Historical Notes: `From your brother Ludwig, brain owner'

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The Independent Culture
IT IS often said that Beethoven will always be remembered as an angry composer who went deaf; that there weren't too many laughs in Beethoven's life. Actually it's not true. Catch him in the right mood and he had a good sense of humour. He was a good drinking companion. Dozens of his notes to his close friend Nikolaus Zmeskall have survived, telling him to be at the Schwan Inn at such and such a time to drink more of their "revolting" red wine.

And in the tavern he would often compose musical quips, or jokes, many of which have survived and which today all have WoO (work without opus) numbers. For his overweight friend, the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, he composed a piece for solo male voices and male choir entitled In Praise of Fatness. In performance it lasts around 30 seconds.

His humour could be sharp. When his irredeemably stupid - but wealthy - brother Johann signed a letter to him "From your brother Johann, landowner," Beethoven replied "From your brother Ludwig, brain owner".

He's remembered as a composer of the highest moral virtue. But listen to the Battle symphony, composed to celebrate the victory of the Duke of Wellington over the French at the Battle of Vittoria in Spain. The first part actually depicts the battle - you hear musket and cannon fire, "God Save the King" and the French anthem "Marlbrook s'en va-t-en guerre", bugles sounding the charge then the retreat.

And, still reeling from the shock that this could be by Beethoven, let me tell you that he composed this notorious piece of jingoism for a mechanical instrument, the Panharmonicon. (It was part of a deal. The machine's inventor, Johann Nepornuk Malzel, made ear trumpets for him.)

He was a man's man, no doubt of it, and unlucky in love. One of his closest friends, Stephan von Breuning, said he was constantly falling in love. The object of his affections was usually a young female student. He hated teaching - unless the student was pretty and female.

He proposed to at least two. To the first, Giulietta Guicciardi, he dedicated the Sonata quasi una Fantasia, hoping that through it he would win her heart. He made two mistakes with this sonata: the third movement was unplayable (except by him), and the first too gloomy. It was the critic Ludwig Rellstab who, hearing the first movement, compared it to the moon setting over Lake Lucerne, thus giving the sonata the name which has immortalised it. The Moonlight.

He didn't make the same mistake next time he fell in love with a student. He composed for her just a simple bagatelle, playable by anybody. Presenting it to her in front of her father, intending to announce his intention to marry her, he got drunk on the strong punch his host was serving. Playing the piano was out of the question. At her request he scrawled her name, Therese, on the top of the manuscript - misread long after his death by a publisher, who gave it the name he thought Beethoven had written: Fur Elise.

Maybe the most romantic theme he ever wrote was for the slow movement of the Pathetique sonata. Billy Joel certainly thought so, turning it into the hit "This Night" - having the good grace to credit L. v Beethoven for the chorus.

He was fiercely moralistic about women. If the hapless British violin virtuoso George Bridgetower - to whom Beethoven initially dedicated the greatest violin sonata he, or arguably anyone else, ever wrote - had not made one off-colour remark about a woman Beethoven knew and respected, that sonata would be known to the world as the Bridgetower sonata, not the Kreutzer sonata.

He remained unmarried. Or to put it another way, he had the same lover, mistress, wife all his life. His music.

John Suchet is author of `The Last Master, Passion and Glory' (Little, Brown, pounds 16.99)