BEETHOVEN 200 YEARS AGO TODAY: Saturday, March 31, 1821

Some very sad news for Beethoven: his old love, Josephine Brunsvik (since 1810 Baroness von Stackelberg) dies in Vienna of tuberculosis today, just three days after her 42nd birthday.

Josephine Brunsvik, miniature in pencil, before 1804. Artist unknown.

The tragic tale of what might have been: One of the most important women in Beethoven’s life, Josephine (born 28 March, 1779) seems to have first become personally acquainted with him in May of 1799, when she and her older sister Therese were taken to him for piano lessons. He immediately fell for Josephine, and she felt “enthusiastic” about him as well. However, her mother needed a wealthy and noble son-in-law, so Josephine was married off to the much older Count Joseph Deym. Even after the marriage, Beethoven continued giving Josephine piano lessons. She was pregnant with her fourth child when Count Deym suddenly died of pneumonia in January 1804.

Beethoven continued to see the widow Deym, and wrote her at least fifteen passionate love letters. She seems to have reciprocated, although only a few drafts of her letters survive. The song “An die Hoffnung” op.32 was secretly dedicated to her. But again Josephine’s family interfered, reminding her that if she married Beethoven, a commoner, she would almost certainly lose custody of her noble children. Not long afterwards, Josephine conceded and started to avoid Beethoven.

However, she subsequently fell in love with her sons’ tutor, Estonian Baron Christoph von Stackelberg (1777-1841) and became pregnant by him. Since he was lower status and also Catholic, Josephine’s family initially rejected him, but when a second child came along, Josephine’s mother finally gave in and consented to the marriage in order to give the children a father. The pair married in Feburary 1810. The marriage was not a happy one, and their household ended in financial ruin and lawsuits.

According to her diary entries of June 1812, Josephine intended to go to Prague. Her and sister Therese’s diaries end abruptly here for two months. Beethoven in the meantime traveled to Teplitz in July via Prague, where he met a woman he called his “Immortal Beloved.” Josephine is thus one of the prime candidates for this office.

However, Josephine was still concerned about her four noble children with Deym, and a union with Beethoven would have been impossible (which fits the narrative of the Immortal Beloved letters, which make reference to obstacles to their union). In August, 1812, she reached an agreement with Stackelberg in hopes of saving their marriage, but one stipulation of the contract was that Stackelberg could leave her at any time. He took advantage of that clause in April 1813 after Josephine gave birth to a daughter, Minona. He may have suspected or known that Minona was not his child. Some, such as Siegmund Kaznelson, have suggested that she was in fact Beethoven’s illegitimate daughter.

In 1814 Christoph von Stackelberg showed again up to claim his children (including Minona), apparently out of sheer pettiness, since he promptly dumped them with the deacon of Trautenau in Bohemia.

Josephine fell into increasingly bad health with tuberculosis, and also fell vulnerable to another of her son’s tutors, Andrian. She became pregnant yet again, giving birth to Emilie on September 16, 1815, while hiding in a hut. Her estranged husband had meanwhile inherited some money from a brother and came to Vienna to claim Josephine. Finding her pregnant with a child (or another child) not his, he wrote her an angry letter and filed a report with the police, alleging a lurid incestuous incident among the children.

Josephine threw out Andrian, who took Emilie with him. Little Emilie died of measles two years later. To add to Josephine’s misery, she was informed in December 1815 that Stackelberg had stopped sending any money to care for the three daughters held by the deacon in Bohemia. Josephine and Therese scraped together enough money to retrieve the girls and sent it to the deacon. Just as she was about to see her children for the first time in over a year, Stackelberg’s brother Otto turned up and took them away to Estonia.

In 1816, Josephine and Beethoven appear to have planned to meet in the German spa of Bad Pyrmont. Josephine went so far as to request a passport to travel there but abruptly decided not to go after all. From then on, her illness became worse, and she was totally bedridden. Although she lived in Vienna, she and Beethoven do not appear to have reunited or even visited. Therese’s diary entry for July 12, 1817 says it all: “If Josephine doesn’t suffer punishment on account of Luigi’s woe — his wife! What wouldn’t she have made out of this hero!”

Therese later wrote in her diary, “On March 31, 1821, at 5 o’clock in the evening, Josephine died – ending her great earthly life to begin a greater one.” Josephine was buried in the Währing village cemetery (today the Schubertpark), northwest of the City of Vienna, but in 1909 she and two of her children were exhumed and reburied in Bohemia.

For more about Josephine’s death and burial, see Dr. Michael Lorenz’s excellent extended essay, in which he debunks many myths about her and her family (including the macabre urban legend of eldest daughter Victoire being buried alive):

Minona von Stackelberg. See anyone you know in those features?

And what of Minona von Stackelberg [van Beethoven?] As Lorenz notes, after Christoph von Stackelberg’s death in 1841, she and sister Maria Laura moved to Romania, dwelling on the estate of their aunt Charlotte Teleki von Szék. Maria Laura died there in 1843, and the aunt not long afterwards. Minona then moved to Vienna, where she lived in the home of Countess Bánffy, who may have been related to the Stackelbergs. In 1858 Minona there made the acquaintance of Franz Liszt. After the Countess died in 1865, Minona moved to her own home in Habsburgergasse 5 (the Carianisches Haus), where she died at age 83 of “hypostatic pneumonia” on Februrary 21, 1897. Although she never married or had children, she was decently well off, with a lifetime annual pension from Countess Bánffy, and income from some real estate in Transylvania she had inherited from a cousin.

It is most regrettable that there are no conversation books extant from this time so we might have a sense of what Beethoven felt toward his lost love after all this time. In any event, we close this chapter in Beethoven’s life with a regretful look back.