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The Boy Who Snipped the Lock
It was not until 1871 that Kapellmeister Ferdinand Hiller, the corpulent dean of music in the Rhine-side city of Cologne, first described for fascinated German readers what it had been like to meet Ludwig van Beethoven and what, in fact, the circumstances of the master composer's final days had been. "I can scarcely blame myself, much as I regret it, for not taking down more extended notes than I did," sixty-year-old Hiller wrote. "Indeed, I rejoice that a lad of fifteen years who found himself in a great city for the first time was self-possessed enough to regard any details. [But] I can vouch with the best conscience for the perfect accuracy of all that I am able to repeat."
Ferdinand Hiller had made the snow-slowed journey from Weimar to musical, magical Vienna with his piano and composition instructor, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, in the early spring of 1827 because Hummel had heard the now far-flung news that his old friend and musical rival was dying. He had wanted to see and embrace Beethoven again before he was gone, and too, he had hoped his talented protege might be inspired by at least a few minutes spent in the company of incontestable greatness. Beethoven had received the two men warmly on March 8 and had satisfied them that their company would be efficacious in fact; they stayed with him for hours that day, then returned three more times during the succeeding fortnight before Beethoven finally succumbed to a diseased liver and a life of relentless pain. Yet on that first day, Hiller remembered, the dying man still had seemed very much alive:
Through a spacious anteroom in which high cabinets were piled with thick, tied-up parcels of music, we reached--how my heart beat!--Beethoven's living-room, and were not a little astonished to find the master sitting in apparent comfort at the window. He wore a long, gray sleeping-robe and high boots reaching to his knees. Emaciated by long and severe illness, he seemed to me, when he arose, of tall stature; he was unshaven, his thick, half-gray hair fell in disorder over his temples. The expression of his features heightened when he caught sight of Hummel, and he seemed to be extraordinarily glad to see him. The two men embraced each other most cordially. Hummel introduced me. Beethoven showed himself extremely kind and I was permitted to sit opposite him at the window. . . .
[In order for him to carry on a conversation,] thick sheets of ordinary writing paper in quarto form and lead pencils lay near him at all times. How painful it must have been for the animated, easily impatient man to be obliged to wait for every answer, to make a pause in every moment of conversation, during which, as it were, thought was condemned to come to a standstill! He always followed the hand of the writer with hungry eyes and comprehended what was written at a glance instead of reading it. . . . The conversation at first turned, as usual, on domestic affairs--the journey and sojourn, my relations with Hummel, and matters of that kind. Beethoven asked about Goethe's health with extraordinary solicitude and we were able to make the best of reports, since only a few days before the great poet had written in my album.
Concerning his own poor state, poor Beethoven complained much. "Here I have been lying for four months," he cried out, "one must at last lose patience!" Other things in Vienna did not seem to be to his liking and he spoke with the utmost severity of "the present taste in art" and "the dilettantism that is ruining everything." Nor did he spare the government, up to the highest levels. . . . "Little thieves are hanged, but big ones are allowed to go free!" he exclaimed in ill humor. He asked about my studies and, encouraging me, said, "art must be propagated ceaselessly," and when I spoke of the exclusive interest in Italian opera that then prevailed in Vienna, he gave utterance to the memorable words, "It is said vox populi, vox dei. I never believed it."
On March 13, Hummel took me with him a second time to Beethoven. We found his condition to be materially worse. He lay in bed, seemed to suffer great pains, and at intervals groaned deeply despite the fact that he spoke much and animatedly. . . . He also begged of Hummel to bring his wife to see him; she had not come with us, for she had not been able to persuade herself to see in his present state the man whom she had known at the zenith of his powers. A short time before, he had received a present of a picture of the house in which Haydn was born. He kept it close at hand and showed it to us. "It gives me a childish pleasure," he said, "the cradle of so great a man!"
Shortly after our second visit, the report spread throughout Vienna that the Philharmonic Society of London had sent Beethoven L100 in order to ease his sickbed. It was added that this surprise had made so great an impression on the poor man that it had also brought physical relief. When we stood again at his bedside on the 20th, we could deduce from his utterances how greatly he had been rejoiced by this altruism, but he was very weak and spoke only in faint and disconnected phrases. "I shall, no doubt, soon be going above," he whispered after our greeting. Similar remarks recurred frequently. In the intervals, however, he spoke of projects and hopes that were destined not to be realized. Speaking of the noble conduct of the Philharmonic Society and in praise of the English people, he expressed the intention, as soon as matters were better with him, to undertake the journey to London. "I will compose a grand overture for them, and a symphony." Then too, he told Frau Hummel, who had joined her husband that day, that he would visit her and go to I do not know how many places. His eyes, which were still lively when we saw him on our previous visit, were closed now, and it was difficult from time to time for him to raise himself. It was no longer possible to deceive one's self--the worst was to be feared.
Hopeless was the picture presented by the extraordinary man when we saw him again on March 23rd. It was to be the last time. He lay, weak and miserable, sighing deeply at intervals. Not a word fell from his lips; sweat stood out on his forehead. His handkerchief not being conveniently at hand, Hummel's wife took her fine cambric handkerchief and dried his face again and again. Never shall I forget the grateful glance with which his broken eyes looked upon her.
On a Monday evening three days hence, Hiller and both Hummels were dining at the home of friends when additional guests arrived with the woeful news that Beethoven had died in the midst of the sudden afternoon storm. When Hummel and the boy returned to the lodging called the Scbwarzspanierhaus, the "Black Spaniard's House," on Tuesday to pay their final respects, the face of the man whom Hummel loved and young Hiller newly was in awe of appeared strangely changed. Beethoven's body still lay in his bedroom, but now had been placed in an oak coffin that stood on a brass bier, his head resting on a white silk pillow. His long hair had been combed and was crowned with a wreath of white roses, but his grizzled visage had gone blue and the sides of his face were oddly sunken because at autopsy that morning the temporal bones surrounding his ears--as well as small bones of the ears themselves--had been removed for future study.
The autopsy had been performed by Dr. Johannes Wagner, a pathologist and associate of Beethoven's final physician, Dr. Andreas Wawruch, who had assisted him. During the methodical morning procedure, the two men had discovered that Beethoven's liver, shrunk to half the size of a healthy one, was leathery and covered with nodules; the spleen was black and tough and twice its normal size; the pancreas too was unusually large and hard; and each of the pale kidneys contained numerous calcified stones. The deaf man's auditory nerves were shriveled and marrowless, but the nearby facial nerves were impressively large; the auditory arteries were "dilated to more than the size of a crow's quill" and had become surprisingly brittle; the bone of the skull was strangely dense, and the remarkably white and fluid-filled convolutions of the brain were much deeper, wider, and more numerous than the physicians would have expected them to be. The two doctors had not been surprised, of course, when they encountered much that was abnormal, but knowledge of both pathology and disease etiology remained limited enough in that era that neither man could infer from the findings what might have caused the composer's deafness or indeed any of his many other maladies.
Because of the trauma induced by the autopsy itself, as well as the disfigurement of his face caused by the missing bones, Beethoven appeared only suggestive of the man with whom Hummel and Ferdinand Hiller had conversed a few days earlier, and the two men did not remain for long beside his coffin. But before they departed, young Hiller asked his mentor whether he might be permitted to cut a lock of the master composer's hair. It was a request that Hiller would choose not to mention in his 1871 recollection--perhaps reluctant to detail or acknowledge it, even half a century later, because throughout his life the otherwise open and gregarious Hiller virtually never had spoken about his private life or what he secretly held dear, but perhaps also because explicit permission to take a keepsake had not been granted by Beethoven's brother Johann, by Stephan von Breuning, who had become executor of his estate, or even by the factotum Anton Schindler. Yet other locks of hair, it was obvious, had been cut already, and it is easy to imagine Hummel whispering his assent to his student, the two men quietly moved by the simple ritual and the sadness of the moment, Ferdinand Hiller wielding the scissors he had brought with him for that hopeful purpose, lifting a thick lock of Beethoven's long and half-gray hair, pulling it away from his head, and setting it free.
Ferdinand Hiller had been born in Frankfurt in 1811, the son of a wealthy merchant who, in order to help conceal his Jewish identity at a time when anti-Semitism was rising perilously in Europe, had changed his name late in the eighteenth century from Isaac Hildesheim to Justus Hiller. Yet Frankfurt itself was a comparatively tolerant city, one in which Jews, despite a few significant limitations, were able to live free from persecution. Ferdinand's father and his wife, Regine Sichel Hiller, were well-to-do, urbane, and cultivated; they were committed to doing everything they could to assimilate their son into Germany's cultural mainstream, but they were determined as well to ensure that he truly enjoyed his childhood, trying--rather unsuccessfully as it turned out--not to draw too much early attention to his remarkable musical talents. When he was seven, they acquiesced to entreaties from friends, and agreed that the boy could become a regular student of pianist Aloys Schmitt as well as take lessons in composition from Frankfurt composer J. G. Vollweiler. Three years later, ten-year-old Ferdinand performed in public for the first time, playing Mozart's Concerto in C Minor and dazzling two musicians who were present at the recital--his parents' friends Ludwig Spohr and Ignaz Moscheles, both of whom had been colleagues of Beethoven during years they spent in Vienna. The two men insisted that the boy really must be sent to Weimar to study with Kapellmeister Johann Hummel, himself not only a contemporary and friend of Beethoven, but also the sole composer in Europe whose talents equaled Beethoven's, at least according to men like Spohr and Moscheles.
Warm and generous and surpassingly homely, the much loved and respected Hummel accepted few students, yet as a prodigy himself forty years before in Vienna, he had lived for two years with Wolfgang Mozart and had been his student, an extraordinarily formative experience that he now felt compelled to try to return in kind. When he met the young Hiller and heard him play the piano, he was impressed by the boy's promise, and soon after Hiller became his pupil in 1825 the two also became quite close, Hummel and his wife, Elisabeth, taking paternal charge of the thirteen-year-old on his parents' behalf, and encouraging him to expand his talents in every direction. Accordingly, they introduced him to former student Felix Mendelssohn, himself an impressive prodigy only two years Hiller's senior, as well as the celebrated poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the days before they had set out from Weimar for Vienna in the spring of 1827, Goethe had written a verse in young Hiller's souvenir album, and Beethoven had been heartened to hear Hiller's news of Goethe when he and Hummel visited him in the days before he died.
Hiller heard the venerated poet's name intoned once more at the gates of the Wahring cemetery on the afternoon of Beethoven's funeral, when actor Heinrich AnschYtz declared that Beethoven and Goethe long had been the foremost figures in the arts of the German-speaking world. Still only a teenager, Ferdinand Hiller had met and conversed with both of these towering men, and as he watched Hummel, his portly friend and wonderful teacher, throw three laurel wreaths onto the closed coffin that now lay deep in the earth, it seemed to the young man--the lock of hair he had claimed safely tucked away in his album--that a life lived richly in the arts surely was all that he should strive for.
Ferdinand Hiller had returned to Weimar again in July when he read in the Abendzeitung, published in Dresden, an obituary written by poet and historian Johann Sporschil that described an aspect of Beethoven that the boy had not been fortunate enough to glimpse:
No longer will the citizens of friendly Vienna . . . see him hurrying through the street with his short yet firm steps barely touching the ground, until, fast as lightning, he vanishes around the corner. No longer will they be able to whisper with benevolent and indulgent pride to one another: "Did you see? Beethoven!"
Yes, Hiller had seen him, and he even had captured a lock of the great composer's hair. The memento had been part of Beethoven; it was neither his flesh nor his blood but it was him nonetheless. For many years, his wild hair had been the physical thing that most immediately characterized him--it was a metaphor somehow for his eccentric ebullience, his utter unpredictability, his astonishing artistic power--and Hiller knew he always would cherish the lock of hair and protect it vigilantly.
From the Trade Paperback edition.