BEETHOVEN 200 YEARS AGO TODAY: Monday, September 10, 1821

Beethoven today writes a lengthy and chatty letter from Baden to his friend Tobias Haslinger in Vienna, indicating his improved health and frame of mind. Haslinger was at this time an employee of music publisher Sigmund Anton Steiner.

Beethoven begins by greeting Haslinger as “Very best fellow!” He then recounts the story of the strange dream he had yesterday, where dreamed he traveled to very distant lands. The Holy City of Jerusalem put him in mind of the sacred books, which lead to Tobias and the canon in two voices on O Tobias. “I had no sooner awakened, however, than the canon vanished and nothing more of it would come to mind. But when I returned to Baden today in the same wagon (that of a poor Austrian musician), and continued yesterday’s dream trip, lo and behold, under the law of association of ideas, I now remembered the Canon, and while I held it, it transformed like Proteus when held by Menelaus, worked out into three voices.”

Beethoven provides the scores of both the original two-voice canon and the modified three-voice canon, on the text “O Tobias, O Tobias, Dominus Haslinger. O! O!” Today this canon is catalogued as WoO 182 in both versions.

[Beethoven is probably fibbing about much of this tale. Far from springing to his mind spontaneously, it was worked out in drafts in the Artaria 197 sketchbook and also on contemporary leaves now held in the Paris Biblioth√®que Nationale, Ms. 51/3, Ms. 99 and Ms. 80. It may even have been on his mind for weeks! But the germ of the canon might have come to him in a dream as he relates. Note Beethoven’s familiarity with Homer’s Odyssey Canto 4, as he makes reference to Menelaus seizing the sea god Proteus, in order to learn from him the means of his return to Sparta from the Trojan Wars, and the fates of the other Greek military leaders.]

Beethoven makes a series of in-jokes regarding publishers, including puns on Steiner’s name, as well as a long punny sentence on Verleger (publisher) and verlegen (embarrassed). “We always wish that you never merit the name of publisher and are never embarrassed, but that you will every day be publishers who are never embarrassed to make a profit nor to sing the epistles of salvation.” He suggests that Haslinger go to see “Father Werner” every Sunday. [Friedrich Ludwig Zacharias Werner (1768-1823), who was in earlier life a Romantic poet, but converted to Catholicism and became a priest in 1814. His sermons were extremely popular in Vienna.] “You see my concern for the salvation of your souls! I remain at all times, with great pleasure, from eternity to eternity, your loyal debtor, Beethoven.” [Beethoven owed Haslinger’s employer, Steiner, 1200 guilders, but had not yet made repayment as he had promised in December of 1820.]

Anderson Letter 1056; Brandenburg Letter 1439. The original is in the Beethovenhaus collection, BH 23, and can be seen here:

The canon O Tobias, WoO 182 can be heard performed in its three-voice version by the group Accentus here: