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The Prophecy of the Heiligenstadt Testament


The rise of Ludwig van Beethoven into the ranks of
history's greatest composers was paralleled by and in some
ways a consequence of his own personal tragedy and despair.
Beginning in the late 1790's, the increasing buzzing and
humming in his ears sent Beethoven into a panic, searching
for a cure from doctor to doctor. By October 1802 he had
written the Heiligenstadt Testament confessing the
certainty of his growing deafness, his consequent despair,
and suicidal considerations. Yet, despite the personal
tragedy caused by the "infirmity in the one sense which
ought to be more perfect in [him] than in others, a sense
which [he] once possessed in the highest perfection, a
perfection such as few in [his] profession enjoy," it also
served as a motivating force in that it challenged him to
try and conquer the fate that was handed him. He would not
surrender to that "jealous demon, my wretched health"
before proving to himself and the world the extent of his
skill. Thus, faced with such great impending loss,
Beethoven, keeping faith in his art and ability, states in
his Heiligenstadt Testament a promise of his greatness yet
to be proven in the development of his heroic style. By
about 1800, Beethoven was mastering the Viennese High-
Classic style. Although the style had been first perfected
by Mozart, Beethoven did extend it to some degree. He had
unprecedently composed sonatas for the cello which in
combination with the piano opened the era of the Classic-
Romantic cello sonata. In addition, his sonatas for violin
and piano became the cornerstone of the sonata duo
repertory. His experimentation with additions to the
standard forms likewise made it apparent that he had
reached the limits of the high- Classic style. Having
displayed the extended range of his piano writing he was
also begining to forge a new voice for the violin. In 1800,
Beethoven was additionally combining the sonata form with a
full orchestra in his First Symphony, op. 2. In the arena
of piano sonata, he had also gone beyond the three-
movement design of Haydn and Mozart, applying sometimes the
four-movement design reserved for symphonies and quartets
through the addition of a minuet or scherzo. Having
confidently proven the high-Classic phase of his sonata
development with the "Grande Sonate," op. 22, Beethoven
moved on to the fantasy sonata to allow himself freer
expression. By 1802, he had evidently succeeded in
mastering the high-Classic style within each of its major
instrumental genres -- the piano trio, string trio, string
quartet and quintet, Classic piano concerto, duo sonata,
piano sonata, and symphony. Having reached the end of the
great Vienese tradition, he was then faced with either the
unchallenging repetion of the tired style or going beyond
it to new creations. At about the same time that Beethoven
had exhausted the potentials of the high-Classic style, his
increasing deafness landed him in a major cycle of
depression, from which was to emerge his heroic period as
exemplified in Symphony No. 3, op. 55 ("Eroica"). In
Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament of October 1802, he
reveals his malaise that was sending him to the edge of
despair. He speaks of suicide in the same breath as a
reluctance to die, expressing his helplessness against the
inevitability of death. Having searched vainly for a cure,
he seems to have lost all hope -- "As the leaves of autumn
fall and are withered-so likewise has my hope been
blighted-I leave here- almost as I came-even the high
courage-which often inspired me in the beautiful days of
summer-has disappeared." There is somewhat of a parallel
between his personal and professional life. He is at a dead
end on both cases. There seems to be no more that he can do
with the high-Classic style; his deafness seems poised
inevitably to encumber and ultimately halt his musical
career. However, despite it all, he reveals in the
Testament a determination, though weak and exhausted, to
carry on -- "I would have ended my life-it was only my art
that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave
the world until I had brough forth all that I felt was
within me. So I endured this wretched existence..."
Realizing his own potential which he expressed earlier
after the completion of the Second Symphony -- "I am only a
little satisfied with my previous works" -- and in an 1801
letter -- "I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall
certainly not bend and crush me completely" -- he decides
to go on. At a time when Beethoven had reached the end of
the musical challenge of the day, he also faced what seemed
to him the end of hope in his personal life. In his
Testament, death seems imminent -- "With joy I hasten to
meet death" -- but hope and determination, though weak and
unsure, are evident. In the Heiligenstadt Testament the
composer comes to terms with his deafness and leaves what
is beyond his control to what must be, trying to make a
fresh start. It is quite evident that the Testament is
filled with a preoccupation with death -- he writes as
though death were at his doorstep, waiting for him to
finish his letter -- "Farewell...How happy I shall be if I
can still be helpful to you in my grave...With joy I hasten
to meet death. Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee
bravely." He has set his old self -- the almost-deaf,
tired, hopeless Ludwig -- to rest through the Testament so
that he may rise and live again. Beethoven had stated
previously that he has not yet revealed all of which he is
capable. Coming to terms with his condition, he moves on to
"develop all my artistic capacities." This eventually leads
to his heroic period in which Symphony No. 3 in E-flat
("Eroica") composed in 1803 became one of the early
principal works. The work broke from the earlier Vienese
high - Classic style; many older composers and music
pedagogues, not able to accept his new style, called it
"fantastic," "hare- brained," "too long, elaborate,
incomprehensible, and much too noisy." In fact the style
drew much from contemporary French music -- the driving,
ethically exalted, "grand style" elements combined with the
highly ordered yet flexible structure of sonata form. It
seems undeniable then that the Heilingenstadt Testament in
which Beethoven came to terms with and put to rest the
incurable tragedy of his growing deafness, also set forth a
determination to prove his skills before death should take
him. This quest coincided with and perhaps led to his
graduation from the Vienese hi-Classic style to the
development of his own unique heroic style, a blend of
French and Vienese elements. The "Eroica" can be viewed as
a deliverance of both his life and his career from despair
and futility. Beethoven recreates himself in a new guise,
self-sufficient and heroic. The Testament thus is likened
to a funeral work. The composer sets himself up as the
tragic hero -- "my heart and soul have been full of the
tender feeling of good will, and I was ever inclined to
accomplish great things" -- withdrawn from the company of
men, tortured by his growing deafness, tempted with
thoughts of suicide, overcoming despair by the pure
strength of faith in his own music, searching for "but one
day of pure joy." In a musical perspective, the "Eroica"
Symphony established a milestone in Beethoven's development
and in music history. His manipulation of sonata form to
embrace the powerful emotions of heroic struggle and
tragedy went beyond Mozart or Haydn's high- Classic style.
Beethoven's new path reflected the turbulence of the
developing politics of the day (especially the Napoleonic
Wars), ignited perhaps by the hopelessness he felt in
himself. He took music beyond the Vienese style which
ignored the unsettling currents of Beethoven's terror,
anxiety, and death. Indeed he placed tragedy at the center
of his heroic style, symbolizing death, despair, and loss
-- paralleling his own sense of loss, pain and strife. But
in addition, like his own triumph over suffering, there is
hope, triumph and joy as expressed in the finale of the
"Eroica." The Heiligenstadt Testament is a prophecy of the
greatness to come of Ludwig van Beethoven. At a time in his
life where he had exhausted the musical possibilities of
the Vienese high- Classic tradition and where his growing
deafness foreshadowed a diminishing career, Beethoven
seemed to have come to halt in 1802. His Heiligenstadt
Testament of that year revealed a soul set to despair and
futility. At the same time however, despite the looming
impossibility of recovery, his ambition to fully realize
his musical talent set him to establish a new milestone in
musical history -- the creation of the heroic style.
Symbolizing struggle, the resistance of morality to
suffering, and the triumph over despair, we can see how the
heroism of Beethoven's music reflected his own struggles
with fate and his own triumphs.


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