Beethoven had issues with women

Beethoven had issues with women


norman lebrecht

July 23, 2020

Welcome to the 100th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Andante favori for Piano in F major WoO 57 (1805)


Between his arrival in Vienna in his early 20s and his near-total deafness twenty years later, Beethoven was almost perpetually in love. What all the women he fell for had in common was their unattainability. They were either upper class, or married, or uninterested in him, none of which diminished the ferocity of his passion or his persistence. There is something quixotic in Beethoven’s pursuit of love. He needs the chase far more than he ever expects a positive outcome.

The women in Beethoven’s life begin with his mother, Maria Magdalena, whom he idealised as a saintly counterpart to his alcoholic father.  On receiving word that she was suffering from tuberculosis, he ended his first trip to Vienna to be at her side when she died aged 40, on July 17, 1787. In his earliest extant letter he reports: ‘I found my mother still alive, but in the most wretched condition. She was suffering from consumption and in the end she died about seven weeks ago after enduring great pain and agony. She was such a good, kind mother to me, and indeed my best friend. Oh! Who was happier than I, when I could still utter the sweet name of mother and it was heard and answered; and to whom can I say it now?’

His first love in Bonn was Nanette Streicher, who went on to marry a piano-maker in Vienna, where she offered motherly advice to Beethoven as his personal affairs became chaotic. Another teenage love was Eleonore von Breuning (1771-1841), whom he may have offended with a crude lunge while out on a date.

Beethoven contemplated making a marriage proposal in 1810 to Baroness Therese Malfatti (1792-1851); we don’t know if he actually popped the question and was turned down. The following year he wooed the mezzo-soprano Amalie Sebald (1787-1846) in the spa resort of Teplitz; she may have been the person he had in mind when composing songs to the ‘Ferne Geliebte’ the Distant Beloved. Amelie married in 1815, moved to Berlin and vanished from his life.

Josephine Brunsvik (1779-1821) and her sister Therese (1775-1861) were countesses, way out of his class. Josephine was married to a count who died young and in debt. Beethoven gave her piano lessons for several years and wrote amorous letters to which she responded in kind: ‘I would have to violate sacred bonds if I yielded to your request – believe me – that I, by doing what is my duty, suffer the most’. In the summer of 1811 and again the following year Beethoven met Josephine at Teplitz, by which time she was remarried. She might have been the one he had in mind when writing his 1812 ‘immortal beloved’ love-letter. He had already given Josephine the short Andante favori, with its repeated motif of Jo-se-fin-e, signifying either a pedagogic device or a memento of love. All options are open, as we shall see.

Josephine’s sister Therese Brunsvik is probably the woman Beethoven had in mind when composing Für Elise. She was definitely the dedicatee of his 24th piano sonata, opus 78, although that might just mean that she paid for it. Was it an act of love? Therese never married.

The Brunsviks had a cousin, countess Giulietta Giucciardi (1784-1856). Beethoven gave her piano lessons and the dedication of the Moonlight Sonata. Long after, he told his assistant Schindler that he had been in love with Julie ‘but she was of a different class’. Schindler erroneously concluded that she must have been the ‘immortal beloved’. Julie married a passing count in 1803.

Antonie Brentano (1780-1869), dedicatee of the Diabelli Variations, was nominated by the biographer Maynard Solomon as Beethoven’s immortal beloved. Her father was a Habsburg courtier and art curator and she married into the literary Brentano family in 1798. Not only was she married when Beethoven fell for her, she was pregnant as well, and her husband was a good friend of Beethoven’s who lent him money when in need and never demanded repayment.

All of these women were safe to love because they were impossible to marry. What we cannot know is whether Beethoven ever made love to a woman. It would be entirely in keeping with a musician’s life that he had a fling with an opera singer or chorister, or that he visited brothels, but there is no evidence to support any sexual activity on his part, not even a dirty joke or a proposition to a prostitute. Beethoven had been physically desirable in his 20s but by 35 he stopped caring for his appearance and personal hygiene. Not to labour the point, he stank.

So did Beethoven ever have sex? There is a rumour – nothing more – of an illegitimate daughter. Josephine Brunsvik had four children with her first husband and three more during a short-lived second marriage which ended in a vicious custody battle. At least three of her children were said to be conceived while her husbands were out of town. The seventh, Minona, was born in April 1813 — nine months after the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter. Josephine died indigent in March 1821 as Beethoven was composing his penultimate piano sonata, opus 110, which contains a trace of the Andante favori, Josephine’s theme.

Minona (whose name is an anagram of Anonim) lived out her life as a lady’s companion in Vienna, a kind of superior servant, dying there in 1897. In old age, she bore some resemblance to Beethoven.

Tongues wagged. Was she his daughter? Here’s Minona when young.

An Estonian composer, Jüri Reinvere, wrote an opera about her that premiered in Regensburg in January 2020. The evidence against his paternity is that Beethoven, who railed against sexual immorality in his sister-in-law, would have gone against all his principles had he slept with Josephine who may have been no less promiscuous. On the other hand, he may have not known of her other affairs. If he was ever intimate with a woman, Josephine is the likeliest partner.

As for the Andante favori, it remains one of the most popular encores in the Beethoven piano book. Listen to it being played by a composer, someone who could empathise with Beethoven’s situation. The German romantic Eugen d’Albert, for instance, a man who married six times; or the rather ponderous Hungarian Ernö Dohnányi. Wilhelm Kempff, more of a part-time composer, has a rather instructive manner. Alice Sara Ott takes a more contemporary and lighthearted approach to Beethoven’s dating ditty.

But there’s more to say about his farewell to love.


  • fflambeau says:

    Beethoven was gay, something that most straight music people refuse to accept. It was not usual to have a hard on for his nephew like Ludwig did.

    Sorry, this is part of human nature that many cannot see, just like they think nothing of Handel living with his butler for years and leaving him most of property.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The usual nonsense which is projected into the shadows, in absence of evidence.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      You are just repeating yourself. Boring. Silly. Why not something more original, as insinuating that Beethoven was transsexual, or that he was really interested in goats instead?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Recent research by the Musicology Department of the Texas Institute of Technology has revealed that B had a carefully hidden interest in butterflies, which he revealed in veiled signals in some of his notebooks which had been destroyed by Schindler, who hated butterflies, but of which some snippets have survived in encased souvenirs of a couple of enthusiastic lepidopterologists.

        As the leader of the project, Dr Hofstadter, wrote in the TIT Monthly Journal: ‘More so than his theatrical infatuations for unattainable women, the hopelessness of his amorous longings greatly contributed to his morose emotionality in his later years. References to his secret can be heard in the long trills in the second movement of his famous sonata opus 111.’

  • sorin braun says:

    Beethoven was probably gay.Like Bruckner and Brahms – there were no serious attempts to approach women.They all wrote boring letters that showed no appeal , at best.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The usual nonsense which is projected into the shadows, in absence of evidence.

      The psychology of artists in relation to relationships can be quite different from ‘normal’ people. Their work and the creation process can be a serious hindrance to a fulfilling relationship, since the creation process often resembles the concerns of women: being pregnant, the child taking priority, judging the partner on qualities which safeguard offspring. Women mostly have their own similar concerns, so artists have good reasons to have some serious anxiety about women – they (the artists) may have to choose between their love and their work.

      • Cyril says:

        How bizarre that you seem to think “artists” and “women” are two completely different and separate groups of people!

        • John Borstlap says:

          The ideal fusion of contradictions is achieved by the appearance of the female artist, who then has to solve the problem of either investing in literal procreation or an artistic one, and who will need a wealthy husband with a big house to combine both.

    • Hunchback says:

      He lived in a less decadent age, you did not simply “pick up” women, they’d become pregnant.

  • RobK says:

    Ah, the marvellous Andante Favori, the original slow movement of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, dropped in favour of the mysterious and innovative Adagio introduction as it was considered too long. Maybe also due to the fact that towards the end it becomes abominably difficult (those octave demisemiquavers!!). I’ll always put Brendel at the top of my list.

  • dgar elf says:

    “Andante favori” , probably its publisher’s hoopeful title, was the original slow movement of e “Walstein”, replaced by the lovely interlude that introduces an almost dimpressionist finale. With Chopin’s late barcarole, berceuse (first called “Air variee, and some pages of the “Pastoral” symphony, it anticipates Impressionism by a species of prolepsis.

    The breathless couplets in the coda of “Andante favori” are a schematic for their xpanded use at the end of the “Grosse Fuge”, surprising as that is.

    Moiseiwitsch has a finely calculated recording to complement his atmospheric “Waldstein”, which I saw him play in Dallas with “Kreisleriana” of his favorie composer Schumann, in whose music he was inimitable, viz. “Fantasiestuecke” and the grand Fantasy in C Op. 15, though Cortot surpasses him and everyone in the concerto

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interesting article. Poor man! Smelling the pudding but never enjoying its proof.

    But according to biographic material, B indeed often neglected his clothing, but never his personal hygiene: there are many stories of his having showers every morning which – in those days without practical bath equipment – led to serious leakage damages at the appartment under his own, one of the reasons he moved home so often. So, it is very unlikely that he ever ‘stank’.

  • Was Beethoven a homosexual and is that the reason why the identity of the mysterious lady is still a riddle?
    Two things are for sure: the text of the love letter shows beyond any doubt that he intended to send it to a living woman and the text also shows his ardent passion for this particular woman. These facts don’t fit to a homosexual. Nevertheless the Sterba couple, psychoanalysts who had been pupils of Freud himself, tried to turn Beethoven into a homosexual, though he would have ‘suppressed’ these feelings. Nowhere the Sterbas ‘accuse’ Beethoven of having practiced homosexuality. But according to the Sterbas Beethoven’s ‘misogynic’ state of mind was a huge stumbling-block between him and the women. The love letter, the Sterbas continued, is the result of his conflict between the platonic love for the woman involved and his knowledge about himself that he would never be able to become hers, to be her man in every respect. Later on Solomon and Wolf digressed on possible homosexual ‘inhibitions’ of Beethoven’s personality. I find it not very likely. Many gay people deeply wish Beethoven was one of them. Dream on.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Thank you for your fine comment. Two remarks:

      Psychoanalysis = humbug, or at best symbolist prose or parody (Freud’s several remarks on the anal sphincter, almost always named unexpectedly in his texts, would be masterpieces for stand-upp comedians, better than Lenny Bruce).

      Solomon’s works on Beethoven were unfortunately spoiled in the psychoanalytic swamp.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Solomon’s explorations of ‘Late Beethoven’ are a masterpiece.

        Psychoanalysis is like kidney stone removal: it can be done well or badly. its contributions to understanding the human condition is enormous, in spite of Freud’s nonsensical abberations – the field has widened immensily since 1900. The lack of any insight in the workings of human subconscious is the greatest source of suffering in mankind.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          Freudian psychoanalysis is unscientific.

          Solomon’s is probably the most readable Beethoven biography, but it includes a lot of undocumented speculation of psychological nature that should be taken with caution.

          • John Borstlap says:

            ALL psychology is unscientific in the strict material sense because nothing can be proven or predicted, and it appears to be impossible to design general theories which cover all dynamics. But it is a science in the empirical sense: assumptions which appear to work in practice, must be based in something real.

            Freud was a doctor trying to understand pathologies which did not seem to be caused by purely medical conditions. His ideas about suppression appear to be true, and his ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ (1930) is an important contribution to understanding Western society and its psychopathologies. Alas he also produced a lot of pure, undiluted nonsense. His erstwhile follower C.G. Jung did some better work. But both are outdated since nowadays neurotics simply get pills.

    • Eric says:

      I have never encountered a gay music lover who “deeply wished” that Beethoven was also gay. This sounds like a very straight fantasy to me.

      • John Borstlap says:

        “This sounds like a very straight fantasy to me.”

        But if this were true, what would this be saying? A veiled contempt for B? An attempt to excuse one’ s own failings to find a wife? A suppressed urge for sublimation? The mind boggles.

  • Elvira says:

    To be in love is a necessity for artists.
    You can’t be creative without the effervescence of this enormous source
    “Plaisir d’amour « or even chagrin d’amour »

    • John Borstlap says:

      We thank Tristan and the falsification of music history by postwar modernism, so: implicitly the entire 20C destruction of the musical tradition, to the invitation of the Wesendoncks to the Wagners to live in the small house on their estate. So, be careful whom you invite if it is including an artist.

  • Donald Sternberg says:

    Does any of that even matter? All of us are flawed in some way but Beethoven tapped the power of the Universe to create the music he did…everything else is a distraction…I say this with all respect to those commenting above

    • Herbie G says:

      I’m with you there John! I dreaded this anniversary year because I knew that it would be filled with the pompous ramblings of birdbrains posing as intellectuals and finding any number of irrelevancies to latch on to – such things as ‘What Beethoven Means Today’, ‘Would Beethoven have been a Communist?’, ‘Was Beethoven a vegetarian?’, ‘Did Beethoven have an illicit relationship with his nephew?’, ‘Where did Beethoven buy his ink?’, ‘Was his music affected by his women friends?’, ‘Were his bad moods brought on by piles?’, ‘Would he have been a serial composer had he been born 100 years later?’ and so on – to say nothing of whether he was really LBGT+ or whether colonic irrigation with Lucozade might have cured his deafness or even whether he really existed at all and if not whether all his works were really produced through a vast consortium of miscellaneous composers writing under a single Beethoven pseudonym, like ‘G W Marks’, used by the publisher Cranz as a cachet for more than 250 works by undisclosed composers including, it later transpired, none other than Brahms!

      I don’t recollect that Schubert’s bicentenery unleashed this volume of claptrap; indeed, one spin-off was the completion of the first-ever complete edition of his songs, released on Hyperion.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Our host writes that Beethoven never even told a dirty joke.
    I am relying on my memory here, an increasingly risky proposition, but I seem to recall one in one of his “conversation books” – those books where his friends had to write down their end of the conversation so he could read and respond, and now and then an entry is in Beethoven’s own hand so that those around would not hear his reply, which was likely loud as is the case with many deaf people who talk.

    Those conversation books are key pieces in Beethoven scholarship, particularly those that recorded things said to Beethoven during rehearsals where one can easily surmise what LvB’s [oral] side of the conversation was.

    Anyway I recall an excerpt from one of those conversation books where presumably the setting is at a tavern or restaurant and Beethoven evidently abruptly grabbed the pen to write “look at the ass on that one!” (sorry if that offends, I am sure it is much more elegant in the original German). Maybe not a joke per se but a crude remark that probably got a good laugh from his friend or friends.

    And yes I am aware that remarking about that part of the body does not prove or disprove any conjecture about sexual preference. I’m not commenting about that part of the discussion, just about N.L. remark about Beethoven and sex in general.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Beethoven seems to have had issues with everything and everyone.
    Kempff and Richter are my choices for the Andante.

  • Rob says:

    Who doesn’t !

  • David A. Boxwell says:

    Nowadays little Ludwig would be classified as “on the spectrum,” with a pronounced Personality Disorder. He would be in a “special needs” class in school.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    Conductor A: Mine is a big Beethoven.

    Conductor B: My Beethoven is bigger than yours.

    Conductor A: Let’s measure ours Beethovens and see.

    Conductor B: Your Beethoven looks bigger, but I have conducted all Beethoven symphonies in one day, and you haven’t!

    (To be continued, someday… )

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Believe it or not, perhaps one of the most important things about his music to me, today, is how his scores (and the various editions following) translate to the instruments of our time. What was ‘forte’ or ‘piano’ on his instruments or in his mind’s ear is a challenge for today’s instruments, and interpreters. His love life concerns me less, because his inner spirit, love, pain and the like transferred through the notes he gave us. The dedications mean a lot, but it is the sound world of Beethoven’s that we strive most to reflect, the sound he so wishes he could have heard externally.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Indeed…. Much has been made of his deafness, so much that it is taken for granted and no longer pondered about, especially since the 19th century banged upon it so melodramatically. But the immense tragedy is there, of a genius composer who could not hear his works in reality. It is an unimaginable tragedy.

  • C Thomson says:

    Beethoven had few factors all in a tangle going against him in matters of love.

    His rage, which he never overcame: who, without a handle on their internal anger can sustain a successful relationship, let alone begin one?

    Beethoven’s idealization of women could never become reconciled to actual women, especially not while he raged against the hierarchical structure of society that rendered him ‘less’ than undeserving others, all the while he imagined himself their equal or more.

    He might have married a barmaid and been loved and content, but he aspired to a vision of himself that looked down on a version of himself married to someone of his ‘class’.

    As for him possibly being homosexual, it is unlikely that he sublimated homosexuality so completely that there is no suggestion of it in his words or behavior.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Some therapists, who insist on being right, explain a total lack of even the slightest snippet of indication of something in the patient’s psyche as a very effective suppression mechanism.

      It’s when you are told that you have a secret wish to kill your father to be able to marry your mother, and you can’t find any shade of commitment to such wishes, so your oedipus complex sits there right in the middle of your soul and that’s why you don’t see it.

  • Edgar Self says:

    He had issues with women, and still a bachelor at 56? A true romantic, then, or else a late-blooming slow developer, which I douby because of his rapid early growth in other areas. Then he wasn’t an exceptionafter all.

    Isn’t the sub-title of “Fidelio/Leonore” something like Wedded Bliss or Conjugal Fidelity? But Beethven read books and was idealistic. One psychologist thought some opeople would never have married had they not heard it discussed or read about it. Placet expirere.

    As a very full-blooded Italian said to the Pope, “You no play-a da game, you no make-a da rules.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      I seems that behind the screens of formalities, private life in the vatican was quite sensual in former times.

  • Patrick says:

    Dear fflambeau, I studied Beethoven for years including all papers, letters and his communications. There is no evidence about your opinions being true. Unless you are a Star Trek fan and was beamed to that era and met Beethoven you are mistaken. However we all love Beethoven. Don’t watch so many Hollywood movies. Lol

  • Hunchback says:

    “Physically desirable” … “so did he have sex?” etc. etc.

    Typical vulgarity introduced with the revolution of the shamesless. Who cares? Only because we live in one of the most sex-obsessed ages, as F. Roger Devlin rightly concludes, does not mean that all ages saw sexuality in the same deranged way.

    Nietzsche, Newton, Tesla, van Gogh, Pascal, Kierkegaard never married, the latter, being Christian, never engaged in sexual intercourse at all (also most likely true for Newton and Tesla).

    How I wish I lived in a different age! As Gómez Dávila wrote:

    “Good breeding seems like a fragrance from the 18th century that evaporated.”

    “The problem is not sexual repression, nor sexual liberation, but sex.”

    “Modern society is abolishing prostitution through promiscuity.”

    “Puritanism is the attitude that befits the decent man in the world today.”

    “In the end, there is no area of the soul sex would not succeed in corrupting.”

    “Sexual promiscuity is the tip society pays in order to appease its slaves.”

    “The people with whom we speak every day and our favorite authors cannot belong to the same zoological species.”