Beethoven - George Upton

A Merciful Punishment

Good fortune often arouses jealousies and enmities, for while there are many good men in the world, there are also many base and evil-minded ones. Beethoven was destined to make this discovery at once. His appointment as court organist was received by most of the members of the electoral chapel with expressions of great discontent, and some of them did not conceal their resentment that such a green young student should have been selected as their colleague. Of course it never occurred to these narrow-minded persons that there was more creative skill in this "green student" than in the whitening heads of all these old musical pedants.

Beethoven was one who troubled himself very little about such displays of petty hatred and jealousy. As he was exempt from the pressing anxieties of everyday life by his position and teaching, and had found in Count Waldstein a truly good and fatherly patron, he carried his head high, and looked down with proud self-assurance upon his enemies. Not that he had grown supercilious,—nothing was farther from him than that,—but he could clearly discriminate between himself and these malicious ones. He knew that he surpassed them as far as the heavens are above the earth.

It happened one day that Count Waldstein called upon his young protege and found him deeply absorbed in a book.

"How is this, Ludwig?" said the Count. "I expected to find you busy at the piano, or with the violin, and now I catch you reading an insipid novel! Shame on you, my young friend! In your difficult art there is but one road to success—'forward, always forward.' You should not waste time on trifles if you expect to accomplish great and important things."

At the first words of his patron Beethoven had arisen, and greeted him in the most cordial manner. His manner did not change, however, when the Count reproached him; on the contrary, he handed him the book he was reading, and smilingly said: "Excuse me, this is not a trifle, Count; it is Plutarch's Lives, but unfortunately only a good translation, for I cannot read it in the original."

The Count's frown began to disappear." Of course I cannot disapprove of good reading. But I see you have more books. Are they all Plutarch?"

"No, worthy sir," replied Beethoven, excitedly, as he took his books and quickly opened them one after another. "This is Homer's Odyssey, these are Plato's writings, this the Odes of Horace, and these a few volumes of Shakespeare—all classical literature."

"Yes, yes, I see; but of what use are they to you?" said the Count, wonderingly. "Do you learn anything about music in them?"

"Certainly not, Herr Count," replied Beethoven, "but I am acquiring the general information which all composers and musicians should have. You perhaps are not aware that in consequence of my parents' poverty I could not attend a good school. The natural result was that I learned very little, and now, if I am not to be an ignoramus, I must make up by my own exertions what I lost in childhood."

"Ah, that is really quite another thing," said the Count, approvingly, "and instead of censuring you, I ought to have praised you for your zeal and industry. In reality I have called to-day neither to blame nor to praise you, but for an entirely different purpose."

"Tell me what it is, Herr Count. I am entirely at your pleasure," said Beethoven, eagerly. "You will make me very happy by assigning me to any position where I can be of the slightest service to you."

"Good, good, dear Ludwig! I knew as much when I applied to you," said the Count. "And now to the point. A Ritter ballet is to be given at the forthcoming carnival for the pleasure of His Highness, the Elector. Those who are to participate in it are already engaged, and the sketch and text are prepared and contained in this roll. The music alone is lacking. Will you do me the favor to compose it?"

"I shall be a thousand times delighted," said Beethoven. He took the roll as if it had been a precious treasure. "I will take the utmost pains to meet your expectations, so that I may not only show my gratitude to you, my most esteemed patron, but also to my most gracious lord and Prince. At what time must the music be ready, Herr Count?"

"You can have at least four weeks," replied the Count. "Therefore do not be in too much haste. When you are ready let me know. Adieu, and good luck, my young friend."

Beethoven applied himself with enthusiastic zeal to the composition of the different parts which were necessary for the performance of the ballet, and was able to give the work to Count Waldstein before the expiration of the allotted four weeks. The Count, himself a clever musician, or at least a well-schooled amateur, glanced over the score with experienced eyes, nodded several times in a satisfied way, and smiled to himself.

"Thanks, my friend," he said at last. "I hope the music will please. You are to conduct. I have this further suggestion to make. I know the prejudices of many of your colleagues against you. If they know that you composed the ballet music, then the envious ones will seize the opportunity to play badly, and thereby intentionally spoil the pretty music. Keep it secret until after the first performance that you are the composer. I will privately have the report circulated that I was the artist who wrote the music. When it comes to the knowledge of the gentlemen of the chapel for whom hey are taking so much pains, they certainly will do their utmost to please. So, secrecy and silence. I will make the necessary explanation to the Elector, and after the first, and as I hope successful, performance of the ballet, I will let all the world know who the real composer is. Are you satisfied with this arrangement?"

"I am extremely grateful to you for it, Herr Count," replied Beethoven. "You have rightly remarked that many of my associates are maliciously disposed toward me, and caution therefore will do no harm. On my part, I accept all your arrangements with pleasure."

"Then I am convinced we may hope for the best results," replied the Count.

Everything turned out as Count Waldstein had expected. The report that he had composed the music of a Ritter ballet in honor of the Elector was circulated all over the city, and particularly among the artists and musicians. Hence when the first rehearsal of the ballet took place the chapel orchestra played excellently and correctly. After the rehearsal the members were of the unanimous opinion that the music was thoroughly graceful, charming, and masterly. All were loud in their praises, and many a one cast a malicious side glance at Beethoven, as much as to say, "Now you see what certain people can learn from a mere amateur."

Rehearsals were repeated several times, and then followed the performance of the ballet in the presence of the Elector and all his court. Everything passed off well, and the music in particular received enthusiastic applause. Count Waldstein smilingly accepted the compliments which were tendered him on all sides, but no one concerned himself about Beethoven. He was not in the least troubled on that score, but smiled to himself at the fawning of his associates, who bowed low to the Count and extolled to heaven the music of the ballet. "They will be astonished sometime, when they hear that the music is mine," he said to himself, rubbing his hands.

When it was announced a few days afterwards that Beethoven was the composer of the much-praised ballet, his associates were not only astonished, but many of them openly acknowledged they had been deceived in taking him for a fool. Of course this was said only behind his back, but he heard of it, and discovered that one of the electoral singers, named Heller, had been particularly busy in attacking him.

Some days later Beethoven went, either accidentally or purposely, to a popular wine-shop where there were a number of his chapel associates, among them the aforesaid singer, Heller. After a hasty greeting Beethoven seated himself at a side table and overheard them making sport of him. Heller, in particular, gave the young composer many palpable side-thrusts, and boasted that there were plenty of musicians who could compose better things than a certain conceited young person ever dreamed of.

Beethoven listened calmly for a little while without taking personal notice of the abuse or the boasting. Suddenly, however, he arose, went to the table where his colleagues were sitting, and looked the singer Heller sharply in the eye. "Tell me," he said quietly but firmly, "do you not perform 'The Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah' in church in the morning?"

"Certainly," replied Heller. "Why do you ask?"

"Because, perhaps I can make a wager with you," said Beethoven. "I will play the accompaniment on the piano, and will bet that I will break your time, or, as they say, 'put you out.'"

"I take the bet. What shall it be?" cried Heller with malicious glee; for he believed himself so sure of winning that he already regarded his opponent as a loser.

"A keg of wine, which we can empty together after church here in the wine-shop," replied Beethoven.

"It is agreed. I take the bet," said Heller.

"It's agreed," said all the other musicians, with a malicious look at Beethoven; for not one of them believed that he could "put out" the most correct singer of them all. But Beethoven finished his glass of wine, smiling to himself.

The 'Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah' are little sentences of four or six lines each, and in performance are chanted like the old chorals in a definite rhythm. The tune consists of four successive tones, several words and sometimes whole sentences being sung upon the third, and coming to a rest which the accompanist fills in with a free harmonic passage. Thereupon the singer returns to the ground tone,—not a difficult accomplishment for a clever musician, if the accompanist does not "put him out."

On the following morning, confident of winning, Heller began his song. Beethoven accompanied him at first in the old and customary manner. All at once, however, he modulated so freely and independently, while he firmly held the first tone in the treble, that Heller could not find his way back to it, and, in fact, was completely "put out" by the "conceited young person."

"He played incorrectly," said Heller, angrily.

"On the contrary, he played correctly and in a masterly way," retorted Ries, "but all the same in a way that is too much for you. Everything was done fairly and honestly, as all here will concede. So keep quiet. You have lost your bet."

"Be it so, then. I will pay for the miserable keg of wine," roared Heller, "but I will also make complaint to our most gracious Elector about an accompaniment out of which the devil himself could not find his way."

"Complain all you will; you will make nothing by it," said Lucchesi. "As chapel-master Ries has already declared, we not only must, but will, testify that everything was done fairly."

"That does not signify," replied Heller, still in bad humor. "I will yet disgrace him. Such an accompaniment as his is not proper in church at least." Seizing his hat, he ran out, and disappeared before any one could stop him.

Beethoven, entirely unconcerned, let him go. Neither he nor the others believed that Heller was in earnest with his threats or that he would really complain to the Elector against his enemy. But when the entire party after the service returned to the wine-shop, where they expected to find Heller, there was no trace of him.

"Well, that is of no consequence," said Beethoven, good-humoredly. "We will drink the keg of wine regardless of him. I will pay for it out of my own pocket."

Mine host was ordered to furnish some excellent wine, the glasses clinked, and they gave themselves up to unrestrained conviviality. Beethoven, delighted over the defeat of his obstinate and bitter enemy, overflowed with hilarity, when suddenly a lackey in the electoral livery appeared in their midst and loudly asked whether the court organist, Ludwig van Beethoven, was present.

Deep silence followed the question, and consternation was manifest on every countenance. Had Heller in his wrath really carried out his threat after all? Beethoven, who was the one most closely concerned, understood at once and sprang up. "Here I am," he said. "What does His Highness, the Elector, wish of me?"

"That you come at once, just as you are, to the castle," was the reply. "The Elector wishes to speak with you."

"I will obey at once," replied Beethoven, as he took his hat. "Do not be disturbed, friends. Perhaps I shall return soon."

Although he had succeeded tolerably well in concealing his apprehensions while with his companions, he was not altogether easy in his mind on his way to the castle. To be sure, he knew from Count Waldstein's description of the Elector that he was a very kind and merciful man, but notwithstanding this he neither knew nor could imagine how he might criticise that pleasant little artistic performance in the church. Therefore he prepared himself to receive an appropriately long and sound rebuke. He determined to accept it, humbly and patiently, and at last with tolerable composure entered the apartment of the Elector.

That high personage was sitting with his back to Beethoven, writing at his desk. He did not turn around when Beethoven entered, and apparently did not hear the servant's announcement. Five minutes, which seemed an eternity to Beethoven, passed in utter silence. At last the Elector suddenly threw down his pen and quickly turned round. "Ah! there you are, dear Beethoven," he said in a by no means unfriendly manner. "Come a little nearer."

Beethoven and Elector


Beethoven approached within a couple of steps of the Elector and bowed low, the latter scrutinizing him with a sharp glance, which the delinquent stood bravely.

"My dear Beethoven," began the Elector, "I have sent for you that I may thank you for the beautiful music which you composed for our Count Waldstein's Ritter ballet. Accept for your services your appointment as my chamber musician, and this slight compensation of one hundred ducats." With these words he took a little roll of gold pieces and a signed document from his desk and gave them to Beethoven, whose beaming countenance could not conceal his joyous surprise.

"Gracious master, this is too much, really too much," he exclaimed.

"Take them, take them," insisted the Elector. "I am well satisfied with you. Count Waldstein has told me many nice things about you, and I myself have noticed in the court concerts that God has bestowed upon you a beautiful and important talent. It is my duty to promote this,—and besides, do you suppose that I will allow you to give me your compositions? So take this."

With trembling hands Beethoven took the roll and the document, and, in his extreme confusion, stammered out a few disconnected words of gratitude. The Elector interrupted him.

"Very good," said he. "But"—and here his face assumed a stern expression—"now that we have finished up this piece of business, a word about a more serious matter. Heller has been to me, and complained of you. Before I make my decision I would like to hear from you what you have really been doing to Heller."

The flush of joy in Beethoven's face disappeared, and gave place to the pallor of fear. He courageously composed himself, however, and frankly told, without reserve and with exact truth, the circumstances of the hostile encounter with Heller.

"I understand, and find that you are not as guilty as I feared," said the Elector, resuming a kindly tone. "But, notwithstanding this, are you not aware that you have made a bad mistake?"

"Yes, I realize it now, gracious master," replied Beethoven. "The church should not have been the scene of our quarrel. In my passion I did not think of that. I deserve punishment, and will submit to it humbly and repentantly."

"Well," replied the Elector, smiling, "he who recognizes and regrets his faults has already half atoned for them. I will not be too severe in my sentence, but I ought not to let your fault go unpunished. The venerable Abbot of Heisterbach told me some time ago you had an unsurpassed talent for organ playing. This gives me the opportunity to announce your punishment. You are to be banished from my court for a year, with the special order that you spend that year in Vienna, where all distinguished organists ought to go that they may profit by the knowledge they can gain there. So you are banished for a year to Vienna. This is your punishment."

Beethoven could hardly believe he heard aright.

"But, Your Highness," he exclaimed, his eyes glistening brightly, "this is not a punishment; it is a reward—the fulfilment of my dearest wishes."

The Elector could not repress a slight smile at the open-hearted simplicity of the young man, but he quickly assumed a more serious manner and said earnestly: "Any other one would have considered banishment from my court a very severe punishment, and I regard it so also, and expected that you would. It is not complimentary to me that you should regard removal from my vicinity as a reward."

"Great heavens! I did not mean it that way," said Beethoven, seriously alarmed. "I intended to say I had always wished to go to Vienna sometime, because one can learn the most in music there. Pardon me, my gracious master. My whole heart is filled with gratitude to you."

"Well, well, quiet yourself," replied the Elector, and the kindly smile returned to his face. "I think you understand that you are still in favor, but your punishment must make expiation, and it must also be considered as punishment. Keep this in mind. In future I recommend a simple accompaniment for the church music. As to the other matter, if you should need any money for the journey, or anything else, apply to Count Waldstein. He knows my intentions in relation to you. Adieu, dear Beethoven, and employ your time usefully in Vienna, so that it may compensate for your absence from my court. Adieu."

A gracious inclination of the head by the Elector, a low bow by Beethoven, and the audience was at an end. Intoxicated with delight Beethoven staggered rather than walked down the steps, and in a corridor of the castle happened upon Count Waldstein, whom he would have rushed by without recognizing if the Count himself had not stopped him.

"Here, here, my dear fellow, are you again all fire and flame?" he said to him. "Has anything special happened to you?"

"Oh, you know everything already, Herr Count, for it is you I have to thank for your kind intercession," replied Beethoven, cordially. "Chamber musician! A hundred ducats! A journey to Vienna! My head swims."

"Oh, yes, I suppose because of your sorrow over the unkindness of the Elector, who has punished you for your petulancy," said the Count, with his peculiar smile. "As a punishment you have been consigned to banishment from your colleagues. Keep this in mind. The Elector so wills it."

"Yes, but for my advantage, Herr Count," said Beethoven, joyfully. "But, God knows, it is a merciful punishment, for which one should be a thousand times thankful."

And away he flew to the beloved mother to make his sorrowful complaint of the severity of the hard, cruel, merciful Elector.

Tears flowed. It was but natural. But the tears were certainly not altogether those of sorrow.