Fan S. Noli “Beethoven and French Revolution Beethoven the drunkard

The pious Schindler describes thus the master’s drinking habits: «Beethoven’s favorite beverage was fresh spring water which, in summer, he drank in well-nigh inordinate quantities[1] Among wines, he preferred the Hungarian Ofener variety. Unfortunately, he liked best the adulterated

wines, which did great damage to his weak intestines. But warnings w re of no avail in this case. This . the best evidence that Beethoven was not a drunkard as his last physician -Dr. Vawruch -described him .»! Here we have a typical example of Schindler’s apologetic methods. He proves that Beethoven was a drunkard while he tries to absolve him from that accusation. The details he gives us are very significant. Beethoven, like all alcoholics, enjoyed best the adulterated wines, because they contained more alcohol and had a «kick» in them.

But Dr. Wawruch is not the only one to tell us that Beethoven was a heavy drinker. Carl Holz, one of the secretaries and factotums of the master, confirms Dr. Wawruch’s testimony.[2] He describes Beethoven as Gargantuan in eating and drinking: «He was a stout eater of substantial food ; he drank a good deal of wine at table but could stand a good deal, and in merry company he became intoxicated.»[3] Schindler answers by denigrating Holz and by alleging that it was Holz who led the poor and innocent master to taverns and carousals and that it was Holz who spread reports that Beethoven had contracted dropsy from vinous Indulgence.[4] Yes, continues the apologetic Schindler, it is true that Beethoven used to «offer sacrifices to the Wine God publicly» in 1825 and 1826 but Holz was responsible for all these excesses[5] Again, Schindler goes into details, gets mixed up, lets the cat out of the bag, and tells us indirectly but very plainly that Beethoven in his last years drank himself to death, because the dropsy and the cirrhosis of the liver from which he died are usually the results of heavy alcoholic excesses.[6] Schindler’s contention that Carl Holz was to blame for Beethoven’s alcoholisrn is simply childish. Even Thayer, who piously agrees With Schindler that Beethoven was not a drunkard, exonerates Holz, and admits that Beethoven, from youth up, was so accustomed to take wine at his meals, that his physicians found it difficult to make him obey their prohibition of wine when he was ill[7] A a matter of fact, alcoholism was in Beethoven’s blood. His father and his grandmother were hopeless drunkards[8].

Wines of all the varieties, German, Austrian, Bohemian .and. Hungarian, are mentioned again and again in hisletters and conversation : Rhine wines, Mosel wines, Rüdesheimer, Melniker, Gumpoldskirchner, Grinzinger, Adelsberger. Nessmüller, Sankt Georger, Ruster and and Tokayer.

Beethoven preferred the Hungarian red wines[9] because they were heavier and cheaper. He emptied bottles upon in the “rich banquets” the Hungarian Countess Erdödy offered him and, of course, he fell sick the next day.[10] Whenever Countess Brunswick sent him “Nektar” from Hungary, Beethoven invited all his friends to share it with him, and wrote to Brunswick: “We drink your wine, and we get drunk for you when we drink your health.”[11] When he is sick with Hungarian wines then he tries Champagne for a change and expects inspiration and stimulation from the sparkling French wine. A headache is all he gets and then he writes to Kuhlau: “I learned once more from experience that such things rather prostrate than promote my energies[12] But this penitent mood of the sick man does not last very long, for he writes again to Carl Holz: “Today is Sunday. Let us have a Sunday carousal!”[13]

Baron Zmeskall and Carl Holz, both of them heavy drinkers, took part in those Beethovenian Bachanalia.[14] Holz seems to have been the champion of the group, because even Bwethoven had to admit that Holz was a hard drinker![15] We get an exact idea of what Beethoven means by “hard drinking” when we read that he expected his guests to swallow at least three bottles of wine in a single meal.[16] Sometimes, the master challenged his guests to a drinking contest. Sir George mart knocked him out in such a bout, but alas! He does not tell us in what round.[17] Anyhow, he. proved that Shakespeare was right in maintaining that no Dutchman can beat an Englishman in drinking.

In those memorable Bacchanalia, the poet of the bunch would write an appropriate Wine Song. Here is one:

Sagt, was ist tier Mond so bleich

Und wie singen Frosch’ und Unken

Ach, so kläglich in dem Teich?

Wasser haben sie getrunken!

Aber seht die Sonne an!

Kennt ihr diese Lehre fühlen?

Sie trinkt Wein auf ihrer Bahn,

Steigt ins Meerr dann sich zu kühlen.

Soun’ und Mond und Frösch’ und Unken

Fort mit Wasser, Wein getrunken.[18]

That Beethoven was a wine enthusiast can be seen very clearly in the following letter, addressed to Senator Brentano of Frankfurt: “I recommend to you my worthy friend, the first wine-artist of Europe. Herr Neberich. He is a master in the aesthetic ordering and succession of the various wines, and as such he deserves the heartiest applause.[19] I do not doubt but that he will honour you very highly at the Upper Councils of Frankfurt. At every offering to Bacchus, the rank of the high-priest belongs to him, and no one could send forth a better ‘Evoe, Evoe’ to the Wine God than he.”[20]

Beethoven remained true to Bacchus until his last breath. On his death-bed he exclaims : «Only through Malfatti’s science shall I be saved!”[21] Why? Because Dr. Wawruch had compelled him to drink only a kind of salep beverage,[22] while Dr. Malfatti now allowed him to drink as much wine as he wanted, and sent him several bottles of old Gumpoldskirchner. The merciful Dr. Malfatti thought very probably that there was no reason whatever to torture the dying composer with salep a and ordered ice punch for him. Beethoven drank avidly, became intoxicated, fell asleep, dreamed that he had completed his Saul and David Oratorio, woke up, asked for more wine and thought he was saved by Malfatti. Omar Khayyam would have described the situation with this quatrain :

Then said a Vessel with a long-drawn sigh,

«My Clay with long oblivion is gone dry;

But fill me uith. the old familiar Juice,

Methinks I might recover by-and-by!»

Yes, that was exactly the kind of medicine he needed. So Beethoven writes at once to his old fnend Baron Pasqualati to ask him for some wine, Champagne, Grinzinger, and especially old Gumpoldskirchner.[23] Pasqualati sends him more wine than he asked for. Beethoven drinks and feels per£ectly happy. That was the right thing to do according to the poet:

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend Before we too into the Dust descend’ Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and-sans


Yes, Pasqualati’s Champagne was excellent, but the Baron had forgotten to send· him  a Champagne glass, and it was a mortal sin for a wine devotee to drink Champagne from the wrong glass. So Beethoven writes to Pasqualati again and asks him to send him more Champagne and a Champagne glass this time.[24] At the same time, he appeals to Schott of Mainz for some authentic Rhine wine.[25] Schott sent him immediately several bottles. The pious Schindler received the wine just in time and placed two bottles of Rüdesheimer upon the table near the dying master’s bed. Beethoven looked at them and said: «It is a pity, a pity, too late!» These were his last words. His last act, as the pious Shcindler writes to Schott, was this: Of the Rudesheimer wine, Beethoven kept taking a few spoonfuls until he passed away[26]

Ah, with the Grape my fading Life provide,

And wash my body whence the Life has died,

And in a Winding sheet of Vine-lea! wrapt

So bury rxe by some sweet Garden-side.

[1] . Schindler, Beethoven, 1927, II, p. 194 and pp. 295-8, Dr. Andreas Wawruch, an amateur violoncellist and ardent admirer of Beethoven’s music, attended him on his deathbed. His diagnosis and treatment of Beethoven’s sickness were correct. In his report-Aerztlicher Rückblick auf Ludwig van Beethoven’s letzte Lebensepoche -Dr. Wawruch emphasizes Beethoven’s «vorherrschende Neigung fur geistige Getranke” and makes it clear hat the master drank himself to death in his last even years. -Schirmer, pp. 221-2, Nohl, Beethoven, p. 325.

[2] Carl Holz enjoyed Beethoven’s confidence to the extent that he was duly authorized to write the master’s biography on Aug. 26, 1826. -Kastner-Kapp, P. 818. See al 0 Thayer. English Edition, III, P. 197.

[3] «Er ass stark lind substantiös; trank bei Tisch viel Wein, konnt abel’ iel vertragen; in lustiger Gesellschaft bekneipte er sich. -Thayrer, German Edition, V,

  1. 187, English, Edition, III. p. 196.

[4] Thayer. English Edition, III, app. 195-6.

[5] Schindler, Beethoven, 1860, II, p, 110.

[6] Dr. Wawruch, in his post-mortem report, tells liS that Beethoven, when he was thirty years of age (in 1800), «he began to indulge in alcoholic drinks. . . while he sought to obviate the effect of excessive punch and ice by long and fatiguing walks. About seven years ago (in (1820), this change in his manner of life brought him to the brink of the grave. He had a violent attack of inflamation of the bowel which, although it yielded to medical treatment, gave rise to much subsequent suffering and collie pains, and which, in part, favored the development of his mortal illness. -Schirmer. pp, 221-2 and Nohl, Beethoven, p. 325. ‘

[7] Thayer, Engli h Edition III D 196

[8] Thayer, English Edition: PP.’ 4’7′ and’ 49

[9] Carl Holz writes : “Abends trunk er (Beethoven) Bier oder Wein, meistens Voslauer. oder roten Ungarwein” Thayer, German Edition, V, P. 187.

[10] Letter to Zmeskall, 1812, Kastner-Kapp, 209.

[11] . “So oft wir -mehrere amici -dein Wein trinken, betrinken wir Dich, d.h. wir trinken deine Gesundheit” _ Letter to Brunswick, May 11, 1807, Kastner-Kapp, p. 105.

[12] Letter to Kuhlau, Sept. 3, 1825; Nohl, II, p. 212; Kastncr-Kapp, p. 788.

[13] Letter to Holz, 1826, Kastner-Kapp, p. 814, Shedlock translates the German «Sonntagschmaus”, as an innocent «right good Sunday meal.”. -Kalischer-Shedlock, II, p. 430.

[14] Beethoven calls them so: «Ich kam deisen Morgen um vier Uhr erst von einem Bachanal, wo ich sogar viel lachen musste, urn heute ebensoviel Zll weinen.» Letter (authentic) to Bettina, Feb. 10, lRll, Knslner-Kapp, p. 184.

[15] «Er trinkt stark, untel’ uns gesagt» -Letter to Neohe Carl, Aug. 11, 1825, Kastner-Kapp, p. 783.

[16] “Beethoven went into the adjoining room and brought back five bottles, one of Which he placed before Schindler, one beside himself and three in a row in front of me” -Grillparzer in L.NohI’s Beethoven, P. 229.

[17] Schirmer, Impressions, p. 196.

[18] Conversation Books, December 1819, p. 236, Blatter :!a and 52b. 36

[19] The German word «Beif’all» (applause) is translated erroneously by Shedlock as «success». -KalischerShedlock, T, p. 399.

[20] Letter to Brentano, March 4, 1816, Kastner-Kapp, p. 341; Kalischer-Shedlock, T, p. 399.

[21] «Nur durch Malfatti’s Wissenschaft werde ich gerettet.» -Letter to Schindler, March 17, 1827, Kastner-Kapp, p. 843.

[22] «Derselbe (Dr. Wawruch) hatte den arrnen Beethoven bald eine wirklich staunenerregende Menge Salep – Decodes trinken lassen. Achtzig sechsunzenflaschen hatte die Wirtschafterin Sali bereits in die Apotheke zurück getragen. ..». -Breuning, Aus dem Schwarzpanierhause,  p. 89.

[23] Letters to Pasqualati, 1827. Kustn er-Kapp, p. 840, and March Iii, 1827. ibid., p. 843. 38 .39

[24] Letter to Pasqualeti, 1927, Kastner-Kapp, pp.840 – 1

[25] Letters to Schott, Beb, 22 1827; Kastner.Kapp, pp, 837 – 8 and March I, 1827 ibid, p 839.

[26] Schindler to Schott, April 12, 1827, Kalischer – Hull, p. 391 – 2



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