The rise of Ludwig van Beethoven into the ranks of history’s greatest composers was parallelled by and in some ways a consequence of his own personal tragedy and despair. Beginning in the late 1790’s, the increasing buzzing and humming in his ears sent Beethoven into a panic, searching for a cure from doctor to doctor. By October 1802 he had written the Heiligenstadt Testament confessing the certainty of his growing deafness, his consequent despair, and suicidal considerations.
Yet, despite the personal tragedy caused by the “infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in [him] than in others, a sense which [he] once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in [his] profession enjoy,” it also served as a motivating force in that it challenged him to try and conquer the fate that was handed him. He would not surrender to that “jealous demon, my wretched health” before proving to himself and the world the extent of his skill.
Thus, faced with such great impending loss, Beethoven, keeping faith in his art and ability, states in his Heiligenstadt Testament a promise of his greatness yet to be proven in the development of his heroic style. By about 1800, Beethoven was mastering the Viennese High-Classic style. Although the style had been first perfected by Mozart, Beethoven did extend it to some degree. He had unprecedently composed sonatas for the cello which in combination with the piano opened the era of the Classic-Romantic cello sonata. In addition, his sonatas for violin and piano became the cornerstone of the sonata duo repertory.
His experimentation with additions to the standard forms likewise made it apparent that he had reached the limits of the high-Classic style. Having displayed the extended range of his piano writing he was also begining to forge a new voice for the violin. In 1800, Beethoven was additionally combining the sonata form with a full orchestra in his First Symphony, op. 2. In the arena of piano sonata, he had also gone beyond the three-movement design of Haydn and Mozart, applying sometimes the four-movement design reserved for symphonies and quartets through the addition of a minuet or scherzo.
Having confidently proven the high-Classic phase of his sonata development with the “Grande Sonate,” op. 22, Beethoven moved on to the fantasy sonata to allow himself freer expression. By 1802, he had evidently succeeded in mastering the high-Classic style within each of its major instrumental genres-the piano trio, string trio, string quartet and quintet, Classic piano concerto, duo sonata, piano sonata, and symphony. Having reached the end of the great Vienese tradition, he was then faced with either the unchallenging repetition of the tired style or going beyond it to new creations.
At about the same time that Beethoven had exhausted the potentials of the high-Classic style, his increasing deafness landed him in a major cycle of depression, from which was to emerge his heroic period as exemplified in Symphony No. 3, op. 55 (“Eroica”). In Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament of October 1802, he reveals his malaise that was sending him to the edge of despair. He speaks of suicide in the same breath as a reluctance to die, expressing his helplessness against the inevitability of death.
Having searched vainly for a cure, he seems to have lost all hope-“As the leaves of autumn fall and are withered-so likewise has my hope been blighted-I leave here-almost as I came-even the high courage-which often inspired me in the beautiful days of summer-has disappeared. ” There is somewhat of a parallel between his personal and professional life. He is at a dead end on both cases. There seems to be no more that he can do with the high-Classic style; his deafness seems poised inevitably to encumber and ultimately halt his musical career.
However, despite it all, he reveals in the Testament a determination, though weak and exhausted, to carry on-“I would have ended my life-it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me. So I endured this wretched existence… ” Realizing his own potential which he expressed earlier after the completion of the Second Symphony-“I am only a little satisfied with my previous works”-and in an 1801 letter-“I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely”- he decides to go on.
At a time when Beethoven had reached the end of the musical challenge of the day, he also faced what seemed to him the end of hope in his personal life. In his Testament, death seems imminent-“With joy I hasten to meet death”-but hope and determination, though weak and unsure, are evident. In the Heiligenstadt Testament the composer comes to terms with his deafness and leaves what is beyond his control to what must be, trying to make a fresh start. It is quite evident that the Testament is filled with a preoccupation with death-he writes as though death were at his doorstep, waiting for him to finish his letter-“Farewell…
How happy I shall be if I can still be helpful to you in my grave… With joy I hasten to meet death. Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee bravely. ” He has set his old self-the almost-deaf, tired, hopeless Ludwig- to rest through the Testament so that he may rise and live again. Beethoven had stated previously that he has not yet revealed all of which he is capable. Coming to terms with his condition, he moves on to “develop all my artistic capacities. ”
This eventually leads to his heroic period in which Symphony No. n E-flat (“Eroica”) composed in 1803 became one of the early principal works. The work broke from the earlier Viennese high classic style; many older composers and music pedagogues, not able to accept his new style, called it “fantastic,” “hare-brained,” “too long, elaborate, incomprehensible, and much too noisy. ” In fact the style drew much from contemporary French music-the driving, ethically exalted, “grand style” elements combined with the highly ordered yet flexible structure of sonata form.
It seems undeniable then that the Heilingenstadt Testament in which Beethoven came to terms with and put to rest the incurable tragedy of his growing deafness, also set forth a determination to prove his skills before death should take him. This quest coincided with and perhaps led to his graduation from the Viennese hi-Classic style to the development of his own unique heroic style, a blend of French and Viennese elements. The “Eroica” can be viewed as a deliverance of both his life and his career from despair and futility.
Beethoven recreates himself in a new guise, self-sufficient and heroic. The Testament thus is likened to a funeral work. The composer sets himself up as the tragic hero-“my heart and soul have been full of the tender feeling of good will, and I was ever inclined to accomplish great things”-withdrawn from the company of men, tortured by his growing deafness, tempted with thoughts of suicide, overcoming despair by the pure strength of faith in his own music, searching for “but one day of pure joy.
In a musical perspective, the “Eroica” Symphony established a milestone in Beethoven’s development and in music history. His manipulation of sonata form to embrace the powerful emotions of heroic struggle and tragedy went beyond Mozart or Haydn’s high-Classic style. Beethoven’s new path reflected the turbulence of the developing politics of the day (especially the Napoleonic Wars), ignited perhaps by the hopelessness he felt in himself. He took music beyond the Viennese style which ignored the unsettling currents of Beethoven’s terror, anxiety, and death.
Indeed he placed tragedy at the center of his heroic style, symbolizing death, despair, and loss-paralleling his own sense of loss, pain and strife. But in addition, like his own triumph over suffering, there is hope, triumph and joy as expressed in the finale of the “Eroica. ” The Heiligenstadt Testament is a prophecy of the greatness to come of Ludwig van Beethoven. At a time in his life where he had exhausted the musical possibilities of the Viennese high-Classic tradition and where his growing deafness foreshadowed a diminishing career, Beethoven seemed to have come to halt in 1802.
His Heiligenstadt Testament of that year revealed a soul set to despair and futility. At the same time however, despite the looming impossibility of recovery, his ambition to fully realize his musical talent set him to establish a new milestone in musical history-the creation of the heroic style. Symbolizing struggle, the resistance of morality to suffering, and the triumph over despair, we can see how the heroism of Beethoven’s music reflected his own struggles with fate and his own triumphs.