Immortal Beloved: Beethoven’s Passionate Love Letters
“My heart overflows with a longing to tell you so many things…”
By Maria Popova
Ludwig van Beethoven (December 17, 1770–March 26, 1827) endures as one of the most influential and beloved composers of all time. Whenever I find myself with a sunken heart, I promptly put his Ninth Symphony on repeat. It’s only befitting that a man of such extraordinary capacity to elevate the soul with beauty should be the author of some of the most breathtaking love letters of all time.
Beethoven never married, but in his early forties he feel deeply in love with a mysterious woman who remains known as “immortal beloved” — the eternally enchanting term of endearment by which the great composer addressed her in his letters. Her true identity has spurred entire books, but historians currently believe she was Antonie Brentano — a Viennese aristocrat married to a Frankfurt businessman.
Beethoven’s missives to this “immortal beloved,” which include the only known love letter of his to use the informal German du for “you” rather than the formal Sie, were found among his personal effects; they were never mailed — a beautiful and tragic testament to the fact that their affair, like all affairs, was both bedeviled and vitalized by the awareness that the two lovers could never fully have each other.
Included in The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time (public library) — which also gave us Vita Sackville-West’s passionate words to Virginia Woolf and Balzac’s monomaniacal missives — the letters, penned a generation after his mentor Mozart’s stirring love letters, stand as a reminder of the eternal relationship between frustration and satisfaction. Like Beethoven’s music, they remain a masterwork of romantic genius.
In the first one, penned on Sunday, July 5, 1812, Beethoven writes:
My angel, my very self… Why this profound sorrow, when necessity speaks — can our love endure without sacrifices, without our demanding everything from one another; can you alter the fact that you are not wholly mine, that I am not wholly yours? — Dear God, look at Nature in all her beauty and set your heart at rest about what must be — Love demands all, and rightly so… No doubt we shall meet soon; and today also time fails me to tell you of the thoughts which during these last few days I have been revolving about my life — If our hearts were always closely united, I would certainly entertain no such thoughts. My heart overflows with a longing to tell you so many things — Oh — there are moments when I find that speech is quite inadequate — Be cheerful — and be for ever my faithful, my only sweetheart, my all, as I am yours. The gods must send us everything else, whatever must and shall be our fate — your faithful Ludwig
By the following evening, Beethoven is a seething cauldron of longing, that most intoxicating and disorienting of emotions:
What a life!!!! as it is now!!!! without you — pursued by the kindness of people here and there, a kindness that I think — that I wish to deserve just as little as I deserve it — man’s homage to man — that pains me — and when I consider myself in the setting of the universe, what am I and what is that man — whom one calls the greatest of men — and yet — on the other hand therein lies the divine element in man… However much you love me — my love for you is even greater — but never conceal yourself from me — good night — Dear God — so near! so far! Is not our love truly founded in Heaven — and, what is more, as strongly cemented in the firmament of heaven? —
By the morning of July 7, his longing plummets into despair:
Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my immortal beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer — To face life I must liv altogether with you or never see you… Oh God, why must one be separated from her who is so dear. Yet my life in V[ienna] at present is a miserable life — Your love has made me both the happiest and unhappiest of mortals…
This rush of madness is punctuated by a bout of calm, almost rational lucidity. In a sentiment that calls to mind John Steinbeck’s memorable letter of advice on love — “If it is right, it happens… Nothing good gets away.” — Beethoven urges his beloved and, perhaps most of all, himself:
Be calm; for only by calmly considering our lives can we achieve our purpose to live together — be calm — love me — Today — yesterday — what tearful longing for you — for you — you — my life — my all — all good wishes to you — Oh, do continue to love me — never misjudge your lover’s most faithful heart.
Complement The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time with more masterworks of the supreme romantic genre by Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke, Charlotte Brontë, Franz Kafka, Margaret Mead, Allen Ginsberg, and Oscar Wilde.
Published October 12, 2015