Beethoven Conversation Books

By Robert Crowe

Ludwig Von Beethoven 1770 -1827

Beethoven was completely deaf when he wrote the majestic Ninth Symphony that he began composing in 1822 and was first performed in 1824. Although he experienced hearing problems as early as 1801, he became deaf over a period of time beginning about 1810 and continuing to 1820 when he was totally without hearing.

From 1818 until his death Beethoven used notebooks to communicate once his hearing was impaired. A visitor wrote down a question, to which Beethoven generally responded verbally.

The last ten years of his life he had blank-page books available at his home. There were about 400 completed books but only 136 survive. Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s biographer, edited and deleted much of the material he deemed of little interest. Indeed, the booklets tell us little of Beethoven’s thinking because the books were for questions and responses by his guests. Because Beethoven replied verbally to the written material, the notebooks reflect the comments of each guest.

After Beethoven’s death, Schindler, having access to the Beethoven materials, kept the booklets and other documents to use in a subsequent biography. Facing financial problems, Schindler eventually sold the 136 remaining Conversation Books to a Berlin publisher.

The role of Anton Schindler is an interesting historical study. It appears that Schindler’s relationship with Beethoven was not as close as first assumed but rather an occasional friendship in the later years. Schindler served as a volunteer secretary at the time of Beethoven’s death. Subsequent scholars dating into the 1990’s identified forged entries into the Conversation Books that magnified Schindler’s relationship as well as similar exaggerations in the biography. Barry Cooper writing in the 1993 spring edition of the Beethoven Newsletter noted Schindler’s “notorious propensity for falsification.”

William Kinderman, writing in Beethoven (1995) stated that Schindler “…had no scruples about fabricating history and did not hesitate to falsify sources to support the account published in his Beethoven biography.”

The Conversation Books provide interesting information but are pale compared to the composer’s composition books that outlined his musical masterpieces. His personal letters also are important sources of insight.

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