BEETHOVEN 200 YEARS AGO TODAY: Thursday, March 28, 1822 (approximately)

Rossini finally gets to meet Beethoven, accompanying poet Giuseppe Carpani, who has laid the groundwork for the meeting. The date is a certainty within a day either way. The reasoning behind how we established the date for this meeting, which has never before been determined, will be set forth in a separate entry. Most regrettably, the conversation books for this period are missing, so we will turn today’s account over to Rossini himself, who described the visit at length to composer Richard Wagner in 1860, as transcribed by Edmond Michotte:

Portrait of Rossini, 1815 oil painting by Vincenzo Camuccini

“Going up the stairs leading to the poor home where the great man lived, I had some difficulty controlling my emotions. When the door opened, I found myself in a kind of hovel, as dirty as it was in frightful disorder. I especially remember that the ceiling, immediately under the roof, was cracked with large crevices through which the rain must have poured in.

“The portraits that we know of Beethoven render his overall physiognomy fairly well. But what no engraving tool can express is the indefinable sadness spread over all his features, while under thick eyebrows shone eyes that were as if they were deep in caverns, and which, although small, seemed to pierce you. The voice was soft and somewhat veiled.

“When we entered, he did not pay attention to us at first. He remained for a few moments bent over a printed piece of music which he was finishing correcting. Then, raising his head, he said abruptly to me in quite understandable Italian: ‘Ah! Rossini, are you the author of Barbiere di Seviglia? I congratulate you on it; it is an excellent opera buffa; I have I read it with pleasure and was delighted with it. As long as there is an Italian opera, it will be performed. Never try to do anything other than opera buffa; it would be straining your destiny to want to succeed in any other genre.’

“‘But,’ immediately interrupted Carpani, who was accompanying me (of course, in pencil and in German, since we could not otherwise continue the conversation with Beethoven, as Carpani was translating for me word for word), ‘Le maestro Rossini has already composed a large number of scores for opera seria: Tancredi, Otello, Mosè; I sent them to you not long ago, recommending that you examine them.’

“‘I have indeed read them,’ answered Beethoven, but, you see, the opera seria, that is not in the nature of the Italians. To deal with the real drama, they don’t have enough musical science; and how could they ever acquire it in Italy?…’

“‘In the opera buffa,’ he continued, ‘no one can equal you, you Italians. Your language and the vivacity of your temperament make it your destiny; look at Cimarosa: how superior is the comic part in his operas to all the rest? It is the same with Pergolesi. You Italians, I know, you set great store by his religious music. There is in his Stabat [Mater], I agree, a very touching sentiment; but the form lacks variety… the effect is monotonous, while La serva padrona…’ [La serva padrona was a light-hearted 1733 intermezzo by Pergolesi, designed to amuse any audience who remained in their seats during an intermission of a three act opera.]

“[Our visit] was short. This is understandable, with a whole side of the conversation having to be in writing. I told him all my admiration for his genius, all my gratitude for having allowed me to be able to express it to him… He answers me with a deep sigh and with this single word: ‘Oh! un infelice!’ [Oh, an unhappy wretch!]

“He asked me after a pause, some details on the theaters in Italy…on the famous singers…whether Mozart’s operas were frequently performed there…if I was satisfied with the Italian troupe in Vienna?…

“Then, wishing me a good performance and the success of Zelmira, he got up, escorted us to the door and said to me again: ‘Above all, do a lot of ‘del Barbiere!

“Going down that dilapidated staircase, I felt such a painful impression from my visit to this great man – thinking of this abandonment, this destitution – that I could not control my tears. ‘Ah!’ said Carpani, ‘it’s because he wants it that way. He’s misanthropic, gruff and doesn’t know how to maintain any friendships.’

“That same evening I attended a gala dinner at the Prince de Metternich’s. Still quite upset by this visit, by this lugubrious ‘un infelice’ which still remained in my ear, I could not, I admit, defend myself internally from a feeling of confusion, from seeing myself treated with so much respect, in this brilliant assembly of Vienna; which led me to say loudly and without restraint all that I thought of the conduct of the Court and the aristocracy vis-à-vis the greatest genius of the time, of whom we cared so little and who was abandoned in such distress. – I was given an answer identical to the one I received from Carpani. I asked if, however, Beethoven’s state of deafness was not worthy of the greatest pity… Was it really charitable to point out the weaknesses of which he was accused, in order to seek reasons for refusing to come to his aid? I added that it would be so easy, by means of a very minimal commitment of subscription, if all the rich families intervened, to assure him of an annuity large enough to protect him from all want during his lifetime. This proposal did not obtain the support of anyone.

“After dinner, the evening ended with a reception which brought the biggest names in Viennese society to the salons of Metternich. There was also a concert. On the program was one of the last trios published by Beethoven…always him, him everywhere, as we say of Napoleon. – The new masterpiece was religiously listened to and met with resounding success. Hearing him, in the midst of all this worldly magnificence, I said to myself with melancholy that at this moment the great man was perhaps completing, in the isolation of the small room where he lived, some work of high inspiration that was destined, like the preceding ones, to initiate into beauties of the most sublime order, that same brilliant aristocracy from which he was excluded and which, entirely devoted to its pleasures, cared little for the misery of he who procured them for their enjoyment.”

(from Edmond Michotte, Souvenirs personnels, Paris 1906, pp. 26-33. Michotte notes that Rossini’s comments are put down quasi-verbatim, but that since Wagner’s French was not the best his portion of the conversation was paraphrased and his many circumlocutions removed.) The Trio performed at Metternich’s salon was probably the Archduke Trio, op.97. That was the most recent of Beethoven’s Trios, and although it had been written some years earlier, it was not published until 1816.