Unravelling the mystery of Beethoven’s son and lessons for research


15 August 2017
412px-Beethoven_7-77471.jpg The mystery of Beethoven's son
Susan Lund, author of Beethoven: Life of an Artist, talks to us about the mystery of Beethoven’s son and what research lessons this story can teach family historians.

Susan Lund, author of Beethoven: Life of an Artist, talks to us about the mystery of Beethoven’s son and what research lessons this story can teach family historians.

For many years it was not known that the great composer Beethoven had a son.

Why wasn’t it known? How was it uncovered? Why was it kept so quiet?

In the 1970s, leading American Beethoven scholar Maynard Solomon discovered that Antonie Brentano was the woman known as Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, to whom he wrote his famous 3-part letter of July 1812. In numerous papers, delivered in universities around the world, he produced a growing body of evidence. In one article, he revealed that Antonie Brentano’s last child, Karl Josef, was born 8 months after Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved letter and after she had visited him in Prague.

False trail

Beethoven called himself a father. People assumed this referred to his ward, his nephew Karl, whom he called ‘my son.’  In March, 1813, Caspar Carl, Beethoven’s brother, was thought to be dying of tuberculosis. His will gave Beethoven custody of his child. Beethoven claimed to have given his brother 10,000 florins in Viennese currency. When the mother, Johanna tried to claim back her son in 1820, it was stated in court that nephew Karl had become ‘an object of transaction between the two brothers.’ With court records like this and other evidence you can see why the assumption was made that the “son” was Beethoven’s nephew and ward.

In those days Beethoven’s behaviour would have been frowned upon.. For a married woman to have a child by someone other than her husband threatened the family, offended society, affronted religion. Antonie was a committed Catholic and from a noble family.  You can see that there were many reasons to hide the truth.

Circumstantial evidence – building a picture

In addition Beethoven never saw his son, Karl Josef, born in Frankfurt on 8th March, 1813. What researchers can see from the evidence is that what happened to him at this time had a profound effect.  That year he appears to have tried to starve to death in the grounds of Countess Erdödy’s palace. He so neglected his appearance that Frau Streicher, wife of the piano-maker, had to lay out new clothes for him.

In 1817 Karl Josef was struck with a mysterious illness which left him partially paralysed, with the mental age of a 4 year old. Beethoven did not compose for a year which points to the fact that he was getting news of what was happening to the Brentano family, and the news had a huge emotional impact.

Evidence of a continuing feelings for Antonie

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In 1821 Beethoven’s natural son, Karl Josef’s illness led to moxa treatment which included the burning of his loins. Around this time Beethoven dedicated his piano sonata Opus 109 to Antonie Brentano’s daughter, Maxe, and also wrote his last two piano sonatas, Opus 110 and Opus 111. Once he became ill, Karl Josef could only be soothed by being played to on the piano. Beethoven dedicated his final work for the piano, the Diabelli Variations, to Antonie Brentano in 1823.

Background to my discoveries

Unlike research into a personal family history, which starts from the present and works back, through living descendants, family members, known names and locations, parish registers of births, marriages and death, historical research about a figure like Beethoven, where there are no living descendants, starts with books.

I started looking for any material that told me about the man himself, the letters, memories of contemporaries, extracts from his Conversation Books (from 1818, his deafness meant that all conversation with Beethoven had to be written down). The first authoritative biography, by Thayer and Maynard Solomon’s book which contains details of many previous articles were important. One article referred to, ‘Beethoven & Antonie Brentano,’ my husband found at Westminster Library. There was the footnote about a letter which set me off on the academic trail to confirm the evidence that Antonie’s son was also Beethoven’s.

Beethoven’s letter was returned to him when he left Antonie and Franz Brentano in Bohemia in 1812. Beethoven kept the letter through his many house moves and left it where he knew it would be found. He called himself a father. He wanted us to know.

The lesson from this for other researchers into historical figures: always read the academic articles, not just the books. Question everything. And ask for help from experts. They can be surprisingly generous. Maynard Solomon himself was very generous in giving me access to unpublished letters from Antonie and her contemporaries.  You may also find interesting people in your own family tree who can be found in history books.  You may remember a TV programme when the actress Barbara Windsor found a connection to the painter John Constable. You never know!

About the author

Susan Lund is author of many books on Beethoven, including Beethoven: Life of an Artist.