Fan S. Noli “Beethoven and French revolution”


Beethoven’s biography had become a melodramatic mess of nondescript legends when his great biographer, Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1811-1R97), appeared on the scene.  Born in Natick, Massachusetts, he received a liberal education at Harvard University, when e he took the degree of Bachelor of Laws in 1843. He was employed for short time in the College Library where interest in the life of Beethoven took hold of him. Henceforth, with a few minor digressions h devoted his entire life to collecting materials for a critical biography of the Master.

The result of his labors was a monumental collection of documents, critically analysed, from which the prosaic and unadorned life of Beethoven emerged in its true environment of men and things. Thayer set forth his guiding principles in these words: «I fight for no theories and cherish no prejudices; my sole point of view is the truth about Beethoven the man”[1]!

Thayer’s labors were embodied originally in five bulky volumes in German. His book was entitled “Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leben”.

He did not live long enough to see all the volumes published. He died after the third volume had appeared. The German editor of the first three volumes, Dr. Hermann Deiters of Bonn (1833-1907), was urged by Thayer to translate the original text literally but was as given “full liberty to proceed according to his judgment in the presentation of documentary evidence[2]. The first volume (1770-1796) was published by Weber of Berlin in 1866; the second volume (1796-1806), in 1872; the third volume (1807-16) in 1879.

The fourth volume was unfinished at Thayer’s death.  Deiters undertook to revise and complete the work but died after the revision of the first volume, which came out in 1901. Dr. Hugo Riemann of Grossmehlra (1849-1919) completed the fourth volume in 1907, the fifth and last in 1908, and brought out the revisions of the second and third volumes in 1910-1911. The English edition by Henry Edward Krehbiel (1854-1923), published by the Bethoven Association of New York in 1921, is an abridged arrangement of the whole of the above material. According to Krehbiel himself, his English edition is not a translation of the German work but rather a «presentation of the original manuscript so far as the discoveries made after the writing did not mar its integrity[3]”. In other words, the editors, both German and American, did not simply translate and copy. They arranged, they revised, they contributed, and they corrected the original text. Consequently, they deserve a: good deal of credit as Thayer’s collaborators.

The chief defect of both editions, German and English, is the chronological method established

by Thayer himself[4] which makes the book as  monotonous and tiresome as a chronicle of the  Middle Ages. In their present shape both editions are simply hopeless for the average reader and can exhaust the patience of even the most authentic  book-worm.’ Another defect is that Thayer follows the example of Schindler in suppressing certain unpleasant details in Beethoven’s life. In one case he frankly admits it[5].

So far as the problem of this book is concerned, Thayer contributed next to nothing to what Schindler had already said. Last but not least, Thayer is wrong in looking down, upon Schindler’s Biography. The latter is much more than an anthology of pious lies.

No time need be wasted in extolling the merits of Thayer’s work. The mass of documents patiently collected and critically analyzed speak volumes for themselves. But one of its chief merits deserves to be emphasized especially. Thanks to Thayer, the deified Beethoven has been humanized and. brought down from heaven to earth. Thayer did more than that. In the good old times, it was the general belief that Beethoven was the victimized hero and that everybody around him was a villain, Thayer has produced documents which go far to prove that the exact opposite is much nearer to the truth, namely, that Beethoven was the villain and all the others were the victims. Curiously enough, Beethoven himself sometimes realized how great a rascal he was. In a moment of charming objectivity and self-criticism, he signs one of his letters: «Tantus quantus lumpus L. v. Beethoven[6] But that happened very rarely. As a rule, he claimed to be a Saint who could do no wrong. For instance, he wrote once: «Never have I done anything bad[7]

[1] Thayer, English Edition, I, Introduction, p. XI-XII.

[2] Thayer, English Edition, I, Introduction , p. XI.

[3] Thayer, English Edition, I, Introduction, p. VIII.

[4] Krehbiel «chose his own method of presentation touching the story of the la st decade of Beethoven’s life.

[5] Thayer, English Edition, Introduction, p, XVI.  «The names of two married women might be here given to whom at a later period Beethoven was warmly attached ; names which happily have hitherto escaped  the eyes of literary scavengers, and are therefore here

suppressed.» -Thayer! English Edition I, p.: 253.

[6] Letter to Frau Nanette Streicher, Sept, 15, 1817, Sarntliche Briefe, Kastner-Kapp, p. 443…Lurnpus… is the latinized German word «Lump» (rascal).

[7] ..Nie habe ich etwas Schlechtes begangen.» Letter to Schott, Dec. 17 1824, Siimtliche Briefe, KastnerKapp, p,



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