Fan S. Noli “Beethoven and Frenc Revolution” The conversation book



It is common knowledge that, from the very beginning of his deafness, Beethoven could communicate with his visitors only by means of written notes. At home, a slate was commonly used upon which the visitors would write something only to obliterate it immediately after it was read by the master. When Beethoven was away from home, in coffee-houses and inns, an ordinary blank note-book of a size and thickness easy to carry in the coat pocket was used. It passed from hand to hand and one or another of his friends wrote questions or replies. Beethoven himself took part in the conversation orally and used the note-book for his remarks on rare occasions when he did not trust his voice. Sometimes, the note-book was used also at home instead of the slate whenever it was desirable to preserve what was written. About 400 of these conversation note-books came into the possession of Schindler, who piously destroyed 263 and transferred 137, comprising 11, 460 pages, to the Royal Library of Berlin in 1845. Thayer made a complete transcript of them and used them in his biography.[1] Conversations covering the period of March, 1819, to March, 1820, were published in 1923 by Recht in Munich with critical notes by Walter Nohl,

The contents of the Conversation Books are very disappointing to those who expect to find in them something similar to the conversations of Goethe with Eckermann. In the first place, Beethoven is mostly silent and lets his friends do all the talking. In the second place, those conversations were not intended for publication, information: or edification. In the third place, the pious Schindler, after destroying what he considered unworthy of the master, expurgated and edited the rest. Consequently, the Conversation Books are the most fragmentary of all the sources of information we possess and should be used with extreme caution. Nevertheless, they are not exactly devoid of any interest or value. They give us a general idea of the things in which Beethoven was interested in his last eight years and a half. Of course, his worries about his nephew Carl came first. They fill entire conversations. His deafness and his chronic diarrhoea come next. Sympathetic visitors bring him news about the latest discoveries nd cures.[2] Then, scattered among these, come discussions about current events, finances, stock market, politics, revolutions, Napoleon, religion, literature, music, theatre, apartments, housekeepers, wines, widows, girls and books. The latter form an important item and appear always in Beethoven’s handwriting with full title, author, publisher, price, and book store where they could be obtained. Finally, here and there, like oases in a desert, come a few remarks in Beethoven’s handwriting.

It is true that what we get in the last analysis from the fragmentary Conversation Books is far from what we innocently expect from them but, after all, we do get a good deal of valuable information which serves to complete the picture of Beethoven’s life, time and environment in Vienna.


Soon after Beethoven’s death, all those who had come in touch with him wrote more or less extensively about their impressions and helped to swell his legendary biography. The most important collections of these testimonies of contemporaries are those published by Ludwig Nohl in 1877, by Albert Leitzmann in 1921, by Theodor von Frimmel in 1923, and by G. Schirmer in 1926. Most of these impressions are anecdotal and should be used with extreme caution. But some of them deserve careful study, for instance those by Ries, Breuning, Holz and Moscheles, who had known Beethoven intimately for years. It was Ries who contended that «to tell the whole truth about great men was right and could do them no harm.» In holding this realistic view he was well in advance of Schindler and Thayer who thought it fit to suppress certain facts of great importance.

[1] Thayer, English Edition, III, pp, 11-12, German Edition, IV, pp. 151-155. 22 I

[2] A visitor tells Beethoven that a foreign Count restored his wife’s hearing by taking horse-radish freshly dug from the soil, rubbing it well into a wad of cotton and inserting the cotton in her ear. -Conversation Book of November, 1819, p. 163, Blatt 37a.



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