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Immortal Beloved: The Artist-Muse Complex

Immortal Beloved: The Artist-Muse Complex

WORDS BY GRACE JOHNSON

The history of the arts is dotted by famous artist-muse relationships: artists with their models, filmmakers with their actors, poets and subjects. Choreographers may design routines for specific dancers in mind and filmmakers often collaborate with particular actors in a mutual exchange of inspiration and creation.

Yet the finished work is often far removed from living reality. A character in a novel may be based on a real-life person but is more often an amalgam of different people—even if this may be partly to avoid accusations of libel! A single experience conveyed in a song may traceable to several actual events. Verisimilitude in constructing characters for art is common enough. But there is another side to this: a fictional interpretation of life.

A case study would be Beethoven’s letter to his ‘Immortal Beloved,’ written in three parts in July 1812. The letter was found in his estate when the composer died in 1827. The letter, written over the course of two days, was never actually sent. The recipient has since remained a mystery—if it was actually just one woman.  

It is commonly known that Beethoven was unsuccessful in love. As a composer, he was considered to be of low rank. He was very often unkempt in appearance, short, and he had a pockmarked face. He supposedly had bad manners and a crude demeanour, and he became increasingly difficult and misanthropic as his hearing loss and other illnesses worsened. Yet he believed he possessed inner nobility that was certainly equal, if not superior, to any rank. He once wrote to Prince Lichnowsky, “What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be thousands of princes; there is only one Beethoven.”

While Beethoven often sneered at the aristocracy, believing firmly in the ideals of the French revolution, he criticised his brothers for marrying commoners. Personally he lusted after aristocratic women—he was frequently in love with his piano students or married women of nobility. It was mainly class differences that prevented marriage, or even recognition of his love affairs. Still, he dedicated some of his most famous works to the object of his affections: his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata was dedicated to Contessa Guilietta Guicciardi, and his Piano Sonata No.24 was written for Countess Therese Brunsvik. Both were piano students of his.

There has been much debate about the identity of the intended recipient of the Immortal Beloved letter. An analysis of the paper’s watermark in the 1950s showed the year and place, making Antonie Brentano and Josephine Brunsvik the most likely recipients. Bernard Rose’s 1994 film in a rather ham-fisted attempt to identify Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved contended that she was in fact the wife of Beethoven’s brother, Johanna van Beethoven. This would have explained Beethoven’s shock at their marriage, his later defamation of her, calling her a ‘whore,’ and his attempt for custody over their son, Karl. This has proved to be historically impossible and hardly any of the events in the film are factual, except for a few ‘poetic’ truths that ultimately revealed Beethoven’s desire to have a family. 

As friends and scholars of Beethoven have searched for the mystery woman, it is equally as likely that the letter itself is a search for the Immortal Beloved—an amalgam of the women he loved and a hopeful construction of an ultimate love, written on ten small pages of an unsent letter.

Artists in love have fascinated audiences, almost as much as the artists themselves and their work. Audiences take pleasure in identifying the key events in an artists’ life and relating them to specific works—this love affair inspired this painting, and so on. In ‘Midnight in Paris’ (2011), Woody Allen takes a mockingly nihilist approach to this by creating a character, Gil, a writer, that goes back in time and ‘plants’ seminal ideas in artists’ minds, inspiring several masterpieces. Furthermore, he invents Adriana, an alluring woman that represents the desires of each (real) man she encounters, from Modigliani to Picasso, Hemingway to Gil, as if to say it hardly matters whether she actually exists or not, for the muse exists as the perception and construct of the artist.

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