A Study in Mythmaking

            Twenty full years have passed at the time of this new edition since I sat with two ruled tablets, one yellow for text, one white for footnotes, composing the manuscript that would become this book. I had an electric typewriter but it was just more inspiring sitting on my bed with ever-changing stacks of books forming a pre-Google data wall around me. And now I sit with only a laptop—the world of information at its Internet behest—marveling equally at technology’s rapid advances and at the ever expanding mythopoesis of Beethoven. The man, his music, and the perceived messages communicated by both continue to have relevance, enticement, and uplift for this twenty-first-century world.
            I did not know back in the early 1980s when formulation of this book was in progress that, as an art historian who secretly loved music more than her own discipline, I was writing what has come to be regarded as Rezeptionsgeschichte—reception history—now a prized arrow in the quiver of musicology. A commanding example of musicological Rezeptionsgeschichte is Scott Messing’s cultural study of the role of Schubert in the European imagination: a first volume (2006) covers the Romantic and Victorian eras; a second one (2007) examines fin-de-siècle Vienna.
            Just as the first edition of The Changing Image of Beethoven was going to press in early 1987, I discovered with mounting disbelief that one of the most important images of the composer had been inadvertently omitted by the publisher: the life mask taken in 1812. Never mind that a fine reproduction of Beethoven’s death mask numbered among the few color plates in the volume. It was the life mask that counted; it was that riveting plaster cast with its famous frown, replicated in hundreds of thousands of white or black copies and spread across the globe, that mattered.
            Why? First of all, because the life mask was exactly that: a mask made from the living composer—presumably incontestable evidence of what the physical Beethoven looked like at the age of forty-one. Second, because there was a most prosaic reason for the grimace—a look of pain which mythographers instantly greeted as physical evidence of Beethoven’s suffering psyche. And third, since the custom of taking death masks goes back as far as the wax casts of Roman times, it was presumed by most beholders that the mask had been taken of the composer after his death. For example, Beethoven venerators as diverse as August Strindberg, Rosa Bonheur, and Gabriele d’Annunzio all had copies of the composer’s life mask on their walls in the belief that the grim effigy was Beethoven’s death mask (still so labeled in Strindberg’s Stockholm apartment, now a museum). A common mistake still prevalent today and one easy to understand when we look at Klein’s cast: the contracted brow, furrowed forehead, closed, sealed-over eyes, and tightly pressed, downward pulling lips suggest the permanent sleep of death. Yes, Beethoven, the musical titan who from the age of twenty-five had fought a losing battle with deafness, looks appropriately pained—the way one would expect him to look in death, just the way Strindberg, Bonheur, and d’Annunzio, and even the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wanted him to look. (In the year 2000 I had a chance to enlarge on all this in a chapter for a Princeton University Press book, Beethoven and His World, entitled "The Visual Beethoven: Whence, Why, and Whither the Scowl?")
            But to return to my first point, the hoped-for incontestability of Klein’s life mask as faithful record of the earthly Beethoven. Could, as the new science of cranioscopy believed, the topography of a life cast with its relentless mirroring of physical detail penetrate to the character, hence matching the inner with the outer man? Beethoven’s practical fortepiano maker friend Andreas Streicher did not care much about such phrenological questions; he simply wanted to add Beethoven’s bust to those of other illustrious musicians already adorning the walls of his private concert hall. The Viennese anatomical sculptor Franz Klein was given the commission in 1812 and Beethoven sat for the life mask Klein insisted upon taking before modeling his bust in bronzed plaster.
            Now comes point two, the one with the prosaic twist as updated by the scholarship of Rita Steblin. While waiting for the wet plaster applied to his face to dry, Beethoven—protective shields over his eyes and breathing quills up his nostrils—began to feel he was about to suffocate. Suddenly he ripped off the almost-hardened mask, threw it to the floor, where it broke into fragments, and dashed out of the room. Fortunately, Klein was successful in seaming together the seven major pieces which replicate Beethoven’s living face, complete with pock marks and facial scars. But he was also unintentionally successful in capturing the composer’s acute physical discomfort. For this is what the contracted brow and firmly clamped "scowling" mouth register. Not a melancholy of soul, but simply the claustrophobic apprehension of near suffocation. Nevertheless, as detailed in the chapters that follow here, subsequent image makers and musical interpreters from Berlioz to Mahler would seize upon the formidable impression of seriousness and intense concentration conveyed by Klein’s life mask as trusty corporeal indicators of suffering and triumph in both the personal and musical character of Beethoven.
            No wonder an image of that austere life mask was essential to my book, an absence now happily corrected in this new edition on page 5 of this Foreword. Partial damage control took place just before the original edition went to press. New York’s legendary publisher George Braziller (who, as producer of my books on Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele a decade before, listened with sympathetic ear to my iconographic woes) suggested that an image of Klein’s bronzed plaster bust be dropped in (now opposite the Preface), and this was done. Braziller would later commission me to write an "art history autobiography" (In Passionate Pursuit, 2004) in which various musical iconography adventures found a place.
            As for the Klein-bust-enhanced 1987 Beethoven book’s own Rezeptionsgeschichte, an early review by the American Library Association recognized the maze of clues and investigative tack involved in such a volume and commented on its resemblance to "a complex detective story with all the requisite red herrings, sudden plot shifts, and clandestine destruction of evidence."
            A crime against the corporeal Beethoven—and one triggered by the rising interest in phrenology—was occasioned by the 1863 exhumation of the composer’s body (along with that of nearby Schubert’s) which had rested in peace in the Währing Cemetery for some thirty-six years. Apparently nine fragments from Beethoven’s cranium were recovered. Then a team of physicians—including a certain Dr. Romeo Seligmann—reassembled some pieces and a plaster cast of the whole "restored" skull was created for the sake of science. However when it came time for Dr. Seligmann to depart this earth in 1892, two sizeable skull fragments stored in a metal box labeled "Beethoven" were found in his estate. Through a succession of descendants this unusual legacy eventually made its way to Danville, California and thence, in 2005, on loan to a most fitting destination, the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies (established in 1983) at San Jose State University in San Jose, California. Thanks to the Center’s longtime, devoted director, William Meredith, I was given an opportunity to admire this boney trove of skullduggery while it was still in the home of Seligmann’s heirs. What might molecular biological analysis of the fragments reveal? The answer, in short, is a mitochondrial DNA pattern that is in partial but impressive agreement with that of authenticated hairs from Beethoven’s head; the long answer is being continually updated as further DNA tests are conducted. What amounts to a teeming new reception history pertaining to Beethoven is available of course all over the Internet nowadays and ranges from the serious to the absurd. The cyber savvy reader will understand if I happily demur from citation of the literally thousands of pertinent websites in all the major languages.
            An amusing reception was given this book when I took two copies of it to Leipzig in the fall of 1987 as thanks not only to conductor Kurt Masur for his interest and support, but also to the technician who had helped me with temperamental slide projectors for various Gewandhaus symposia I had spoken at over the past decade. The latter murmured his appreciation for the book, admiring the front and back covers picturing the Klinger Beethoven Monument enshrined right there at the Gewandhaus. Then, in conspiratorial tones, he asked, "But who shot JR?" In Communist East Germany of those days, rebroadcasting of the television series Dallas was allowed as an example of Western decadence.
            A most gratifying Rezeptionsgeschichte turn and one I had certainly not expected was the assignment of my study of mythmaking for classroom use around the country. Eric Wen, chair of musical studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, commented in a 2007 letter urging the book’s reissue: "'The Changing Image of Beethoven' displays an extraordinary breadth of scholarship, eloquently uniting iconography, musicology, and social history. I would go so far to say that I regard this work to be one of the most original contributions to Beethoven scholarship since Maynard Solomon’s landmark biography of 1977. Despite its remarkable scope, this book wears its scholarship lightly. It is eminently readable, and always popular with my students."
            Popular with two generations of my own students was a seminar inspired by my Beethoven researches entitled Modern Myth-Making. After listening to some introductory lectures demonstrating mythopoesis in ages past, students chose topics from modern times ranging from architectural icons (Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building) to trends (body tattoos, peace corps, rap music, anorexia) to people (sports heroes, movie stars, political figures) and reported on the social and cultural reasons for their larger-than-life status. Some of these students have regularly sent me Beethoven-related items over the years and I should like to mention my indebtedness to them as well as to friends and colleagues for keeping me up to date in various and surprising ways, as well as providing moral support.
      Grateful thanks go to Virginia Abdo, Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse, Javier Aldape, Ken Aiso, Hildegard Bachert, Peter Balis, Robert Blissitt, Carole Brandt, Michael Collins, Virginia Dupuy, Mary Garrard, Egga von Gemmingen, Mick Gold, Henry-Louis de La Grange, Vivien Greene, Drew Haluska, Alison Hilton, Owen Jander, the late Nicholas John, Jane Kallir, Paul and Joan Kaufmann, Benton Keith, Dorothy Kosinski, Marcia Kraus, Hans Jörg Krug, Steve Nash, Diane Penney, Veronica Pesantes, Roger Pines, Renée Price, Joy Richardson, Roger Roe, John Sare, Simon Sargon, Felicitas Schreier, Janne Sirén, Anthony Stadlen, Shelley Salem Stevens, Tom Tunks, Laurie Vassallo, Andrea Walters, and Charlotte Whaley. Special acknowledgement goes to pianist-publisher Jim Smith of Sunstone Press for his willingness to reissue this Beethoven book, and to cellist Carl Condit, his assistant at Sunstone Press, and to both of them for their tenacious creativity in putting together an original new cover of images that quite literally enact the title of this book.
            By the middle of the twentieth century Beethoven’s musical presence dominated both European and American concert halls. Employing pseudo querulousness, Leonard Bernstein (The Joy of Music, 1960) touched upon the constant pressure to present Beethoven as well as the ubiquitous presence of Ludwigian likenesses, complaining that when choosing music to open a season, an all-Beethoven program was usually requested. Similarly, he lamented, when one walks into a concert hall bearing the names of the greats, "there sits Beethoven, front and center, the first, the largest, the most immediately visible, and usually gold-plated." These jeremiads were but clever preface to Bernstein’s messianic effort to explain to an imaginary opponent the unique making and meaning of Beethoven’s music: "Rightness—that’s the word! Something is right in the world. There is something that checks throughout, that follows its own law consistently: something we can trust, that will never let us down." [Interlocutor] "But that is almost a definition of God." [Bernstein] "I meant it to be."
            Thus did the popularizing Bernstein update for a vast lay concert and television public the 1902 deification of Beethoven staged by Gustav Mahler, Gustav Klimt, and Max Klinger with which this book concludes (Plate 10, Figs. 152-210; see also Chapter Six, "Vienna’s Beethoven of 1902: Apotheosis and Redemption"). In the fall of 2007, as associate producer of a CD of music associated with Klimt for the major exhibition of his work at New York’s Neue Galerie, I was able to tap into this iconic event by concluding the track sequence with the finale from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—that "Ode to Joy" movement re-orchestrated by Mahler for the opening of the Vienna Secession’s homage to Klinger’s polychromatic Beethoven Monument and Klimt’s golden Beethoven Frieze (the former recently transferred from the Leipzig Gewandhaus to the city’s Museum der Bildenden Künste; the latter splendidly installed in the basement of the Vienna Secession).
            In the final year and month of the twentieth century, an interesting double contribution to Beethoven scholarship and imagery occurred at Sotheby’s in London when a previously unknown autograph manuscript by Beethoven came up for auction. This was a string quartet movement in B minor of twenty-three bars, written out and entitled Allegretto in the composer’s characteristic hand on a single bifolium, ruled with sixteen staves on each page. An identification on one of these pages by the original owner, Richard Ford (1796-1858), reads: "This quartette was composed for me in my presence by Ludwig v. Beethoven at Vienna Friday 28th November 1817." The twenty-one-year-old British visitor to Vienna, who would later gain fame as an art critic and travel writer (his Handbook for Travellers to Spain of 1845 introduced Spanish culture to English audiences), certainly charmed the, by then, quite deaf composer. In addition to the quartet manuscript present, Beethoven also gave his visitor an autographed portrait of himself—the well-known offprint published by Artaria of an 1814 copper engraving by Blasius Höfel (Fig. 3; see also Fig. 2). What makes this gift particularly interesting to Beethoven iconography is Ford’s handwritten comment on the bottom of the sheet that the portrait is "very like." Mythmaking, as investigative encounters throughout this book confirm, could not be satisfied with such prosaic confirmations of close physical likeness, but would, rather, employ such a theme as basis for myriad variations (think of Andy Warhol’s screen prints of 1987), some of them allegretto, some larghetto, all of them imbued with varying degrees of fantasia.
            Fantasia was Walt Disney’s title for the classic 1940 film that proved animation and Beethoven could be coupled (re-released in 2000 with a louder-than-life Fifth Symphony). And fantasy is essentially what has characterized Beethoven’s mythopoesis in the cinema. So-called biopics (some made during the silent era) range, at least for purists like me, from the overwrought Beethoven’s Nephew, 1988, to an exquisitely maudlin Immortal Beloved, 1994, to the frustratingly implausible Copying Beethoven, 2006. Beethoven’s scores can now be digitally shrunk or stretched: in the last movie cited a visually stunning performance of the Ninth Symphony is reduced to some ten minutes; but a recent Norwegian radio creation called Beet Stretch offers the Ninth expanded to twenty-four hours. Movie soundtracks, posthumously provided gratis by the composer, number in the many hundreds, but probably the ultimate in violence done to Beethoven's music remains A Clockwork Orange of 1971 for which the Ninth Symphony serves as background score in a film-within-a-film featuring montages of Hitler and Nazis as part of antihero Alex’s aversion therapy—the Ludovico Treatment.
            Leaving the illusory world of cinema and returning to reality, surely one of the most intriguing as well as definitively informative developments in late twentieth- and early twenty-first century Beethoveniana has been the DNA testing of strands from a recently discovered and authenticated lock of the composer’s hair. In Chapter Two of this book we are silent witness to some spontaneous hair snipping by the two young Danhauser brothers, Carl and Josef, who had received permission to take Beethoven’s death mask in plaster: "Meanwhile we had cut off two locks of hair from where they lay profusely over each other at the temples as a souvenir of the illustrious head." Other visitors to the emaciated corpse before the funeral on the 29th of March, 1827 (Beethoven died of cirrhosis of the liver on March 26th) had also come away with keepsake locks of hair, five of which, at least, are now safely ensconced at major institutions in Bonn, Vienna, London, Washington, DC, and Hartford, Connecticut. The youngest visitor wielding shears was a fifteen-year-old music student, Ferdinand Hiller, and it was his trophy of 582 long strands of hair preserved in a loose coil within a small glass locket that, 167 years later, would be offered to the world in a December 1994 London Sotheby’s auction. Thanks to the swift financial partnering of four members of the American Beethoven Society, Hiller’s precious locket of hair was acquired and donated to the Center for Beethoven Studies in San Jose.
      Some 160 of the strands of hair were retained by the major contributor and reserved in part for scientific research. A radio-immuno assay of twenty hairs in 1996 yielded no evidence that, as had often been suggested by mythmakers, Beethoven had ingested any form of morphine or other opiates for use as a pain killer during his final months.
            But what about the long-held theory, still arguably maintained by some modern researchers, that the composer’s death was at least hastened by heavy alcohol consumption? This may still hold true for that lover of Rhine wines (often lead enhanced to increase sweetness), but additional information is now available concerning Beethoven’s lead poisoning. His personal physician, Dr Andreas Wawruch, had a fellow surgeon drain fluids from the dying man’s swollen abdomen four times over the course of three months, and a 2006 laser beam-mass spectrometric analysis of Beethoven hairs from three different authenticated locks revealed that a massive rise of lead levels occurred soon after each time a tap was performed. The forensic pathologist who performed these experiments theorizes that in order to disinfect and seal the drainage puncture wounds adhesive plasters were employed, bandages which at that time contained saponified lead salts. Thus in a sense, that famous complaint by Anton Schindler (Beethoven’s irksome but necessary amanuensis and early misleading biographer) that Dr. Wawruch "ruined" his patient "with too much medication" may now be justified by modern science.
            A dramatic backdrop to the forensic findings provided by Ferdinand Hiller’s sequestered strands of Beethoven hair exists as well. The story of the locket’s early travel from Vienna to the great music centers of Germany and Italy, to Paris, and back to Germany parallels the peripatetic career of its reverent owner who finally in 1850 became permanent Kapellmeister at Cologne. But because Hiller was of Jewish descent, the locket—passed on to his heirs and their heirs—went through a dramatic coda. It ended up in October of 1943, during the German occupation of Denmark, in the safekeeping of a Danish physician who dared to help hide German Jewish refugees in the harbor town of Gilleleje on Zealand’s north coast as they awaited clandestine transportation to neutral Sweden. All this (and much more) is intriguingly laid out in Russell Martin’s book of 2000, Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.
      Five years later an award-winning film version of the book was produced for Canadian television, and, thanks to the ever-expanding cyber miracle, is now available as an online, interactive documentary. A related website offers reports on paranormal activities triggered by the inclusion of two Beethoven compositions (the first movement of the Fifth Symphony and the String Quartet No. 13) packed aboard NASA’s 1977 twin Voyager probes.
            What on (and off!) earth is left for future metamorphoses? An alluring and an enduring question since, as Beethoven’s legacy of music and myth has amply demonstrated, each age defines the changing image of Beethoven according to its needs, its challenges, and its aspirations.
      May the myth—and the music—be with us!
      —Alessandra Comini
      Dallas and Santa Fe, June 2008