When Beethoven Met Goethe

Sudip Bose in American Scholar:

Incident_Teplitz_1812-600x326When Ludwig van Beethoven arrived in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz in July 1812, he was ill, heartbroken, anxious about his finances, and growing deafer by the day—the dismal weather that greeted him, cold and sopping wet, could not have lifted his spirits all that much. He had been to Teplitz before, indeed, the previous summer, when his doctor had similarly ordered him to take a restorative cure. The town was renowned not only for its hot springs but also for its sylvan setting, the deep forests and pristine lake offering the sick and weary the promise of recuperation. Royals and other noble types frequented the spa, and during the summer of 1812, that glittering crowd would have been abuzz with news of Napoleon’s recently commenced invasion of Russia. Beethoven, the consummate anti-aristocrat, had no wish to hobnob with such a crowd. Yet there was one illustrious man, a regular at Teplitz, whom the composer was desperate to meet: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Beethoven revered Goethe, having composed incidental music to the 1788 drama Egmont as well as several songs set to Goethe’s verse. The two artists had already made initial contact in the spring of 1812, Beethoven writing to Goethe a letter brimming with effusive praise and Goethe responding in warm, encouraging terms. As Jan Swafford notes in his recent biography of Beethoven, the period of the early 1800s was the Goethezeit, the age of Goethe, and following the death of Immanuel Kant, Goethe and Beethoven stood alone as the two colossi of German culture. That they should not only meet, but perhaps become friends, even collaborate on an opera, as Beethoven desired, seemed inevitable. And yet, it was not to be.

They did meet in Teplitz. For most of one week, they took walks together, talking constantly. Beethoven played the piano for the writer and brought up the idea of an opera libretto. Goethe seemed amenable, but once the two men returned home—Beethoven to Vienna, Goethe to Weimar, where he was an official of the court—nothing came of these tentative plans. More than likely, the artists never met again.

More here.