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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Irenæus Prime-Stevenson (1858–1942)

By Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

WE are warned on high authority that no man can serve two masters. The caution should obtain in æsthetics as well as in ethics. As a general rule, the painter must stick to his easel, the sculptor must carve, the musician must score or play or sing, the actor must act,—each with no more than the merest coquettings with sister arts. Otherwise his genius is apt to suffer from what are side-issues for temperament. To many minds a taste, and even a singular capacity, for an avocation has injured the work done in the real vocation.

Of course there are exceptions. The versatility has not always been fatal. We recall Leonardo, Angelo, Rossetti, and Blake among painters; in the ranks of musicians we note Hoffmann, Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner, Boito. In other art-paths, such personal pages as those of Cellini, and the critical writings of Story of to-day, may add their evidence. The essentially autobiographic in such a connection must be accepted with reserve. So must be taken much admirable writing as to the art in which the critic or teacher has labored. Didactics are not necessarily literature. Perhaps the best basis of determining the right to literary recognition of men and women who have written and printed more or less without actually professing letters, will be the interest of the matter they have left to the kind of reader who does not care a pin about their real life-work, or about their self-expression as it really comes down to us.

In painting, the dual capacity—for the brush and for letters—has more shining examples than in music. But with Beethoven, Schumann, Boito, and Wagner, comes a striking succession of men who, as to autobiography or criticism or verse, present a high quality of interest to the general reader. In the instance of Beethoven the critical or essayistic side is limited. It is by his letters and diary that we study (only less vividly than in his music) a character of profound depth and imposing nobility; a nature of exquisite sensitiveness. In them we follow, if fragmentarily, the battle of personality against environment, the secrets of strong but high passion, the artist temperament,—endowed with a dignity and a moral majesty seldom equaled in an art indeed called divine, but with children who frequently remind us that Pan absorbed in playing his syrinx has a goat’s hoof.

Beethoven in all his correspondence wrote himself down as what he was,—a superior man, a mighty soul in many traits, as well as a supreme creative musician. His letters are absorbing, whether they breathe love or anger, discouragement or joy, rebellion against untoward conditions of daily life or solemn resignation. The religious quality, too, is strong in them; that element more in touch with Deism than with one or another orthodoxy. Withal, he is as sincere in every line of such matter as he was in the spoken word. His correspondence holds up the mirror to his own nature, with its extremes of impulse and reserve, of affection and austerity, of confidence and suspicion. It abounds, too, in that brusque yet seldom coarse humor which leaps up in the Finale of the Seventh Symphony, in the Eighth Symphony’s waggery, the last movement of the Concerto in E flat. They offer likewise verbal admissions of such depression of heart as we recognize in the sternest episodes of the later Sonatas and of the Galitzin Quartets, and in the awful Allegretto of the Symphony in A. They hint at the amorous passion of the slow movements of the Fourth and Ninth Symphonies, at the moral heroism of the Fifth, at the more human courage of the ‘Heroic,’ at the mysticism of the Ninth’s tremendous opening. In interesting relation to the group, and merely of superficial interest, are his hasty notes, his occasional efforts to write in English or in French, his touches of musical allusiveness.

It is not in the purpose of these prefatory paragraphs to a too-brief group of Beethoven’s letters to enter upon his biography. That is essentially a musician’s life; albeit the life of a musician who, as Mr. Edward Dannreuther suggests, leaves behind him the domain of mere art and enters upon that of the seer and the prophet. He was born in Bonn in 1770, on a day the date of which is not certain (though we know that his baptism was December 17th). His youth was not a sunshiny period. Poverty, neglect, a drunken father, violin lessons under compulsion, were the circumstances ushering him into his career. He was for a brief time a pupil of Mozart; just enough so to preserve that succession of royal geniuses expressed in linking Mozart to Haydn, and in remembering that Liszt played for Beethoven and that Schubert stood beside Beethoven’s last sick-bed. High patronage and interest gradually took the composer under its care. Austria and Germany recognized him, England accepted him early, universal intelligence became enthusiastic over utterances in art that seemed as much innovations as Wagneristic writing seemed to the next generation. In Vienna, Beethoven may be said to have passed his life. There were the friends to whom he wrote—who understood and loved him. Afflicted early with a deafness that became total,—the irony of fate,—the majority of his master-works were evolved from a mind shut away from the pleasures and disturbances of earthly sounds, and beset by invalidism and suffering. Naturally genial, he grew morbidly sensitive. Infirmities of temper as well as of body marked him for their own. But underneath all superficial shortcomings of his intensely human nature was a Shakespearean dignity of moral and intellectual individuality.

It is not necessary here even to touch on the works that follow him. They stand now as firmly as ever—perhaps more firmly—in the honor and the affection of all the world of auditors in touch with the highest expressions in the tone-world. The mere mention of such monuments as the sonatas, the nine symphonies, the Mass in D minor, the magnificent chain of overtures, the dramatic concert-arias, does not exhaust the list. They are the vivid self-expressions of one who learned in suffering what he taught in song: a man whose personality impressed itself into almost everything that he wrote, upon almost every one whom he met, and who towers up as impressively as the author of ‘Hamlet,’ the sculptor of ‘Moses,’ the painter of ‘The Last Supper.’

It is perhaps interesting to mention that the very chirography of Beethoven’s letters is eloquent of the man. Handwriting is apt to be. Mendelssohn, the well-balanced, the precise, wrote like copper-plate. Wagner wrote a fine strong hand, seldom with erasures. Spontini, the soldier-like, wrote with the decision of a soldier. Beethoven’s letters and notes are in a large, open, dashing hand, often scrawls, always with the blackest of ink, full of changes, and not a flourish to spare—the handwriting of impulse and carelessness as to form, compared with a writer’s desire of making his meaning clear.