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Volume 11 • Number 2

Fall 2004



The Literary Beethoven

by Robin Wallace

Angelika Corbineau-Hoffmann. Testament und Totenmaske: Der literarische Mythos des Ludwig van Beethoven. Hildesheim: Weidmann, 2000. [ii], 400 pp.

Beethoven, shut up with the four walls
of his deafness, rehearsing the unhearable
semplice e cantabile, somehow reconstituting
the blister shirt of the intolerable
into these shakes and triplets, a hurrying
into flowering along the fencerows: dying,
for my father, came to be like that
finally—in its messages the levitation
of serenity, as though the spirit might
aspire, in its last act,
     to walk on air.
—Amy Clampitt, "Beethoven, Opus 111"
(from The Kingfisher, 1983)

Amy Clampitt's poem, in which Beethoven becomes a Doppelgänger of the poet's dead father, a twentieth-century midwestern farmer whom he neither met nor imagined, is a recent example of an approach to Beethoven and his music that extends in an unbroken continuum back to the composer's lifetime. The connection between op.111 and the theme of mortality—a theme foregrounded by Angelika Corbineau-Hoffmann's choice of title—can likewise be
traced back to the earliest years of the work's reception. A review that appeared in the Berliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1824, two years after the sonata's publication and well before Beethoven's death, featured a (probably fictional) conversation between the authorial persona (an anonymous critic) and a young musician.1 "Edward" describes the content of the second movement as follows:

Do not the harmonies of the theme already swell like the mournful music
borne through the night from the funeral procession [Beethoven's] rolling
on in the distance? . . . Now the first troop of those who accompany the
corpse. . . . Memory takes us back to the deathbed. Through the continuous
humming of the bells I once again hear the last laboring breaths of the
dying one. Confusedly, and then ever more clearly, angel voices sound for him
through the night in the delirium of his last hours. Children's songs lull from
above, like the trilling of the lark in the highest blue of the ether. . . . And
the whole earth mourns the misunderstood favorite, and everywhere can be
heard the death knell; gentle laments, sad memories, thankful, loving celebrations
accompany him to his resting place.

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