One aspect of the plot in the last two of these novels involves Ludwig van Beethoven and the woman he referred to in a single letter (found after his death) as The Immortal Belovèd. While the letter is entirely historical, the identity of the woman has never been proven and even today, despite all the theorizing over the last two centuries, no one can say for sure who she was. Josephine von Brunsvick, Antonie Brentano and several others all have their proponents and if you are a devotee of Hollywood films about Beethoven (at least those not involving a Saint Bernard), you might even think she was his sister-in-law, Johanna Reiss van Beethoven which, of all the possible possibilities, is the most absurd.
In the course of The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben, Dr. Kerr meets an old friend, Frieda F. Erden, now in her 90s who has found an old manuscript written in the 1880s which she has translated. Its author, Knussbaum, was a friend of Beethoven's and taught at the legendary Schweinwald Academy (recounted in The Lost Chord) where the journal of one of the students, a young English composer named Harrison Harty, describes life there in 1880 along with his fellow students, Gustav Mahler, Hans Rott and Ethel Smyth. But Knussbaum knows a secret and when another student is mysteriously murdered, Harty and his friends find themselves caught up in what Knussbaum knows.
While my novels can be described as "comedy music-appreciation thrillers," much of what is described is based on historical fact - except of course for things like Harmonia-IV, a parallel universe where dead composers go and continue living and composing (the basis for the plot in The Doomsday Symphony which also involves a good bit of time-traveling). And of course a lot of things that may not be true but are considered true because, well... some people have different perceptions of the truth.
In this excerpt from The Labyrinth, there is more historical fact than most Hollywood versions of Beethoven's life, except for the description of the Immortal Belovèd, their relationship and that other aspect of the secret Beethoven kept for the rest of his life: that they had a child.
But in many ways, these secrets go a long way to describe the sudden change in Beethoven's life and creative output - from his suddenly increased deafness to the sudden stop in his creativity late in 1812 shortly after completing the 7th and 8th Symphonies and which only gradually recuperated over the following year before he wrote Wellington's Victory a year later.
In that sense, everything included here is based on fact: the reasons behind it, though plausible, are however purely conjectural.
Frieda has discovered she and her twins (whom she was forced to give up for adoption at the start of World War II) are in fact descendants of Beethoven and the Belovèd and has become part of a secret society intent on protecting her identity from the Guidonian Hand which is intent on destroying the heirs of Beethoven. But time is running out to find the offspring of her twins and the latest addition to this elite lineage before the Hand and the evil music-licensing corporation SHMRG find the child. And someone has already killed Maestro Hans-Jörg Schnellenlauter, whose research was closing in on the child's identity - and the location of the Belovèd's Last Will and Testament as well as the string quartet Beethoven had composed after hearing the news of his daughter's birth and which was also kept secret.
In case I need to repeat it, this is a work of fiction.
* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *
The Tale of the Master and of his Belovèd
by Dr. Rainer Knussbaum
Seventy years have passed since these events began. Though I write this in my old age, it seems as only yesterday. I can hardly believe how much of my long life has been absorbed by a youthful promise to keep a secret. And yet I only write down this account because I know soon I will no longer be around to remember it: then the secret dies with me if I fail to pass it along. Even now, as I write, a thought regularly occurs to me that I might yet die before my work is finished, just as at any point in the past, I could have died unresolved. But you must understand, in those days, a few others knew the secret so it would not have disappeared with myself. Over the years, of course, there have become fewer of us who know – for a while, we called ourselves die Kenner(*1) – not that there were more than a few of us who shared it. But I thought, as we aged and one by one another would die, someone needs to survive to tell the tale. We began inducting others into our secret society – our Society of the Secret – but of my generation, there is only me. For you see, whoever you are, reading this, this secret began with me.
There have been times over these many years how I longed to tell this secret I knew to the wider world for, you see, it was not just any secret for just any friend. And when, alas, he died – this great friend – it would have been easy, an explanation of a certain letter left behind. Many asked me, I who had often been seen in my friend's company, what this was: did I know its meaning? Surely, he to whom I was so close would have told me something? But sworn to childhood secrecy I dare not break my oft-repeated sacred promise, most recently sworn again upon my friend's deathbed, nor could I even now, because he's dead, revoke his trust in me. For this friend was not just any friend: he was Ludwig van Beethoven. And therein lies the magnitude of my secret.
In the future, when I am gone and the others gone with me, the secret could be revealed to the world and the world won't break for the breaking of it (of my promise), by which I mean life will go on and no one will care, amazed that there was ever such delicate concern; but for now, that is not the case nor could it ever be as there are those who would be shocked – quite shocked, I tell you – to learn the full content of my secret. That is not to say that worse things have not been known about the moral turpitude of our most modern composers like Wagner and Liszt or of what artists consider suitable subjects for opera which would have offended the very fiber of our good and honourable society when I was a youth in Beethoven's shadow.
But I am only following my master's wishes (as he made me swear) insofar as it concerned his own particular feelings regardless of the laxity of the majority of those who lived around him, lest his own failings became fodder for his less-than-perfect brothers, Karl and Johann (the latter more often a gesture than spoken)(*2). Since the details of our discussion at various times during his remaining years reinforced his earnest desire to maintain our secrecy, he would place further restrictions that similarly applied to maintain it in perpetuity.
It was a boy of nearly twelve years working at his first job who saw the Master for the first time, a tall and spindly child (hard to imagine, for anyone who knows me) whose Uncle Tobias had allowed him to journey to Teplitz to work for his former employee who became their kitchen inspector. My duties were very taxing but Herr Kohl proved a mostly benevolent task-master, letting me play my fiddle in the dance-band that entertained the hotel's guests every evening after dinner outside in the garden. I was in the lobby chatting with a couple waiters when he arrived, a preoccupied man in a shabby brown coat. “That's Beethoven,” I blurted out in utter awe. “Who?” they laughed, quite baffled. Seeing no porter anywhere nearby, I ran over and grabbed both his suitcases, offering to lead him off to his room.
Alas, I didn't know what room was his and when he told me, I admitted I didn't know where it was. An older waiter – Virgil, I think – helped point me in the right direction. The great composer smiled at me and laughed, unlike the man I'd expected, dour and forbidding, but instead friendly and engaging. He handed me a coin and, thanking me, called me his 'Skinny Hermes' and I laughed, not knowing what that meant.
"My uncle lets me play your 'Spring' Sonata."
"Your uncle has good taste."
Imagine meeting Beethoven like that – I'd be appalled – yet that's what I did, an impetuous boy, not very bright, I admit, but he recognized my enthusiasm if that wasn't how one approached a genius. When I would tell people about this later, they blushed for my arrogance, yet it made him seem even more approachable. His deafness was not yet nearly so extreme as it would later become – in fact, that summer, he seemed only 'hard-of-hearing.' I noticed it didn't start getting really bad until after the following summer.
When he came into the garden after dinner with a stein of beer, he sat and listened to the band's playing and I was embarrassed we played trifles badly (because we so rarely rehearsed). Still, he saw me there, looked somewhat surprised, and gave me a smile. When some aristocrat interrupted him, his smile disappeared.
Every evening he would come hear the band and even asked me once to come play his 'Spring' Sonata for him (I only knew the first page by heart) giving me advice about bowings. He stayed until October, often employing me in running simple errands for him, taking messages here and there to other guests. And when he returned the next summer, he greeted me with a laugh and told me he was expecting a friend – a lady-friend, he added with a playful wink – only recently met in Vienna. Working hard on his 7th Symphony (the scherzo), he hadn't heard her enter after walking up 105 steps to his door. There he stood, roaring out a theme, pouring cold water on his head. This lady was a vision of angelic beauty appearing as if from nowhere, and they immediately fell in love – just imagine!
They needed, he explained, to get away from the prying eyes of Vienna, so they agreed on a holiday at Teplitz, traveling separately, but he was late and she, coming from Karlsbad, later still. Delighted at seeing me again when he arrived, he was a different man, a man preoccupied with the agonies of love. Still, he talked with me, heard me play, had me run some errands like carrying almost daily letters back and forth; and, most strangely, confided in me the thoughts and doubts within these letters.
That one he wrote her (which Old Schindler found when the Master died)(*3), written by the happiest and unhappiest of men, is full of hidden fears and vague doubts about his life in Vienna, with her or without her, either way unable to imagine living his life, protesting his love for her for all eternity. But then she arrived and caution flew with the winds that magical night – oh, still I blush to recall his passion. He bade me tell others he'd been taken ill, confined to his room.
From how the Master spoke of his friend, given his loftiness of phrase, I expected to see some beautiful, aristocratic lady, yet the woman I saw that afternoon was neither beautiful nor a lady. She appeared plain and older than I'd imagined but a genius who heard what he heard could see what he saw.
He confessed to a worrisome instability about her, no doubt from her blowing hot, then cold, and every emotion in between, and she left the next morning without explanation, why she went or where. The Master was bereft, inconsolable, his heart utterly torn out and stomped upon while remaining hopeful with visions of future happiness.
Over the next few months, she sent a letter, reappeared then left again, driving the Master to alternating rage and despair, returning after an unexplained absence of several months, already with child, that we realized it was necessary to keep both her and the unborn baby safe as she alternated between rage and despair herself and might well do damage – and to keep her away from prying eyes. For malicious gossips' wagging tongues would do their own damage, after a kind, and make a mockery of one's own shame, where social censorship from neighbors and total strangers fan the flames of guilt. The Master knew he could not have a woman soon to bear a child living with him, it would be impractical, his landlord Baron Pasqualati's(*4) disapproval one thing, her climbing those daily stairs another. (Seriously, no one liked climbing those 105 steps, the ever-winding, never-ending stone spiral: and a woman already irritable beyond measure? Unthinkable!)
By now, I should mention, my uncle had reluctantly allowed me to move to Vienna where I lived with Herr Dreckfahrer, Teplitz's dance-band director now living near Baron Pasqualati's house where Beethoven resided then. (Truth be told, Dreckfahrer cared little for the Master's music, especially his dances: "unfit for dancing – the man himself can't dance!")(*5) The idea had been for me to see the wider world and learn, perhaps, a better trade than a kitchen boy's. And while I worked and played my fiddle, I ran errands for Beethoven.
The Master had been bereft upon her inexplicable flight from Teplitz, his Belovèd, and followed her to Karlsbad before he returned empty-handed (and -hearted) to Teplitz where he spent a month sick in bed. Again, I carried Beethoven's letters back and forth, now to Fräulein Amalie Sebald, who brought him consolation and some chicken soup. It was the month after leaving Teplitz when the Master caused an uproar in Linz while visiting his youngest brother Johann, the apothecary, living with a woman who was his housekeeper and... something more.
For had he not lost his own Belovèd, the Angel of his heart, the woman he was now unable to marry? And yet his brother lived openly with a woman without benefit of marriage! For him, their sinful state resolved only with Johann's belated wedding to Theresa after which the Master, forlorn, returned to Vienna.
Despite everything that was happening, the Master acquitted himself of his Eighth Symphony, finalizing it in August after the Belovèd's departure, then finishing the full score in Linz that October before returning to Vienna. Back at Pasqualati's, he needed a new violin sonata for Rode in December (I tried out certain passages for the Master). He had already finished his glorious Seventh Symphony, a work full of the joy of love and thoughts of his Belovèd, a symphony so full of dance whether the man could dance or not.
Naturally, he hoped she would return to him, her doubts and fears resolved, strengthening his virtue and lawfully become his wife, but when it became clear she might not, his deafness began to worsen. His hearing now totally lost in one ear, talking in public meant shouting loud enough you were heard three rooms off.(*6)
When she returned, climbing once more the spiral staircase at Baron Pasqualati's palace, I thought his joy might restore his hearing. "Ach, mein' Geliebster," he roared, "not only does Fate knock at the door!" Instead, she had to shout about her condition so loudly, those in the kitchen four flights below must know her plight.
His joy quickly turned to revulsion and horror as she dropped her valise, fully intent on moving back into his life. What would the neighbors think? What would his recently wedded brother Johann say?
I stood there with my violin in hand – the Master and I had just plowed through the new violin sonata's variations – as she stared at me, an interloper reminding her of summer's better days, and while it embarrassed me to witness this abrupt change in the Master, my continued presence there was not without luck. Bloated and haggard, she resembled my Aunt Sophia before giving birth to twins (the very thought of which made her scream), but it gave me an idea which I quickly shared with them both.
Since Dreckfahrer was visiting his family in Graz, she could stay there momentarily while I contacted my Uncle Tobias back home. "I'll explain she's a cousin of Herr Kohl's who's fallen on hard times. The child's father was killed before the wedding," which she accepted if she and the child returned to live with Beethoven.
And so my uncle reluctantly received "Rosa Kohl," his former manager's distant cousin – "from the Belgian Kohls, most recently of Brussels" (I could not quite place her accent, myself) – to stay at Shady Pines. It was the slow season at the inn so, meanwhile, there was room if she could help out in the kitchen.
In the midst of winter, I took "Fräulein Rosa" to my uncle's inn, arriving with her half-frozen on a half-dead donkey. My aunt was clearly looking forward to a new-born child not her own.
My uncle took one look at "Rosa" and then at me and doubted I could ever be responsible for her condition, assuming a boy my age couldn't be interested in so homely a woman. Still, my aunt thought it odd I spent so much time with them, giving up Vienna to look after "poor Rosa."
Odder still, they thought, were the monthly payments they received in the post – "from her fiance's grieving family, to cover expenses" – which I knew were coming from Beethoven (through his publishers) at considerable hardship.
Come springtime, she wanted out of the house to walk about the farm and perhaps enjoy the pleasant change in weather. Aunt Sophia and I had joined her once, when a thunderstorm suddenly erupted.
Taking refuge in the barn, "Rosa" unexpectedly went into labour amidst the cows and was delivered of a healthy baby girl.
It was shortly after that most blessèd event I hurried off to Vienna bearing the eagerly anticipated news to the Master, having kept him apprised of the Belovèd's health and moods throughout her confinement. The winter had been difficult enough for him without contact from his Belovèd such that my letters often had adverse affects. He cut himself off from musical gatherings given the worsening of his hearing and sometimes avoided friends (and crowds) all together. Yet at several other times, his deafness aside, he might prove quite amiable. He was under great pressure, unable to compose, dealing with financial hardships and of course the suffering of losing his hearing: his brother Karl nearly died of consumption (their mother had died of it). In consequence, the Master urged him to change his will regarding the boy and make the composer his son's sole guardian.
And now here I stood on his doorstep, having struggled up those steps – I who thought working the farm was exhausting! – to tell him he was now the father of a daughter named Amalie, which was my aunt's compromise after she thought my suggestion – Antonie – too uppity, considering I thought her initial submission – Maria – common. I did not dare to tell the Master (then or in my letters) how "Rosa" preferred a biblical name (especially during childbirth, given her obvious and extreme physical pain), convinced "Satan" was reasonably appropriate.
After I hollered to him my news, joyful tears streamed down his face, tears which turned unexpectedly to tears of anguish when his mood again changed in an eye-blink, dropping from elation to despondency. "It would have been better had she died," he wailed, beating his chest, "or, no, that I myself had died instead!" Rather than making him happy, my news only made the Master more miserable, his next hours spent sobbing on the floor. I did not dare leave him for quite some time until he improved. The next morning, he was banging his fists on his poor piano's keyboard such that I was worried for its future but soon his roarings took on the semblance of melodic and rhythmical ideas. Within an hour he had started scribbling down in a notebook several indecipherable ideas he said were for a new quartet.
But before I left to return to Die schattigen Kiefern(*7) and "Fräulein Rosa," work on the quartet came to a halt, nothing he could revise into something useful nor discard for anything deemed better (not that this was any particularly unusual behaviour as there were often pages of continuously evolving sketches he'd eventually dispose of). His despondency returned when he realized the truth: he was completely incapable of dealing with that woman living under his roof, realizing that he couldn't live with her yet neither could they live apart. He kept thinking of Dr. Staudenheim's analysis, examining her at Teplitz that summer, how she was physically fit for her age but otherwise unstable mentally and might indeed remain an invalid throughout her life. He considered the possibility of committing the mother, then bringing the child to live with him, before quickly dismissing that solution.
I returned to Teplitz for one more summer in Herr Kohl's kitchen and Dreckfahrer's little band, knowing Beethoven wouldn't be there. This time, he went to Baden outside Vienna and had a miserable stay. A friend working there said, genius or not, Beethoven owned no decent coat nor even had a whole shirt to wear. He sat at a large table for dinner completely alone, avoided by everybody, where one guest complained he was "positively filthy." It wasn't until mid-September I could get away to bring him back home.
The Master was, as they say, "a mess," – completely withdrawn from society, not giving a damn about his appearance or manners – rude even with me before I had gotten him back to Pasqualati's house. Since the beginning of May he had composed not a note of music, wasting his entire summer holiday – four whole months! For the first time since he arrived in Vienna, he said, he had no great plans for a major new work, no symphony, no concerto, not even (here, he smirked) a new string quartet. The Great Beethoven, he moaned, was finished, done, his glorious career was ended, before asking me, "Who needs a deaf composer?" It was enough to reduce one to tears, seeing the great man thus. I did not know whom to turn to among his friends and patrons for surely he would not listen to them.
Several days later, going through a growing pile of unopened letters, I noticed one from that musical mechanic, the inventor Mälzel(*8). Scrawled above the address was the word "URGENT!!!" and beneath it, "Please Respond!" Beethoven brushed it aside with a scowl, grumbling about absurd ideas and such, but at least he let me open it. Considering the recent English victory earlier in June over Napoleon's army in Spain – and all Vienna was abuzz with this latest news of France's imminent collapse – Mälzel was urging him to complete his "Battle-Symphony."
But Beethoven would hear nothing of it at the moment, tossing it aside, "a stupid piece for a stupid mechanical orchestra." Though he seemed to have nothing but time, he considered it "wasting time." Still, he could not imagine himself writing anything, even to celebrate Napoleon's Fall, a counterpoise to his symphony about a hero. He said he needed the inspiration of something lofty to start composing again, more than the defeat of a fading tyrant. I would argue, wasn't "how are the mighty fallen" a lofty enough subject?
There were more pressing needs, certainly, the practical matter of providing himself income and, I added, a matter of personal concern, the payments to my uncle for Rosa Kohl's care and, now, her daughter's. They had stopped in May according to several notes received from Uncle Tobias who asked if, somehow, they couldn't be resumed.
When the Master heard I had sent home a large portion of my own meager income to defray the Belovèd's expenses, he began to weep again, counting it as another of his "miserable failings." Then it made him weep to think of her alone in the world, and then weep more thinking of his daughter. But then another thought would occur to him, should Uncle Tobias no longer be able to keep her at his inn, how she and the child, with nowhere to go, might return to Vienna.
This sent him into another paroxysm of tears for where would she go and who was there to look after them? There was no other solution, he would shout, for he alone was responsible. Yet when he imagined her living there with him while he tried to compose, the child crying, he wept even more.
He was the one who had been left alone, abandoned by the "angel" who denied him his virtue and his manhood – I had overheard him weeping to Zmeskall about his resorting to "vile prostitutes" – how he, without any spiritual union, found afterward no trace of noble feeling and now was left with nothing but remorse.
In his difficulties with hearing, he thought I'd called it "Die schändlichen Kiefern" not "schattigen" ["Shameful Pines," not "Shady" – translator's note] and he rose with great resolve, taking Mälzel's letter over to his piano.
Over the next few days, once he'd resumed work on those "poor inane sketches" he'd started the month before in Baden, bit by bit Beethoven's spirits began to improve at least for a time, during which I was able to convince him to make arrangements with Herr Zmeskall for a small loan ("for personal reasons"). While he did go purchase some new clothes and a pair of boots, most of this loan went to my uncle in order to ensure the continuation of maintaining "Rosa" for the long winter.
"It will give us more time, Hermes," (as he continued to call me) "in finding a better solution for their care," though I was reluctant to travel with such a sum through the countryside. At my age, he argued, ruffians little expected a lad of my years to have such a lining to my cloak.
Uncle Tobias was, of course, gratified (and surprised) to be receiving the money having assumed with the birth of the child the late fiance's family would have felt their obligations now at an end. He would be loath to do it, sending her out into the cold, but she'd proven too grand for kitchen work.
And so, as winter approached, "Rosa Kohl" and her daughter Amalie became long-term residents at the Pflegermanns' inn, "die schattigen Kiefern." The story told guests was her husband had died before the child's birth.
Anyone aware of Beethoven's story would know that, soon, his "Battle-Symphony," later Wellington's Victory, changed the course of his personal history. The Master suddenly found himself not only popular but also financially well off. He was able to sell the piece to a new publisher, Steiner, even making them a handsome loan (at good interest).
Through a partner there, he arranged a special account administered by Herr Tauschen (as long as he was not Herr Täuschen) ["Tauschen" means exchange, barter; "täuschen" means cheat – translator's note] to be kept secret.
No one else knew about the existence of the Belovèd or their child, but as it became more involved than previously, the Master now felt it necessary to bring someone else into his confidence.
About then, Beethoven met a music teacher at the Institute of the Blind named Simon Sechter(*9), a man he could trust.
To be continued...
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(*1) – literally, “the knowers”
(*2) – for instance, in the Heiligenstadt Testatement, Beethoven did not mention his brother Johann by name but by a blank space
(*3) – you can read the actual letter (or, in reality, three continuous letters) to the Immortal Belovéd here (among many other such places on-line). Most on-line posts about the letter usually will identify the letter's recipient, theorizing about any number of possible candidates but as of this date, there has never been any indication to prove any one over another.
(*4) Johann Baptiste Pasqualati, Baron Osterberg, owned a house on the Mölkerbastei, part of the old battlements originally surrounding the inner city of Vienna. Beethoven lived in five rooms on the top floor which was indeed accessible only by walking up a flight of 105 steps. You can read more about him and Beethoven's apartment there at this link and about other places Beethoven lived here
(*5) Beethoven loved dance music though he himself “could not keep in step” according to his student, Ferdinand Ries. Several “dance-band composers” in Vienna at the time complained that Beethoven's music was not fit for dancing (see “Dancing and Dance Music” in Paul Nettl's Beethoven Encyclopedia.)
(*6) As composer and violinist Ludwig Spohr reports in his Autobiography about his visit to Vienna in December of 1812 when his own series of concerts were in direct competition with Rode's.
(*7) “Shady Pines”
(*8) Johann Nepomuck Mälzel, better known for producing the first (if not inventing) the metronome, also invented a mechanical trumpet player and a juke-box-like contraption called the Pan Harmonicon for which Beethoven initially composed Wellington's Victory.
(*9) Simon Sechter would become one of the foremost music teachers of his day: he is perhaps most famous for having Schubert take just a single lesson with him (Schubert died shortly afterward) and later Anton Bruckner studied with him for several years. In my novel, The Lost Chord, he had been the headmaster at the Schweinwald Academy. His involvement in the Tale of the Master and of His Belovéd” continues in the next installment.
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- Dick Strawser
The "Tale of the Master and of his Belovéd" is a work of fiction and is an excerpt from a novel, The Labyrinth of Klavdia Klangfarben.
© 2014 by the author, Richard Alan Strawser