Beethoven’s “The Kiss”

By Norman Lebrecht

AS BEETHOVEN LAY DYING the vultures descended. Friends, neighbours, acquaintances, passers-by, tourists and tradesmen, all popped in to see how he was getting on, some to make off with whatever they could. Any portable possession that might have value as a posthumous trophy was taken. While he slept, people cut off locks of his hair. One was the young composer Ferdinand Hiller whose motives were slightly purer. Hiller thought the lock might somehow lead him to the physical secrets of Beethoven’s genius. The gruesome relic languished in his family for a century and more until it was put up for sale. There was a regular trade in the auction rooms in locks of Beethoven’s hair, some of them genuine.

One came into the possession of Dr. Alfredo Guevara, an attention-seeing urologist in Arizona, near the Mexican border. Guevara subjected the lock to multiple laboratory tests in an effort to support his contention that Beethoven’s failing health and death were caused by syphilis. Relying on a memoir by a Viennese cellist, the good doctor convinced himself that Beethoven consorted with prostitutes and caught his death of the pox. Most musical scholars think this unlikely.

Beethoven was a prudish man, embarrassed by talk of sex. He fought long and hard to stop his brother from marrying a woman of what he considered to be loose morals, and he wrested his nephew away from her care after his brother died. He disapproved of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni for its licentiousness. He shunned people who were living in sin, even aristicrats who could have been of good use to him. He may have enjoyed a night out getting drunk with a cellist but he was not the kind of man who relieved his urges in a brothel, even when drunk.

Beethoven had grown up with his father’s alcoholism and bawdiness, and with his mother’s accusations of licentiousness and infidelity. It may well be that his inability ever to form a relationship with a woman stemmed from a deep-seated fear of sex, that it might deflect him from the path of righteousness and from his creative destiny. By his last years he had put all thoughts of romance and desire behind him.

So it comes as a considerable shock to find that Beethoven, high-minded and in the midst of writing the Missa Solemnis, broke off his spiritual quest to write a little ditty called The Kiss. We have no idea why he did it.

The words are by Christian Felix Weisse, whose poems had previousy been set by Mozart. The text reads as follows:

I was with Chloe all alone,
And really wanted to kiss her:
But she said she would give a shriek,
That nothing would come of it.

But I got brave and kissed her,
Notwithstanding her resistance.
And did she shriek? Oh yes, she shrieked.
But that was a long time after.

I find this insignificant song incredibly reassuring. A broken man, cut off by his deafness, has a sudden impulse to be young again, to snatch a kiss from a passing Chloe, to give himself and her the satisfaction of human connection. What could possibly be more uplifting?