JF Ptak Science Books Post 1540 (Part of a long series on The History of Blank, Empty and Missing Things.)
So, in the history of very creative people saying things, I wonder if Ludwig van Beethoven said the most of the least interesting things? I'm referring to his correspondence and other written works, and not his music of course—and given the music nothing else really matters. But given the amount of surviving letters and conversation books, and of course his staggering genius (which makes him one of the most important men of the century) it is kind of remarkable that there isn't more attractive, inventive, interesting content in his communications—which at the very least makes reading the stuff somewhat disappointing, and, at the very most, pretty much the same.
When Beethoven (who died at age 57 on 26 March 1827, a year younger in death than Dickens and five years old than Shakespeare—a remarkable thing to consider how much these people accomplished in a very short period of time) began his experience in being deaf he resorted to using largish, quarto-sized blank chap books for his visitors to write their questions and answers to him. These books, Konversationshefte, the Conversation Books, were precisely that—they recorded the conversations with Beethoven over a number of years. Unfortunately, they reveal some very basic, daily, non-sequitur sorts of stuff, and contain almost nothing of what Beethoven actually said.
Sometimes—according to scholars—it is possible to intuit what Beethoven sort of said by looking at series of questions and answers from his guests. But by and large the notebooks offer few clues to what the voice of Beethoven was actually saying. This is particularly grueling given the extent of the notebooks—136 of these books remain, covering the periods from about 1819 to 1827. (Actually, at Beethoven's death there were more than 400 of the things, but his biographer, Anton Schindler, the man who inherited much from Beethoven including the notebooks, managed to purposely destroy at least 160 of the books. Evidently he found them impolitic, among other things, and tried to protect Beethoven's reputation by making the evidences of the supposed impertinences disappear.)
The conversations cover all manner of small, daily bits of life, including numerous one-sided conversations with/to the Maestro on how to take his enemas. (It is extraordinary that such evidence remains in the face of how much other –and probably more interesting—material didn't.
The letters of Beethoven, too, as voluminous as they are, are a terror to read, mainly because—at least to a general reader—there's so little of interest in them. I have no doubt that for scholars they are vast repositories for things like Lost Punctuation and the sort, but the letters as intellectual documents, as things that give and insight into the mind of Beethoven, or what he thought about his work, or the works of contemporaries, and so on, well, the content just doesn't seem to be there. (There are some occasional bright spots, like his continued reference to how extraordinary Handel was and that he, the great Beethoven, still learns from the man, even on his deathbed, but there's really very little like this, relative to the great weight of the sheer number of words in the letters.)
A number of writers have quoted W.H. Auden saying that there was only one memorable sentence in the whole of the Beethoven correspondence. I can't yet find what this was to Auden–my first guess is that it is in the "Immortal Beloved" writing, where we do get a big, deep cut into Beethoven's mind.
The letters do reveal all sorts of other things, most of which makes me sad, particularly when the sick room of Beethoven is described in not-pretty terms as an outreach and indicator of his possible poverty, and how much the ill Beethoven had to worry about securing a little money to pull him through his illness and into the next half-year or so of life if he survived himself.
Even making my way though the Thayer biography of Beethoven and looking for his voice is a chore. I tried to content myself constructing found poetry in the questions of the visitors to Beethoven in the notebooks, but that was fairly well a failure.
It is in these cases that the authentic voice of Beethoven seems to be almost entirely missing–a blank, empty and missing sound from the man who made some of the most beautiful music ever created.
The other end of this part of blank, empty and missing things history, and sound, and Beethoven, would obviously be his deafness, or perhaps his depression (in the 1815-1820 period, when he was plagued by, well, something). For years Beethoven heard very little; and then for years after that, he heard almost nothing at all. But he was sensitive to vibration, so he was able to experience music, though in a different sense form what we think of as auditory. Missing music–though I wouldn't call it "Empty" or "blank."