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In My Good Books

Beethoven's Trouser-Button

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
12 November 2005

When Beethoven was in a bad mood and no one could go near him, a little girl (her name was Katherina Fröhlich) used to be sent to him with his favourite newspaper, the Augsburger Allgeimener Zeitung. "Most of the times he would smile at me, and sometimes he would sit down and start improvising. He would like to strike chords in F with his left hand and run up and down the keyboard with his right, making fantastic gestures. On one such occasion his expression became so wild that I began to be afraid and tried to leave. But he signalled me to stay, motioning me with his finger to sit down, and then went on playing with a little more restraint."

Such glimpses of the composer through the eyes of children may not tell us much about the music, but they help fix his character in our minds. He is in a passion. The mood is upon him, and the effect on the child in frightening. Yet Beethoven is aware of the effect he is making, and he tempers his music accordingly. His absentmindedness has its limits, his ferocious artistry can be curbed by considerations for a child.

The anecdotes are many, and many of them turn out to be untrue. Did he throw eggs at the waiter, because they arrived hard-boiled? An exaggeration, says our admirable source, Gerhard von Breuning, whom Beethoven called his Trouser-Button, because on their walks the author, as a young child, would stick so close to him. But the egg-throwing story has several sources.

Another anecdote has Beethoven arrive at his regular inn for his midday meal. "He knocked for the waiter, who did not come at once; then he knocked again and while waiting took out his music notebook and started to compose. Finally the waiter inquired, but the deaf master was no long aware of him. Since Beethoven was a steady customer, the waiter went off for the time being and Beethoven wrote for a long time, deep in thought, closed his book and asked for the bill, although he had not eaten anything."

A similar story is told of the artist Adolph von Menzel. After a hard day's work he goes into a café and orders poached eggs. By the time the eggs arrive, he has dozed off, so the respectful waiter sets the plate in front of him and leaves. In due course Menzel wakes up, sees the eggs, takes his knife and fork and cuts a slice out of one, eats it, realises that the egg is cold, grimaces, puts down his knife and fork, takes out his sketchbook and begins to draw the poached eggs.

Both stories illustrate the same trait: above all, this artist was absorbed in his work. When we find such an anecdote in various different early biographies we call it a topos: it is one of the stock stories, applied to different subjects, for the same rhetorical effect. But in this case both the Beethoven and the Menzel stories are likely to be true.

There are three book-length essays on Beethoven by figures who knew him. The one by Anton Schindler turned out to be full of deliberate fabrications based on conscious forgeries: the author was concerned to present himself as the composer's long-standing friend. The one by Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries I hope to come to on some other occasion. Breuning's book is available in a very good paperback edition, edited by Maynard Solomon, under the title Memories of Beethoven (Cambridge University Press).

It is short and none the worse for that. Surveys of biographical literature are no use to anyone if they ignore, as they often do, short books. Breuning is full of little personal touches. He thought that Beethoven bathed too much, and that that perhaps brought on his deafness: "He always had the habit, when he had been at his desk for a long time composing, and felt that his head was overheated, of rushing over to the washstand and pouring jugfuls of water over his head, and after cooling himself in this way and drying himself hastily, going back to work or taking a walk in the open air." Walking up and down the room in some vehement discussion, Beethoven would pause to spit in the mirror instead of out of the window - but never noticed the difference.

It is in his self-portrait as much as his picture of the composer that Breuning is so touching. He describes playing the piano behind Beethoven's back, in order to test just how deaf he was, or walking with him in the street, and writing down his half of the conversation, in the conversation book, while street urchins mocked the loud, deaf, wild-seeming man and his child companion.

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Breuning, Gerhard von. Memories of Beethoven: From the House of the Black-robed Spaniards, edited by Maynard Solomon. Cambridge University Press, 1992.


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