Beethoven on creativity, immortality, the artist in society Postby Michelle Rasmussen Thu Aug 18, 2011 8: 41 am

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Beethoven on creativity, immortality, the artist in society

Postby Michelle Rasmussen » Thu Aug 18, 2011 8:41 am

Beethoven’s reflections about creativity, immortality, and the role of the artist in ennobling society

Comments, questions: Michelle Rasmussen at:

COPENHAGEN, Aug. 18 -- As a response to Lyn’s continued emphasis on creativity, here is a collection of thoughts of one of the most creative people in history – Ludwig van Beethoven. The reader may be inspired by Beethoven’s reflections about his own creativity, the moral imperative to constantly develop those creative abilities, his view about the relationship between The Creator and a creator, and the immortal mission of the artist in ennobling present and future generations, – the very themes Lyn has so eloquently been trying to impart to us.

Almost of the quotes are from Beethoven himself, a couple from those who knew him, and some insights from author Solomon. The three sources are an essay by Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon on “Reason and Imagination: Beethoven’s Aesthetic evolution,” (the original German quotes are cited in the footnotes to that essay, starting with fn. nr. 4), and a book entitled, “Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations” (marked “H”) and the Heiligenstadt testament. They will also be archived at: They were gathered during research for an upcoming video on Musical Time Reversal: the case of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

On Beethoven’s own creativity, and the creative process:

On seeing the composition as a coherent whole throughout the compositional process:

From 1815: “I have always a picture in my mind, when I am composing, and work up to it.” fn48

Regarding his opera Fidelio, “my custom when I am composing even instrumental music is always to keep the whole before my eyes.” 49

To Breitkopf & Härtel: “once one has thought out a whole work which is based even on a bad text, it is difficult to prevent this whole from being destroyed if individual alterations are made here and there.” p. 194,50

On the power of the imagination:

Solomon writes, “In his last years he made explicit his belief in the primacy of a productive, shaping imagination, seen as a distinct faculty of the mind to set alongside reason and understanding, capable of anticipating reality, creating rather than reproducing, emulating or rivaling divine creation rather than deferring to the deity’s prerogatives. On the late quartets: “The imagination, too, asserts its privileges and today a different, truly poetic element must be manifested in conventional form.” 54. Solomon continues, “for him art was a beacon illuminating the chaotic reaches of as-yet-undiscovered worlds rather than a mirror of an ordered, mapped universe.”

From B’s later years: “Gradually there comes to us the power to express just what we desire and feel; and to the nobler type of human being this is such an essential need.” 55. “the greater innate summons to reveal myself to the world through my works.” 56

Solomon’s conclusion is that “B found a collateral organizing principle in the idea of the imaginative, seen as an adjunct to Reason, as an unfettered instrument of investigation invested with the power of representing a multitude of previously undescribed modes of being and strategies of transcendence.” 196

On the relativity of time:

1814: “No time passes more swiftly, rolls on faster, than the time when our spirits are whole occupied or when I am wholly occupied with my Muse.”

Suggestions for beginners:

To Archduke Rudolph, his composition student, in 1823: “I hope that Your Imperial Highness will continue to acquire special practice in writing down your ideas straightaway at the piano; for this purpose there should be a small table next to the piano. Not only is the imagination strengthened in the way, but one also learns to pin down the remotest ideas at once, it is likewise necessary to write without a piano. Nor should it give Yr. Imperial Highness a headache, but rather the considerable pleasure of finding yourself absorbed in this art, to elaborate a simple melody at times, a chorale, with simple and, then again, with more varied figurations in counterpoint and so forth to more difficult exercises. Gradually we develop the express just exactly what we wish to, what we feel within us, a need characteristic of all superior persons….” (H, 199)

On metaphor and paradox:

In response to a letter from B’s brother which was proudly signed “land-owner,” B signed his letter, “brain-owner.”

From a remembrance by Rochlitz: “once he is in the vein, rough, striking witticisms, droll conceits, surprising and exciting paradoxes suggest themselves to him in a continuous flow.” And, from Karl Czerny: “He could introduce a play on words anywhere. When listening to an overture by Weber, he said, “Hm! There’s no doubt about it, it’s a fine piece of weaving.” (H, 223)

Demanding of himself that he constantly develop his ability to compose:

“Every day brings me nearer to the goal which I feel but cannot describe. And it is only in that condition that your Beethoven can live. There must be no rest – I know of none but sleep.” p. 191, 23

“The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps be admiring him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.” 24

1790’s “to strive towards the inaccessible goal which art and nature have set us.” 25

“Both sets are really worked out in a wholly new manner, and each in a separate and different way…. I myself can assure you that in both these works the method is quite new so far as I am concerned.” 29

Solomon wrote that B insisted that each major work pose and solve a unique set of problems.” When asked which of the string quartets opp. 127, 130, 132 was the greatest, “Each in its way. Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.” “You will find a new manner of part writing and thank God there is less lack of fancy than ever before.” p. 192, 31

For the artist “there is no more undisturbed, more unalloyed or purer pleasure” than that which comes from rising “ever higher into the heaven of art.” 45

“[W]hen feeling opens up a path for us, then away with all rules” 35

“There is much to be done on earth; do it soon!” (H, 125)

On the mission of his art, and the role of art and science, in society:

Solomon’s speaks of “B’s commitment to art as a moral force.”

1814: “… to use my art as a means of relieving needy humanity.” (H, 125)

“to raise the taste of the public and to let his genius soar to greater heights and even to perfection.” 1 (S, 188)

He chided Goethe for delighting “far too much in the court atmosphere than is becoming to a poet, “being too close to the court. The poet “should be regarded as the leading teachers of the nation.” 189, 4

Solomon writes that B “often paired ‘Kunst and Wissenschaft’ (Art and Science/Learning) as fundamental shaping forces, manifold powers,’ including to ‘give us intimations and hopes of a higher life’ to unite ‘the best and noblest people,’ and to ‘raise men to the Godhead.’” 5

To a woman: “Continue your progress, do not practice your art alone, but penetrated into its inner meaning. It is worth it; for only Art and science exalt men to the point of divinity.

On the relationship between The Creator and Beethoven’s own creativity:

Author Solomon writes: “Consistently, through four decades, he connected his artistic purpose with a divine principle, seen as both the source and the goal of his creativity, affirming his faith in the transcendent purposes of art.” B wrote to his teacher Neefe in 1792 or 93 of “my divine art” (meiner göttlichen Kunst”) 6; to Breitkopf & Härtel in 1812 “my heavenly art, the only true divine gift of Heaven” 7; during his last decade to publisher Schotts “before my departure for the Elysian fields I must leave behind what the Eternal Spirit has infused into my soul and bids me complete.” 8

Reflecting on the godlike nature of his own creativity, from 1815, he wrote to a correspondent about his “great works”, “but compared with the works of the All-highest all human works are small.” 9

Solomon writes that B “described himself not only as a recipient of God’s gift but as an active creator along divine lines. Ultimately, B settled for a creative partnership with the deity”: “There is nothing higher than to approach the Godhead more nearly than other mortals and by means of that contact to spread the rays of the Godhead through the human race.” 10

“They say art is long – life is short – only life is long and art is short; may its breath lift us to the Gods – That is an instant’s grace.” 64

After seeing a collection of Schubert’s songs: “Truly, this Schubert is lit by a divine spark. If I had seen this poem, I should have set it too.” from Anton Schindler’s biography (H, 255)

Conflict between spiritual and material spheres:

“Unfortunately, we are dragged down from the celestial element in art only too rudely into the earthly and human sides of life.” 11 “I much prefer the empire of the mind, and I regard it as the highest of all spiritual and worldly monarchies.” 12 “My kingdom is in the air. As the wind often does, so do harmonies whirl around me, and so do things often whirl about too in my soul.” 13 “A man’s spirit, the active creative spirit, must not be tied down to the wretched necessities of life.” 14

“Art, when it is persecuted, finds asylum everywhere. Why, Daedalus when confined to the labyrinth invented the wings which lifted him upwards and out into the air. Oh, I too shall find them, these wings --.” 15

“The description of a picture belongs to painting. And in this respect the poet too, whose sphere in this case is not so restricted as mine, may consider himself to be more favored than my Muse. On the other hand my sphere extends further into other regions and our empire cannot be so easily reached.” p. 190, 16

On progress in art:

“[T]he older composers render us double service, since there is generally real artistic value in their works…. But in the world of art, and in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives. And although we moderns are not quite as far advanced in solidity as our ancestors, yet the refinement of our customs has enlarged many of our conceptions as well.” 37

On not bowing to popular opinion:

“The world is a king and desires flattery in return for favor; but true art is obstinate and will not yield to the fashions of flattery.

From 1796: “Even if only a few people understand me, I shall be satisfied.” 38. At end of his life, “They say, ‘Vox populi, vox dei’ – I have never believed in it.” 39. B “told Czerny that in Mozart’s String Quartet in A Major, K. 464, which offers an unprecedented array of dissociated forms, chromatic textures, and contrapuntal techniques, “Mozart was telling the world: ‘Look what I could do if you were ready for it!’” 40

On String Quartet in F Minor, op. 95: “The Quartett is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” p. 193,41. On the difficulty of his later works “what is difficult is also beautiful, good, great and so forth…. [T]his is the most lavish praise that can be bestowed, since what is difficult makes on sweat.” 42

On inner directedness:

Relayed by Dr. Karl von Bursy from 1816, B said: “Only the artist and the independent scholar carry their happiness within them.”

On gaining immortality by writing for future generations:

From a letter to a painter: “Continue to paint and I shall continue to write down notes, and thus we shall live – for ever? – yes, perhaps, for ever.” 43

On art and nature:

To Prince Gallitzin, “Nature is founded on Art and, again, Art is founded on Nature.” 53 but, Solomon writes that B did not see art “as imitation, and artist as a percipient agent reflecting the external world.”

On the meaning of his life: living, and sacrificing, for the sake of developing his art:

From the Heiligenstadt testament (available on the internet):

Written 1802 and found after B’s death, the entire, short testament ought to be read, but here are two excerpts:

Answering the charge that he was misanthropic, and describing the effects of his accelerating deafness during the previous 6 years: “But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended me life -- it was only my art that held me back. Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me… 'Divine one, thou seest me inmost soul thou knowest that therein dwells the love of mankind and the desire to do good'.

“Only in my divine art do I find the support which enables me to sacrifice the best part of my life to the heavenly Muses.” 57. In his diary 1812-18: “For you there is no longer any happiness except within yourself, in your art”; “Everything that is called life should be sacrificed to the sublime and be a sanctuary of art”; “Live only in your art – for you are so limited by your senses. – This is still the only existence for you”; “Sacrifice one and for all the trivialities of social life to your art, O God above all” 58

“We finite beings, who are the embodiment of an infinite spirit, are born to suffer both pain and joy; and one might almost say that the best of us obtain joy through suffering.” p. 195, 59

Beethoven copied out a quote from Homer, “For Fate to mankind granted long-suffering courage.” (H, 125)

Solomon writes, “In the course of time, art increasingly became the main purpose of his existence, and the purpose of art almost tautologically became the creation of art. B referred to “the most important object of my art, namely, the composition of great works.” 61

On intellectual inspiration:

“You will not easily find a treatise that is too learned for me; without laying any claim to genuine learning, I yet accustomed myself from childhood onwards to grasp the spirit of the best and wisest in every age. Shame on the artist who does not consider it his duty to achieve at least so much. (H, 82)

We know that B loved reading especially Schiller and Shakespeare, and also the Greek classics, and even Indian philosophy.


From 1813: “Lend sublimity to my highest thoughts, enrich them with truths that remain truths forever!” (H, 122)

“The author is determined to show that the human brain cannot be sold either like coffee beans or like any form of cheese which, as everyone knows, must first be produced from milk, urine and so forth – The human brain is inherently inalienable.” 21

On the deaf Beethoven’s response to the young singer Ludwig Cramolini singing Adelaide at Beethoven’s sick bed: “When I had finished, Beethoven beckoned me over to his bed and, cordially pressing my hand, said: ‘I could see from your singing that you sang correctly and I could read in your eyes that you felt what you were singing. You have given me great pleasure.’” (H, 253)

Notes to the reader:

1. Beethoven’s love of Schiller’s works will be the subject of another memo.

2. Solomon’s essay is useful, but marred by his assertion that B did not adhere to the main thesis of Schiller’s Aesthetical Letters.


Available from Google books: Historical Musicology: Sources, Methods, interpretations, edited by Stephen A. Crist, Roberta Montemorra Marvin, 2008, University of Rochester Press, Eastman Studies in Music

Chapter 8: Maynard Solomon, Reason and Imagination: Beethoven’s Aesthetic evolution. p. 188-203 ... e&q&f=true

Beethoven: Letter, Journals and Conversations

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