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Beethoven, Heiligenstadt, and the Zentralfriedhof

John Knight | November 2014

    The temperamental Beethoven inhabited no fewer than fifty different places in Vienna during his lifetime (1770-1827), but Heiligenstadt, located in Vienna’s 19th district, is the most poignant for me and was a special place to visit during my summer pilgrimage to Vienna.
    Heiligenstadt translates to “holy city,” and it was here that Beethoven lived in the summer and autumn of 1802 when he composed his Second Symphony in D Major. The character of this cheerful symphony evokes happiness that sings and smiles with the eloquence and beauty of warm sunshine.
    Unfortunately, there was more shadow than sunshine in Beethoven’s life at that time. We know of this darkness from his letters. In these he wrote:

“I must confess that I lead a miserable life. For almost two years I have ceased to attend any social function, just because I find it impossible to say to people: ‘I am deaf.’ If I had any other profession I might be able to cope with my infirmity…! I feel that as long as I live there will be moments when I shall be one of God’s most unhappy creatures.”

    In the autumn of 1802, while at Heiligenstadt, Beethoven’s deafness became worse. Believing that his career as a performing musician was over, he plunged into a severe depression and contemplated suicide. In a letter to his brothers, intended to be read after his death, Beethoven poured out his soul, leaving us a moving, eloquent, and tragic testament of his wretched life. Known today as the famous “Heiligenstadt Testament,” it reads in part: “Joyfully I hasten to meet Death. Should he come before I have had the opportunity of developing the whole of my artistic capacity, he will come too soon in spite of my hard fate…Will he not release me from a state of endless misery?” The postscript of the Heiligenstadt Testament carries this sad farewell: “As the leaves of autumn wither and fall, so has my own life become barren: almost as I came, so I go hence. Even that high courage that inspired me in the fair days of summer has now vanished.”
    Author J.W.N. Sullivan in his book Beethoven, His Spiritual Development, examines Beethoven’s struggle with his increasing deafness. “What he (Beethoven) came to see as his most urgent task, for his future spiritual development, was submission. He had to learn to accept his suffering as in some mysterious way necessary.” Sullivan further observed about Beethoven: “To be willing to suffer in order to create is one thing: to realize that one’s creation necessitates one’s suffering, that suffering is one of the greatest of God’s gifts, it is almost a mystical solution to the problems of evil.”
    The start of Beethoven’s spiritual development can be traced back to Heiligenstadt where his increasing deafness served as a catharsis allowing him to tap into his spirituality, thus freeing his creativity. In this sense, Heiligenstadt was indeed a holy city.
    Beethoven’s small apartment in Heiligenstadt is now open as a museum where copies of the Heiligenstadt Testament and memorabilia are available for purchase. A block away from the apartment is a quiet garden with a sculpture of Beethoven.
    After visiting Heiligenstadt I took a bus back to the Ringstrasse in central Vienna and found a cozy outdoor cafe where I ordered apple strudel and coffee with cream. Sitting there, bathed in bright sunlight, listening to the unforgettable melody of a lilting Strauss waltz coming from inside the cafe, I felt very Viennese. I imagined the many great composers, writers, and artists who once walked these same cobblestone streets, and I felt very happy and thankful to be there.
    After my refreshment I took a bus to Vienna’s main cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof.  Here Beethoven is buried along with a host of other famous composers including Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, the Strauss family, Gluck, Salieri, and Schoenberg. As if on cue, Beethoven’s gravestone is easy to find. At the main entrance, Tor 2, go straight ahead toward the church. On the cemetery map Beethoven is marked as grave No. 29 in group 30A. Next to Beethoven is the gravestone of Franz Schubert, whom we remember as his great admirer, and also a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral.
    I came to the Zentralfriedhof to pay homage to Beethoven, and in turn 1 received a transcendence of spiritual nourishment. Standing in front of Beethoven’s grave, with its lovely pastoral setting amid memorials of our musical heritage, I felt very humble and thankful for this great musical genius. “Requiescatin Pace, Maestro.”