When Ludwig van Beethoven arrived in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz in July 1812, he was ill, heartbroken, anxious about his finances, and growing deafer by the day—the dismal weather that greeted him, cold and sopping wet, could not have lifted his spirits all that much. He had been to Teplitz before, indeed, the previous summer, when his doctor had similarly ordered him to take a restorative cure. The town was renowned not only for its hot springs but also for its sylvan setting, the deep forests and pristine lake offering the sick and weary the promise of recuperation. Royals and other noble types frequented the spa, and during the summer of 1812, that glittering crowd would have been abuzz with news of Napoleon’s recently commenced invasion of Russia. Beethoven, the consummate anti-aristocrat, had no wish to hobnob with such a crowd. Yet there was one illustrious man, a regular at Teplitz, whom the composer was desperate to meet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Beethoven revered Goethe, having composed incidental music to the 1788 drama Egmont as well as several songs set to Goethe’s verse. The two artists had already made initial contact in the spring of 1812, Beethoven writing to Goethe a letter brimming with effusive praise and Goethe responding in warm, encouraging terms. As Jan Swafford notes in his recent biography of Beethoven, the period of the early 1800s was the Goethezeit, the age of Goethe, and following the death of Immanuel Kant, Goethe and Beethoven stood alone as the two colossi of German culture. That they should not only meet, but perhaps become friends, even collaborate on an opera, as Beethoven desired, seemed inevitable. And yet, it was not to be.
They did meet in Teplitz. For most of one week, they took walks together, talking constantly. Beethoven played the piano for the writer and brought up the idea of an opera libretto. Goethe seemed amenable, but once the two men returned home—Beethoven to Vienna, Goethe to Weimar, where he was an official of the court—nothing came of these tentative plans. More than likely, the artists never met again.
Swafford suggests several possibilities for why this may have been so. For one thing, Beethoven’s health was not improving during this sojourn. The mineral waters at Teplitz might have contained any number of toxic substances—arsenic, lead, radioactive material. Could the thermal springs have been having an adverse effect on a man already quite sick? The composer’s frame of mind could not have helped matters either. Beethoven was, at precisely that moment, in despair over the love of his life, the woman known only as the Immortal Beloved. (Her identity has been the subject of much intense speculation ever since.) It’s easy to imagine why Beethoven—temperamental, difficult, tempestuous under the best of circumstances—might not have made the strongest impression on Goethe. Ultimately, however, the clashing temperaments of these two towering artists provided too great an obstacle to friendship. As Goethe later wrote to his friend Carl Friedrich Zelter:
[Beethoven’s] talent amazed me. However, unfortunately, he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether in the wrong if he finds the world detestable, but he thereby does not make it more enjoyable either for himself or others. He is very much to be excused, on the other hand, and very much to be pitied, as his hearing is leaving him, which, perhaps, injures the musical part of his nature less than his social. He, by nature laconic, becomes doubly so because of this lack.
Supposedly, the two men were walking together one day when the arrival of the imperial party interrupted them. Goethe is said to have moved aside, deferentially removing his cap, bowing deeply; Beethoven continued on through the crowd unmoved, tipping his cap only with barely concealed contempt. The story may be apocryphal, yet Beethoven’s disgust for Goethe’s position at the Weimar Court, and the writer’s perceived obsequiousness in the face of nobility, was undeniable. Edmund Morris writes that at this stage of his career, Beethoven “clearly believed, with Spinoza and Schiller, that a creative artist should strive neither for royal favor, nor for the love of God, but only for works of rational beauty that would inspire and improve humanity.” No doubt Beethoven chided Goethe along these lines, and the most revered writer in the land would not have taken kindly to any sort of dressing down, friendly or otherwise.
So the two giants of German culture did not, in the end, become friends. But forever will they be joined in the pages of Beethoven’s music. Take the Egmont Overture—that weighty, muscular tone poem beginning so ominously and mysteriously in the key of F minor and concluding with a passage as heroic as the final minutes of the Third Symphony. Where would the average public-radio playlist be without this piece of music? I confess that I hadn’t known the rest of the incidental music to Egmont until very recently, but upon first hearing, I was thoroughly enchanted with this engaging score, with its supple vocal lines and sensitive orchestral writing, especially in the lovely entr’actes. (It’s an acute pleasure, if one tinged with guilt, to discover a work by a famous artist that one ought to have known earlier.) Then there are the lieder Beethoven wrote based on Goethe’s texts, the most charming perhaps being the songs that make up the composer’s Opus 83, composed two years before the meeting at Teplitz. How wonderfully does Beethoven’s music evoke Goethe’s poems, capturing the drama and narrative tension of the poem “Yearning” and the enigmatic, meditative mood of “The Joy of Melancholy,” with the haunting repetition of the words trocknet nicht—dry not (tears of eternal love). And the playful, operatic “With a Painted Ribbon” a depiction of love as a breath of springtime wind, is full of youthful bloom, reveling in childish innocence. In these works, Beethoven met Goethe on equal, sympathetic terms. No, they may not have got on in person, but this artistic union is one for the ages.
Listen to soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and pianist Edwin Fischer perform “Mit einem gemalten Band” (“With a Painted Ribbon”).