This Week in Music History: Beethoven finishes the Heiligenstadt Testament (1802)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. This week? The completion of a moving piece of writing from a larger-than-life composer: Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament…

“Heiligenstadt, October 10, 1802, thus do I take my farewell of thee—and indeed sadly,” wrote Beethoven at the bottom of a document he had begun four days earlier. On October 6, the composer had noted down, in impassioned terms, a few practical details concerning what should happen after his death, as well as an explanation, or perhaps an apology, for what some people had thought to be his “malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic” behavior.

None of this had been the intention when Beethoven left Vienna in April that year. Following the advice of his doctor, he had taken up residence in the rural village of Heiligenstadt, in order to give his ears a rest. It was a final, slightly desperate measure intended to combat the deafness that had started to afflict the young composer—he was only 31. But it did not work.

His time in the countryside had not been entirely wasted: he composed various piano works while he was there, including the three sonatas Op. 31 and two sets of variations, Op. 34 and Op. 35. That second set—known today as the “Eroica” Variations—is particularly significant, based as it is on the same theme that would conclude his groundbreaking “Eroica” Symphony.”

As the summer turned to autumn and his hearing did not improve, however, Beethoven’s mood seems to have darkened. He writes movingly in the document—known today as the Heiligenstadt Testament—about the social cost of bad hearing, the acute embarrassment it causes, and of course the particular difficulty he faced given his profession. He asks,

How could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others.

The document is addressed to Beethoven’s two brothers, Carl and Johann, although Beethoven left a blank space where Johann’s name should have been, for reasons that have never been entirely explained. Beethoven never sent it to them, however: instead, he kept it safe among his possessions, such that it came to light only after his death in 1827. It seems to have marked the lowest point in Beethoven’s struggle with his disability, and probably in his life in general. As such, though, it was also a turning point, at which he bade farewell not just to Heiligenstadt, but also to good hearing, and started afresh.

Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, 1802

“As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered so hope has been blighted,” he wrote on October 10—but hope had not disappeared altogether. Beethoven added: “O Providence—grant me at least but one day of pure joy—it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart.” Perhaps he clung to this hint of optimism when he was back in Vienna, thrusting himself into a remarkably busy schedule which shows no shortage of ambition. He found his music hugely in demand, and his compositional powers ever greater. He wrote that still-revolutionary work the “Eroica” Symphony remarkably fast in spring 1803. But the first ideas for it had been sketched, under quite different circumstances, back in Heiligenstadt.

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