BEETHOVEN ON VINTAGE POSTCARDS

by Liselotte Erlanger Glozer


(This article appeared in a fuller form in the September l996 issue of "Postcard Collector.")
A British visitor to Vienna has left us a description of his first impression of Beethoven as
"...a short, stout man with a very red face, small, piercing eyes, and bushy eyebrows, ... notwithstanding the high color of his cheeks and his general untidiness there was in those small piercing eyes an expression no painter could render. It was an expression of sublimity and melancholy combined..."

This image of the dishevelled, misogynistic composer is preserved in a portrait by the contemporary painter Fassbaender (Stengel, sepia), and even more clearly in Otto Novak's signed "fantasy" painting "Le maitre solitaire" (The Solitary Master) which shows a stocky, paunchy Beethoven striding through an autumnal landscape (published by BKW, in their series of Viennese Artist's cards).

Oddities among Beethoven postcard portraits include a silk stuffed-fabric card; a three dimensional bust portrait on a sage green background. The silvery image mimics a cameo and might have been meant to hang over a piano (no publisher, no date). Another is a "metamorphic" portrait, from a series which includes Liszt and Wagner, comprised, in standard metamorphosis card fashion, of nude women's photographs. At the bottom of the card is the opening of the "Ode to Joy" from the 9th Symphony (r/p, no publisher).

Although Vienna has claimed Ludwig van Beethoven (l770-l827) as one of its triumvirate of famous composers he was born in Bonn, Germany. His birthplace is now a museum which, in l925 - l930, issued a series of cards all marked and copyrighted "Beethoven House in Bonn." Cards in the series include exterior of views of the house, a portrait of Beethoven's mother, a fanciful depiction of his birth, portraits, and statues. Most striking is the picture of the stark memorial room, containing only the composer's bust and a few wreaths.

Both Beethoven's father and grandfather were singers at the court of a minor German prince. His father was an alcoholic and the support of the mother and two younger brothers fell largely on young Ludwig. By the age of l2 he had become assistant organist at the court chapel and within a year played harpsichord in the court orchestra. At l8 he travelled to Vienna and impressed Mozart with his talent. At 22 he again went to Vienna, which was to become his home for the rest of his life. He was to become a student of Haydn's, but the temperamental, arrogant young musician and the older maestro did not get on well. A number of other teachers -- among them the Italian musician Salieri of "Amadeus" fame -- felt that Beethoven was "unteachable."

The young Beethoven took Vienna by storm, not as a composer but as a piano virtuoso. At the time, music was performed primarily at the houses of the nobility, whose patronage was of utmost importance. Beethoven impressed a number of influential sponsors whose names have come down to us as the dedicatees of his sonatas and other pieces of chamber music.

Fortunately for Beethoven, it was during this period that public concerts subscribed to by the middle classes became more common, giving the musician a chance to reach a wider audience; soon music publishers vied for the rights to his compositions. A portrait of the young Beethoven, published in the Valentine series of Famous Composers (about l9l0) gives the opening of his piano sonata #l2, opus 26, known mainly for the rondo sometimes referred to as the "Funeral March."

Beethoven was not yet in his thirties when the first signs of progressive deafness appeared. His personal life -- romantizied in a recent movie -- can be best understood when one considers his increasing hearing loss, which gradually cut him off from human intercourse and brought on occasional rages of paranoia. An interesting sidelight on his deafness is that the probable inventor of the metronome -- that instrument of torture for the beginning musician -- also designed hearing aids for Beethoven.

Beethoven was well aware that among the Viennese, the road to fame was via opera and he entered the sweepstakes with Fidelio. Although this opera contains music of spectacular beauty and emotional strength, it was dogged by misadventure. Its first performance took place while Napoleon's troops occupied Vienna, and they did not appreciate an opera sung in German. After this fiasco, Beethoven shortened the work, but even in its present form it is not often seen. To the public it is best known for the three Leonore overtures Beethoven composed for various revivals.

Fidelio is a "rescue" opera, the story of an innocently jailed political prisoner cast into the deepest dungeon by a vengeful enemy. The prisoner's wife, Leonore (thus the title of the overtures) dons men's clothing and, under the name of Fidelio, hires herself as an assistant to a kindly jailer, Rocco, hoping to free her husband. The story ends happily: through her devotion and bravery, Leonore and her husband are reunited.

An odd metamorphic card, titled BEETHOVEN: FIDELIO, differs from other metamorphosis cards as the figures are not photographic but drawn. The various characters of the opera appear in the composer's hair, cheeks, etc. The publisher is J.B.B., the artist's (illegible) name might be on the cravat; the card is postmarked circa l9l0.

I also own a series of real photo postcards of Fideliotaken at a Salzburg Festival performance in the 1950s. One of them shows a scene from the first act in which the four main characters, Rocco, his daughter, her suitor, and Lenore-as-Fidelio sing a moving quartet in canon form; each of the characters is shown standing isolated from the others, so as to express their utter loneliness (r/p, no date), yet their four voices, weaving together, create one of the most beautiful ensembles in operatic history.

As the years passed and Beethoven's fame increased, iconographic depiction of him tended more toward the heroic; an example is a card showing the sculpture bust by Landrebe (published about l908). The image becomes even more heroic on Vienna's Beethoven monument. Here the statue, draped in a greatcoat, seems to survey the surroundings from a god-like altitude (published by B.K.W., painted by R. Preuss).

For the centenary of Beethoven's death the city of Vienna honored the composer by issuing a beautiful memorial card. Beethoven's portrait is surrounded by all the houses in and around Vienna in which he had lived. In the middle of the card is a poem which, translated, reads as follows:

Many an old house is still
venerated as a place where he worked.
No new house has been built
Where his song has not been heard.


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