Newspapers and bloggers the world round have picked up on the article published recently in the Beethoven Journal indicating that Beethoven died from lead poisoning at the unwitting hand of his doctor. The general argument is that had his doctor prevented rather than abetted his death, Beethoven would have lived to create x number of additional masterpieces.
This is just one example of the “if this [insert tragic event] didn’t happen then imagine what [select genius] could have created!” line of reasoning. The implication is, of course, that the world would have been a better place and that since creativity is always a linear progression, we have therefore missed out on the best of the nominated genius’ output.
Somehow this seems a hopelessly naive and dewy-eyed approach. Not so much for its optimistic ideals (the best is yet to come), but rather that it ignores wholesale the facts that creative output does not play out in a straight line and sometimes, death is preferable to life.
In many ways, the fact that Beethoven lived to 57 at all is remarkable. It is easy for us to forget in our age of sterile operating theatres, MRIs, antibiotics and easily available food that death before age 60 was considered normal and acceptable until as late as 1930. When the affects of his debilitating liver illness, loneliness, and stress from coming to terms with his deafness are factored in, a life span of 47 seems generous.
During last decade of Beethoven’s life, he was enormously popular and financially secure, however this period was incredibly stressful for Beethoven personally. In his forties, he had finally admitted that his marriage project had been a dismal failure. Despite yearning to be a husband and father, Beethoven renounced the idea of domestic happiness and isolated himself more and more from the outside world. The legal battle he started for guardianship of his nephew Karl was a misguided attempt at creating a family of his own and ended disastrously.
During this turmoil, Beethoven became acutely aware of his own mortality and was certain that he would not be given enough time to complete his creative endeavours. In 1818, he wrote in his diary,
“before my departure for the Elysian fields I must leave behind me what the Eternal Spirit has infused into my soul and bids me complete. Why, I feel as if I had hardly composed more than a few notes.”
In light of the limited time he had remaining, Beethoven felt it necessary to perform a sort of “compositional triage” on his remaining ideas. He prioritised to ensure that the most important compositions were completed before his death. There is a very definite sense of finishing up in his late works with the results being the final four piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations; the Ninth Symphony; Missa Solemnis and final five string quartets.
These pieces, created on borrowed time by someone in extreme physical pain after a lifetime of mental and emotional anguish, exhibit an enormous tension between radical and retrospective that is bewitching to musicologists, theorists, performers and listeners alike.
How lucky are we that he managed to beat the odds and hang on for those last ten years?