Poverty of Beethoven


'My permanently depressing situation, however, demands that I write just now whatever brings me enough money for my immediate needs. What sad disclosures you are hearing'

April 25, 1823

Scarlatti was in Urbino during the summer and autumn of 1707, and writing miserable begging letters from there to Prince Ferdinando, depicting himself and his family, accurately enough, as being on the bitterest edge of povert:  

“I throw myself at the feet of Your Royal Highness, as though to my tutelary god, the perennial source from which, on so many occasions, I have received the precious waters of such exalted and benign grace.”

A typical boss and composer relationship which was concluded by the Prince's remittance accompanied by a polite letter.

Artist, for centruies, required financial support from their patrons, namely Princes, Princesses or other nobleman, who were happy to showcase their sponsored talents to other nobleman like a vanity. Beethoven, little known except as a celebrated pianoforte player and being very young at the time of incident, knowing this history, wish at a meeting held at the house of Prince Lobkowitz which took place around early 1800's.

In a conversation with a gentleman present, he said that he wished to be relieved from all bargain and sale of this works, find a boss who will pay a certain income for life. He gave Goethe and Handel as an example and received following answer without delay:

“My dear young man, you must not complain; for you are neither a Goethe nor a Handel, and it is not to be expected that you ever will be; for such masters will not be born again.”

Both were mistaken about their arguments.

Beethoven became the master which assumed to be he couldn't but kept struggling till his final breath.

Instead of being relieved from the sale bargains, he now must carefully account for exchange rates and value of money like a professional accountant. Letter addressed to George Thomson, dated November 1, 1806 is a noteworthy contribution to the debate on relieving from fiscal matters:

“…Finally, as regards the honorarium, I understand that you are offering me 100 pounds sterling, or 200 Vienna ducats in gold and not in Vienna bnak-notes, which under the present circumstances entail too great a loss… “

Aforementioned circumstances were, ofcourse the Napoleonic Wars. The siege of Vienna of 10-13 May 1809 saw the Austrian capital fall to Napoleon for the second time in four years.

Before coming to siege, there was an interesting development on the subject. The King of Westphalia has offered Beethoven a salary of 600 ducats in gold for life and 150 more for traveling expenses. Despite the offer is certainly in the interest of art and the artist, Beethoven never intended to make his domicile elsewhere if the opportunities mentioned above are measurably offered him in Vienna.

Nobleman of Vienna made their move, asked him to state his conditions. Beethoven complied with the request, conditions proving acceptable, the business was concluded and Beethoven retained in Vienna.

Agreement dated March 1, 1809 grants composer a life long salary of 4000 florins a year which has to be collected in semi-annual installments, pro rata, against voucher from below listed contributors:

His Imperial Highness, Archduke Rudolph 1500fl
The Highborn Prince Lobkowitz 700fl
The Highborn Prince Ferdinand Kinsky 1800fl

“I once asked him, after he had been absent from the eating-house: 'You were not ill, were you?' – 'My boots were, and as I have only one pair I had house-arrest,' was the answer”

Ludwig Spohr

As Frenchman getting closer, Beethoven's letter dated August 21, 1810 to music firm Breitkopf and Hartel reveals the economic circumstances of the period.

His particulars put forth the struggle he is in:

“… Also no matter what the worth of a ducat in guldens may be for us, there isn't any profit. Now we pay 30 florins for a pair of boots, 160 or 170 florins for a coat etc. The devil with economy in music – Last year before the French came my 4000 florins were worth something, this year they are not worth 1000 florins in convention coin… “

What a pain to write those lines to a music publisher as a composer regardless the fact that you are Beethoven himlsef.

After one year, as a result of the war, the Austrian economy was severely strained and the value of the currenct steadily decreased. In order to brake this currency depreciation, Austrian Finanz-Patent, promulgated February 20th, and put in force March 15, 1811.

consequently, there was annexed to the Finance-Patent a table showing decimally the average equivalent of the florin in bank-notes, month by month, from January 1799 to March 1811.

Beethoven's 'Stay in Vienna' contract bore the date March 1, 1809. The effective exchange rate was equal to 2.48. Hence his 4000 florin life long salary shrank to 1618 florin in the new paper money.

Now a mighty struggle will start for the composer to reach, explain and demand his income from every Prince signed the agreement.

Despite Archduke Rudolph did not hesitated to admit the just request of the composer, other noble's have their own budget problems due to this devaluation.

In order to have a clear picture regarding the misery of the composer, I will quote Frau Streicher who met Beethoven in the summer of 1813 at Baden:

“…not only did he not have a single good coat, but not a shole shirt. I must hesitate to describe his condition exactly as it was.”

Frau Streicher, after her return to the city, put his wardrobe and household affairs to rights.

Despite being in such poverty, Beethoven's reply to Thomson dated Fenruary 19, 1813, regarding revision of the pre ordered British songs is noteworthy of his peculiars about idealism and art:

“…I regret very much that I cannot accommodate you in this. I am not in the habit of rewriting my compositions. I have never done it…”

Beethoven's nephew Karl received a surgical operation by Dr. Smetana for hernia and following his recovery in September visited his uncle at Baden, going thither with the Giannatasios.

An anecdote by Madame Giannatasio worths mentioning:

“While his nephew was still with us, Beethoven once invited us to visit him at Baden where he was spending the summer months. once when he came we noticed a hole in the elbow when he was taking his overcoat off; he must have remembered it for he wanted to put it on again, but said, laughing, taking it completely off: 'You've already seen it!' …”

In order to continue his daily life, he was indebted to other parties and even to such tradesman as the tailor Lind, who had also threatened legal action agains him.

Beethoven first wrote to Joseph Uibel, lawyer of the tailor, emphasizing the nonnecessity of taking legal action since he never denied the demands and promise to settle the bill without delay. He wrote another one directly to the tailor:

“Dear Lind!
I am coming to you on Wednesday, at about four o'clock in the afternoon at the latest, and shall then settle up everything –
Your most devoted Beethoven”

Vienna, January 1823

Franz Grillparzer (b. 1791) and Beethoven had met several times, and, being musically educated, he admired the composer very highly. Grillparzer describes the visit to Beethoven at his lodgings in the Kothgasse which he made in company with Schindler:

“I found him lying in soiled nightwear on a disordered bed, a book in his hand. At the head of the bed was a small door which, as I observed later, opened into the dining-room and which Beethoven seemed in a manner to be guarding, for when subsequently a maid came through it with butter and eggs he could not restrain himself, in the middle of an earnest conversation, from throwing a searching glance at the quantity of the provisions served-which gave me a painful picture of the disorder prevailing in his domestic economy.”

Schlösser, a violinist in the Darmstadt court orchestra, to broaden his knowledge, went first to Vienna and then Paris before returning to Darmstadt where he eventually became kapellmeister.

feeling "Personal Reminiscences of Beethoven,” an account written 50 years later of his stay in Vienna, may be summarized here as conclusion of my article.

He writes:

“Only a few weeks later we met in the Karthnerstrasse. His keen eye discovered me first; and coming up to me he at once seized me by the arm with the words: 'If you can spare the time then accompany me to the Steiner's music shop'.

At this encounter I had been so surprised at the very onset to find Beethoven, usually so careless about his attire, dressed with unwonted elegance… I could not resist telling my teacher Mayseder, who lived in the neighborhood, about the striking Beethoven's elegant appearance.

Mayseder replied with smile: 'This is not the first time that his friends have taken his old clothes during the night and laid down new ones in their place; he has not the least suspicion of what has happened and puts on whatever lies before him with entire unconcern'


Forbes, Elliot. Thayer's Life of Beethoven I. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967, 240,241,406,457,500,523,547,554
Forbes, Elliot. Thayer's Life of Beethoven II. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967, 627,646,839,844,851
Anderson, Emily. The Letters of Beethoven, 1961, 991
Beethoven Remembered, Biographical Notes of Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries, 1987, 53,136


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