The many women in Beethoven's life
A boy's mother is his first love, but little is known about Beethoven's. Her union with Beethoven's father, court singer Johann, was her second marriage. She bore him seven children, but only three survived infancy. Her life wasn't easy: Her alcoholic husband was physically abusive, and she died of tuberculosis in 1787 shortly after Ludwig had returned to Bonn after a studying in Vienna.
Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a friend from Beethoven's youth, referred to a certain "beautiful and gracious mannered Fräulein v.W.," to whom Beethoven was "most lovingly attracted." And although Wegeler described it as a "Werther love" - in reference to Goethe's tragic novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" - it seems that Miss v.W. didn't leave any particularly enduring mark on the composer's life.
In 14 love letters between 1804 and 1809, the composer called his recently widowed piano student "angel," "my everything" and his "only love." But their letters have a tone of desperation; had they married, she would have lost custody of her four young children. She married someone else in 1810, while Josephine's sister Therese claimed that Beethoven and the countess were made for each other.
In 1801 or 1802, the Brunsvik sisters introduced Beethoven to their cousin, also a countess. It was love at first sight, but it was clear to both that due to their differing social status, marriage was out of the question - and Giulietta was already engaged. It seems Beethoven was drawn to impossible romances. But the composer did dedicate his "Moonlight Sonata" to Giulietta.
After Josephine Brunsvick remarried in 1810, Beethoven seriously entertained thoughts of proposing marriage to Therese von Malfatti, even writing back home in Bonn for a copy of his baptisim certificate. Both Therese and her family were against the union due to class differences, however. Beethoven seems to have gotten over it rather quickly, and they remained friends.
Beethoven gave Marie the handwritten original of the "Appassionata" sonata, and their emotional connection is clear in his letters to her. In early March 1807, he invited her along on an excursion. But after her husband's jealous reaction, he wrote to the couple saying, "I would never be in a more than friendly relationship with another man's wife."
Beethoven met the 15-year-old in early 1808. In those days, a common nickname for "Elisabeth" was "Elise" - and the wistful little piano piece "Für Elise" is one of the best-known compositions ever. At Beethoven's request, she visited him on his death bed, where he gave her a lock of his hair and his last quill. Music researchers have concluded that Fräulein Röckel is the enigmatic "Elise."
The sister-in-law of the poet Bettina Brentano wrote in 1811 that "dearest" Beethoven visited her "nearly daily." It was to Antonie that Beethoven gave the handwritten score of the song "An die Geliebte" (To the Beloved). It's also documented that Antonie once traveled from Prague to Karlsruhe on a critical date, which could be relevant for the next woman in Beethoven's life…
Dated July 6 and 7, 1812, and penned in the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz, the letter to an "Immortal Beloved" is addressed to a woman Beethoven had met with days earlier in Prague and who had then traveled on to "K." (possibly Karlsruhe). So was it Antonie Brentano? Or Josephine Brunsvik, whom he'd also just met and who gave birth to a daughter nine months later? Music researchers still disagree.
Composer Ludwig van Beethoven didn't pour all his passion into his music, as proven by the many loves in his life. The most important woman, however, may forever remain a mystery.
He was short, with a "crude shaped head," a dark skin hue, pockmarked face and often unkempt appearance. The dour demeanor visible in Beethoven's portraits was no exaggeration. Contemporaries said that his manners didn't help him make social connections. And with his hearing loss and various illnesses, the composer grew increasingly introverted and isolated over the years.
Yet Ludwig van Beethoven excerted a considerable attraction on the opposite sex. One contemporary reported that the unattractive musician was "forever in love relationships that would have been difficult for many an Adonis."
Read more: Who was Beethoven's Elise? A Berlin musicologist says he knows
These women were usually seduced - at least figuratively, though maybe also literally - by Beethoven's fantasy-filled piano improvisations. A striking number of them were of noble birth. That might be a key to the composer's aspirations.
Scarcely intimidated by those of a higher social standing, he felt he was in possession of an inner nobility that was certainly equal to any title. But class differences also stood in the way of any official recognition of his love affairs or even marriage.
From Johanna von Honrath, a girl he adored in his youth, to Countess Marie von Erdödy to the iconic "immortal beloved" to whom Beethoven bared his soul in a three-part letter, a pattern emerges among the women in Beethoven's life: affection, friendship, respect, passion (though probably mostly platonic).
Read more: What Beethoven has to do with love
In several instances, these women were his piano students. But his loves were usually impossible or at least unlikely, often because the objects of Beethoven's affection were women of noble birth or already married. As a result, what we would today call a "stable relationship" seems to have always remained just out of reach.
Click through the gallery above for more about the women in Beethoven's life.