Features & Columns

MLK Library Exhibit Speculates
on Beethoven's Mystery Lover

Located on the fifth floor of the library, the exhibit 'Beethoven in Love'
presents a wealth of text, photos and displays.
THAT'S MY BAE: Ludwig van Beethoven was a son of a gun, but he loved two things: music and women. Photo by L. Balestrieri

Who was Ludwig van Beethoven's immortal beloved? From now until Sept. 10, visitors to the MLK Main Library can vote on it. Think it was Josephine von Deym? Or perhaps Antonie Brentano or Bettina von Arnim? Tear off the raffle ticket designated for the particular woman and deposit it into the receptacle. Visitors can even write in candidates if they want. Kim Kardashian probably wouldn't mind a few ballots.

Thanks to the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, located on the fifth floor of the library, the exhibit Beethoven in Love presents a wealth of text, photos and displays, all centering around the ancient mystery of just who Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" really was, and if she ever even existed. Researchers, scholars, academics, biographers, novelists, filmmakers and other fanatics have obsessed over this woman's identity for some 180 years now, so it was more than overdue for the Beethoven Center to organize an exhibit demonstrating the intensity of this mystery.

Allow me to regale you with some quick background. Beethoven lived from 1770 to 1827 and, in my opinion, was essentially the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras. He was a genius by any definition of that word. He was also shy, a loner, a raging drunk and not a very easy dude to get along with. In poetic terms: Never did he marry.

What he left behind, aside from what is perhaps history's greatest body of classical music, was a serious repository of letters. In 1840, Anton Schindler published Beethoven's now famous letter to his "Immortal Beloved." Ever since then, people around the world have debated her identity in numerous languages. Biographers have written books about particular women who might have been the one. Conferences have taken place. Films have graced the screen. It's crazy.

For the Beethoven in Love exhibit, we get to see a facsimile of the original Immortal Beloved letter—all 10 pages—along with hair-splitting analysis of particular words, phrases and anything that would possibly provide clues to this woman's identity or places or related circumstances. The letter, in German, was translated by Virginia Beahrs, a noted Beethoven scholar. Each page is displayed separately on the center partitions of the exhibit, along with accompanying text and discussion.

Along the back wall of the exhibit, we find numerous antiquarian books and biographies covering several different women in Beethoven's immediate surroundings. We see works in Hungarian, French, German and English. All of the subjects were at one time thought to be the recipient of the Immortal Beloved letter. The mystery has percolated for a long, long time.

Even during Ludwig's life, obsessive people in Vienna squabbled about him having an unsuccessful infatuation with a woman in the first decade of the 19th century. People just wouldn't shut up about it. The Immortal Beloved letter, though, was not discovered until after his death. Throughout the past 180 years, scholars have suggested many different women, but today only three remain as likely candidates: Josephine von Deym, Antonie Brentano and Bettina von Arnim. A short biographical text panel for each woman is also included in the exhibit. Visitors can draw their own conclusions.

To the left of the main central partitions in the exhibit, we see a glass case presenting an array of Beethoven's close male friends, along with their stories. At the other end, we see a glass case of Beethoven's close female friends, along with their respective stories. This component of the show is somewhat odd, as if the organizers didn't have anything to fill the space. Nevertheless, we do get to read about Therese Malfatti, an 18-year-old piano player whose parents banned Beethoven from their house because he lurked around Therese too often and was probably in love with her.

And we also get to read about Schindler, Beethoven's voluntary assistant who wrote the first major biography of the composer following his death, but was later disgraced for forging pages of Beethoven's conversation books.

All in all, Beethoven in Love is an obsessive exhibit, as love often is.