Miles Kington: Deaf to the world, but in tune with our souls

How Beethoven knew, 200 years ago, his output would last exactly a week on Radio 3 is a mystery
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On Radio 3 this week, they are broadcasting the entire works of Beethoven, and nothing else. It is wall-to-wall Beethoven for seven days.

On Radio 3 this week, they are broadcasting the entire works of Beethoven, and nothing else. It is wall-to-wall Beethoven for seven days.

Quite how Beethoven knew, 200 years ago, that his published output would last exactly a week on Radio 3 two centuries later is just one of the many mysteries that still surround this monumental figure.

Anyway, today I, too, am devoting my entire column to Beethoven with some little-known stories about the great composer.

One night, Beethoven was returning home through the deserted late-night streets of Vienna when he was approached by a footpad with a cosh.

"Your money or your life," said the criminal.

Beethoven, already quite deaf, heard nothing and walked on. The footpad ran after him and barred his way.

"Your money or your life!" he roared.

"I am sorry," said Beethoven. "I have no wife."

"I said, your money or your life!" repeated the assailant.

"Nor do I have a mummy," said Beethoven. "I am entirely without female relatives."

"Aagh!" said the criminal, striking his brow in frustration. He forgot however that he had a cosh in his hand and knocked himself senseless.

"Unless," said the composer, bending over his would-be assailant solicitously, "you count a female cousin who lives in Mannheim, though I must say I have not seen her for years."

But the man said nothing.

"Dummkopf," said Beethoven, and walked on.

In his early life, Beethoven had much admired Napoleon but then, as is well known, had become disenchanted when the diminutive Corsican proclaimed himself Emperor.

After the Moscow disaster of 1812, when it became plain that the writing was on the wall for Napoleon, someone suggested to Beethoven that he should celebrate his downfall with an 1812 Overture.

"You are crazy!" said Beethoven.

"The public find it hard enough to follow music when I write in 9/8. How do you think they would receive something in 18/12? Dummkopf !"

Sometimes, when Beethoven had a deadline to meet for a commissioned composition, he would try to make do with only four hours sleep at night. When asked how he managed to wake up after four hours, he said that he used a metronome.

"How can a metronome wake you up?" came the awed question.

"It's simple," said Beethoven. "I have a metronome that, when fully wound up, goes back and forth for four hours till the spring goes down. I wind it up when I go to sleep, and when it stops, it wakes me up."

"Do you mean," asked the enraptured admirer, "that you are so sensitive that you can actually sense the absence of the ticking?"

"No," said Beethoven. "I mean that when it stops, the weight makes it overbalance and it falls on my head and wakes me up, you Dummkopf."

When Beethoven was a young man and could still hear well, he liked to go out drinking with friends. One day, he and three companions were standing at a bar with a glass of beer each, and Beethoven idly struck each of the glasses with a pen he was holding.

To his amazement, the four notes so produced sounded almost exactly like the beginning of a piano sonata he was working on, though not quite.

He called the barman over and pointed to his own glass.

"This is a bit flat," he said.

"Shouldn't be," said the barman. "It's from a new barrel. I put it on myself this morning. Can I try?"

And without waiting for an answer, he sipped a bit from the glass.

"Nothing wrong with that," he said. "Spot on."

Beethoven tapped the glass again. "You know, you're quite right," said the composer. "It's dead in tune now."

"Dummkopf," said the barman.