On Beethoven’s Deathbed

Here are two passages from Beethoven’s life. The first finds him on his deathbed, and is recorded in the memoirs of one of his friends. Beset by his final illness, the composer is rejuvenated for the last time by an astounding gift: the complete scores George Frederic Handel. The fact that Beethoven, so close to death, could still express an almost childlike joy at the gift of music, has always moved me.

      The second comes from Jan Swafford’s recent biography of Beethoven, where, as Swafford writes, his admiration for Handel began early, and led to “his eventual conviction that Handel was the greatest of all, his only superior.”


During his illness, towards mid-February 1827, Handel’s collected works were delivered one morning, bound, in a fine quarto edition, sent as a gift by Stumpff, the harp virtuoso. He had long wished to have it and the gift was made in response to his longstanding wish, which was voiced only once. When I came into his room at noon, as I did everyday, he pointed, with his eyes beaming, at the volumes piled up on one of the two pianos: “See, I received these as a gift today; they have given me great joy with this. I have wanted them for a long time; for Handel is the greatest, the ablest composer; I can still learn from him. Bring the books over to me.” He kept on saying these and similar things, in happy excitement. And now I began to bring one volume after another over to his bed. He leafed through one volume after another as I gave them to him, sometimes stopping at particular passages, and then put one volume after another to his right on his bed up against the wall, finally making a heap that remained there for hours, because I found them still piled up when I came again in the afternoon. And again he started to sing the praises of the great Handel and to call him the most classic and most accomplished of all composers.

– Gerhard von Breuning, Memories of Beethoven, tr. Henry Mins and Maynard Solomon, 96


In those days, J. S. Bach’s music had something of a cult status among connoisseurs, while Handel’s work had never faded in popularity. He was the first composer in Western history who never had to be “rediscovered.” In other words, Handel, who died in 1759, when Haydn was in his twenties and Mozart a toddler, gave the first inkling that there could be such a thing as a permanent repertoire. One of the things that made Beethoven what he became was the understanding, still relatively novel at the time, that one’s music could not only bring fame in life but also write one’s name on the wall of history….

– Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, 157