and gives you courage. The tragic interest and intense emotionalism are gone, and you behold a resignation and the success that wins by yielding. The man is no longer at war with destiny. There is no struggle.

We pay for everything we receive--nay, all things can be obtained if we but pay the price. One of the very few Emancipated Men in America bought redemption from the bondage of selfish ambition at a terrible price. Years and years ago he was in the Rocky Mountains, rough, uneducated, heedless of all that makes for righteousness. This man was caught in a snowstorm, on the mountainside. He lost his way, became dazed with cold and fell exhausted in the snow. When found by his companions the next day, death had nearly claimed him. But skilful help brought him back to life, yet the frost had killed the circulation in his feet. Both legs were amputated just below the knees.

This changed the current of the man's life. Footraces, boxing-matches and hunting of big game were out of the question. The man turned to books and art and questions of science and sociology.

Thirty summers have come and gone. This gentle, sympathetic and loving man now walks with a cane, and few know of his disability and of his artificial feet. Speaking of his spiritual rebirth, this man of splendid intellect said to me, with a smile, "It cost me my feet, but it was worth the price."

I shed no maudlin tears over the misfortunes of Beethoven. He was what he was because of what he endured. He grew strong by bearing burdens. All things are equalized. By the Cross is the world redeemed. God be praised, it is all good!

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Ludwig Van Beethoven