On July 19 1812, while at the Bohemian spa town of Teplitz on doctor's advice, Ludwig van Beethoven meets the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for the first time. Later, Goethe, will write, “His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, who is not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable but surely does not make it any the more enjoyable for himself or others by his attitude.” Richard Wigmore describes the meeting in more detail:
Present at Teplitz, along with assorted nobility and crowned heads, was Bettina von Arnim, née Brentano, a gifted writer herself, and a friend of both Beethoven and Goethe (her sister-in-law Antonie Brentano is the most likely candidate for Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’). It was she who engineered the initial meeting.
‘That Goethe is here I have already told you. I spend some time with him every day,’ Beethoven informed his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. Goethe reacted with mingled admiration and astonishment, writing to his wife in Weimar: ‘I have never met an artist so self-contained, so energetic and so fervent.’ Two days later, July 21, the poet noted in his journal that Beethoven ‘played exquisitely [köstlich]’.
Shortly afterwards Goethe penned a more qualified verdict to his musical guru Carl Zelter: ‘His talent astounded me; nevertheless, he unfortunately has an utterly untamed personality, not completely wrong in thinking the world detestable, but hardly making it more pleasant for himself or others by his attitude. Yet he must be shown forgiveness and compassion, for he is losing his hearing, something that affects the musical part of his nature less than the social. He is naturally laconic, and even more so due to his disability.’ (In reply, Zelter confessed that he admired Beethoven’s music ‘with alarm’.)
As Bettina von Arnim must have guessed, the relationship between the urbane, worldly Goethe – Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, as well as a national cultural hero – and the composer described by Cherubini as ‘an unlicked bear’ was never going to be easy. After Beethoven left Teplitz, he told Breitkopf & Härtel: ‘Goethe delights in the court atmosphere far more than is becoming to a poet. Is there any point in talking about absurdities of virtuosos, when poets, who should be regarded as the nation’s first teachers, forget everything for the sake of this glitter?’
Goethe’s social attitudes, like his musical tastes, were shaped in a more formal age. For Beethoven, 21 years his junior, the only true aristocrats were artists. In the mythology, his disillusionment was clinched by Goethe’s behaviour when they encountered royalty in the street, as reported 20 years later by Bettina: ‘Beethoven said to Goethe: keep walking as you have until now, holding my arm, they must make way for us, not the other way around. Goethe thought differently; he drew his hand, took off his hat and stepped aside, while Beethoven, hands in pockets, went right through the dukes and their cortege... They drew aside to make way for him, saluting him in friendly fashion. Waiting for Goethe who had let the dukes pass, Beethoven told him: “I have waited for you because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too much esteem to those people.”