The raw material for a discussion of the relationship between Beethoven and Shakespeare is well established. When Beethoven was a child in Bonn, he went to the theatre, where the resident theatre company of the elector Max Friedrich had Shakespeare in its repertory: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Die Lüstige Witwe von Windsor) are all known to have been acted there.1 Beethoven later acquired the twelve-volume translation of Shakespeare by Johann Joachim Eschenburg, published during the 1770s and an extension of an earlier attempt by Christophe Martin Wieland. Beethoven would go on to recommend the more faithful translations by August Wilhelm Schlegel, which came out from 1798, offering to send them to his friend Therese Malfatti in 1810; he appears to have done the same for the family of Fanny Gianattasio del Rio.2 He himself needed his translations. His English was not up to writing letters in that language or reading the particular version of it practised by Shakespeare, although he did set English verse to music and appears to have admired the poetry of James Thomson, whose Seasons had been set by Haydn; when required to write to London correspondents, Beethoven did so in rather uneven French.3

There was a documented impact on some of his music. In chronological order: the slow movement of the First String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 1, published in 1801 and according to its manuscript inspired by the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet; the Coriolan Overture of 1807; and then the slow movement of the so-called ‘Ghost’ Trio of 1808, the Piano Trio, Op. 70 No. 1, whose inspiration – depending on which source you read – was either Hamlet or Macbeth.

If the plays informed the music, they also coloured Beethoven’s letters and linguistic habits. He referred to the music publisher Bolderini as ‘Sir John Falstaff’, and in the canon ‘Falstafferel’ he celebrated the girth of his violinist friend, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, sending the piece to him by post with the superscription, ‘To His Grace H. v. Schuppanzigh sprung from the old English noble race of Mylord Falstaff’.4 He had treated his friend less flatteringly while posing as Hamlet. Writing to another violinist, Karl Amenda, he complained about Schuppanzigh and Baron Nicolaus von Zmeskall, describing them in terms Hamlet uses to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: ‘merely instruments on which to play when I feel inclined’. Beethoven’s best modern biographer, Lewis Lockwood, describes this as the emergence of ‘the Hamlet in him’ – ‘a young, proud, distrustful, pensive prince, laden with doubt and anxiety, struggling with a perpetual choice between death, perhaps self-destruction, and staying alive to face difficult courses of action’.5 In this Beethoven followed Goethe and other Romantic writers, for whom Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a model of the suffering, hypersensitive youth called to adulthood. Like Hamlet, he found it meet to set it down. Beethoven’s Tagebuch, or commonplace book, maintained between 1812 and 1818, includes quotations from Shakespeare, and there is anecdotal evidence of the composer’s veneration for the playwright. Baron de Trémont, a French officer, visited Beethoven during the siege of Vienna in 1809 and recalled conversations about ‘philosophy, religion, politics, and especially … Shakespeare, his idol’.6

Over and above any tracing of direct influence, it has been customary since before Beethoven’s death in 1827 to compare his achievement and cultural prestige with Shakespeare’s, a comparison that sometimes extended to Shakespearean characters.7 One of the first obituaries of the composer aligned the two artists for their ‘original sublimity, profundity, strength, and tenderness with humour, wit, and … constant, new fantastic variations’, the latter comment being one of those instances where the critical language of one art form sheds unexpected light on another. The obituarist, Dr Wilhelm Christophe Müller, extended the comparison, but in Beethoven’s favour:

Occasionally he also loses himself in excesses, but he is more organized and has more diverse character, and exhausts every idea: the most sublime majesty, the deepest melancholy, the warmest delicacy, the most capricious jesting, the most childlike simplicity, and the craziest merriment.8

At the same time, it might be acknowledged that Beethoven, like Shakespeare, is so hard to categorise that the work of understanding his output never ceases.9 Taking Müller’s cue while shedding his provocative distinctions, Beethoven’s latest biographer, Jan Swafford, almost faints with superlatives, his prose cracking into headlines under the strain:

These two creators shared power of utterance, a wisdom and wit, a prodigal invention and reinvention, an incomparable depth and breadth of creative journey, and a joining of tragedy and comedy, the old and the new, strangeness and rightness. The sense of timelessness that comes from an eternal human essence shining through the garb of period and idiom and language itself. The transcendence of self in art.10

That last sentence has an appealing ambiguity. Swafford means that both Beethoven and Shakespeare transcend self through art: ‘We hardly know who Shakespeare was’, he adds, while ‘much of what we know about Beethoven, we best forget when we come to his art’, since it is hard to reconcile the shabbily dressed, cantankerous and ear-trumpeted sociopath with the Ode to Joy.11 But the phrasing – ‘transcendence of self in art’ – irresistibly suggests the opposite: a celebration of self, a cultish hero worship whose foundation is a silencing of history via the alleged ‘eternal human essence’. Richard Taruskin associates the cult of Beethoven with a range of cultural practices that emerged in the early nineteenth century: the ‘sacralizing’ of art into a quasi-religious experience; the new primacy of the written musical score; the emergence of the European conservatoire as a force for compounding the authority of the past and its representative heroes; and the situating of audiences as what Taruskin calls ‘enchanted beholders of the supernatural’, required to listen in silent awe.12 Necessarily broad-brush, such history is precise enough to describe parallel and nearly contemporary developments at least in the editing and critique of Shakespeare.

Finally, on the subject of what is well known already about this subject, it is a refinement of cultist appreciation that produces further material for a comparison of Beethoven and Shakespeare, this time very much around the speculative margins of the subject. Less explicit quotations have prompted scholars to hypothesise relationships between the piano sonatas or string quartets and Shakespeare’s final romances in particular, with the biographical, thematic and formal features of the Opp. 130–132 quartets yoked tenuously to Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.13 Such, it may be argued, is the result of belief in the idea of the ‘late phase’, of works written by great souls in the shadow of death: an idea robustly questioned by Shakespeareans and musicologists alike.14 Granted, Beethoven himself is said to have identified the source of his Tempest Sonata (Op. 30 No. 2) in Shakespeare’s play, but then the sonata is late only in that it comes at the end of his early period.

* * *

The enthusiasm of the biographers and critics who have linked Beethoven to Shakespeare is more than qualified – in fact, dampened to extinction, in some cases – by the musical analysts who have sought to explain the First String Quartet, the Coriolan Overture, and the ‘Ghost’ Trio. Sketches for the slow movement of the First String Quartet, Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato, include annotations in French: ‘il prend le tombeau’, then ‘désespoir’, ‘il se tue’ and ‘les derniers soupirs’. Karl Amenda recalled telling Beethoven that the movement made him think about the separation of lovers, to which the composer replied, ‘I was thinking of the burial vault scene in Romeo and Juliet’. Lockwood proposes that the main themes in D minor and F major represent ‘the two conflicting principles of Romeo’s despair and Juliet’s beauty’, while Angus Watson speculates on the underlying creative process:

It is possible that Salieri, whose primary interest was opera, suggested the use of references to events in the tomb scene as a practical guide to constructing an emotional narrative in a movement[.]15

Lockwood, by contrast, merely dissociates the result from the process, as though sharing Beethoven’s own dislike of identifying his music with a pre-existing narrative:

If the burial vault scene from the play was a generating idea for the movement the important point is that Beethoven, not wanting to be literal, destroyed all traces of any such program in the finished work. What evidence he left exists only by chance in the sketches, which he never expected the world to know. Essential in the movement is the expressive conflict of these two basic musical ideas.

Such conflict, Lockwood shows, sets a pattern for Beethoven’s later works. In this reading, Shakespeare is less a hero than a ghost, and one that has to be exorcised during the compositional process: a programmatic interference tuned out by publication as much as purity of musical expression.16

Lockwood’s approach to the 1807 Coriolan Overture looks different at first, and not only because he calls it the Coriolanus Overture. ‘Controversy has raged for years over [its] true literary background’, he notes, citing E. T. A. Hoffman and Richard Wagner as advocates of a Shakespearean source on the grounds that they believed ‘a musical star of this magnitude must have a literary analogue worthy of its composer’.17 This was part of what later critics referred to as the nineteenth century’s obsession with canon formation, which in this case somewhat marginalises Beethoven’s evidently far greater interest in Goethe and Schiller. Lockwood then points to a 1938 essay by Paul Mies that sought to reconnect the piece with Coriolan, an 1804 play by Beethoven’s friend, Heinrich Joseph von Collin. But Mies’s argument is not entirely persuasive. He shows that Collin leaves politics in the background and focuses instead on the hero’s responses to unfolding events, a decision Beethoven might easily have made for himself faced with what is, after all, among the more compressed and classical of Shakespeare’s tragedies. And then there is Plutarch, Shakespeare’s source, whom we know Beethoven studied because he refers to the Lives in his letters and says he learned stoicism from them. If there is a Shakespearean source its outcome is, as with Romeo and Juliet, an interplay of musical themes, in this case of Beethoven’s favourite C minor, this time with E flat major.18 Here, however, the programmatic origin is never exorcised; if anything, it is enriched as Lockwood argues that the two musical elements ‘reflect more than the dramatic figures of Coriolanus on one side and [his mother] Volumnia on the other; both elements are within Coriolanus himself’.19 That goes some way to arguing that the real protagonist is the composer himself, a heroic self transcending its source material.

Lawrence Kramer sees in such an alignment of sensibility cause to reclaim the overture for Shakespeare; Beethoven, he argues, crafts a ‘subject-position’ more akin to Coriolanus than Coriolan.20 Reviewing and in part rehabilitating Hoffman and Wagner, Kramer traces a binary opposition in the hero between masculine and feminine instincts, but finds that it unravels during the course of the overture. That sounds sceptically Shakespearean until Kramer supplies a gloss. The unravelling is ‘not, it must be said, in a deconstructive spirit that affirms the mobility of its terms, but in the spirit of tragic necessity’.21 If ever there was a playwright who relished the mobility of terms when it came to gender, it was Shakespeare, who seems even more remote from Beethoven in Kramer’s penultimate sentence. Claiming that Beethoven was ‘probably the first to interpret his overture as Shakespearean’, Kramer credits the composer with initiating a sub-tradition ‘exemplary in its combination of aesthetic canon formation with the strict enforcement of sexual difference and the idealization of charismatic personality’.22 Whatever Shakespeare’s Coriolanus does, that isn’t it.

The end of the Coriolan Overture might be thought to provide a solution to the Shakespeare versus Collin conundrum. Lockwood describes the closing bars as ‘quiet, almost unarticulated last measures’, finding a ‘parallel case of thematic liquidation’ at the end of the second-movement funeral march of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony. That would be consistent with Collin’s ending, in which the hero commits the suicide of a noble Roman, falling on his sword before gently expiring. Shakespeare does something very different, taking his cue from Plutarch and intensifying its violence. He has Coriolanus inviting his own dismemberment at the hands of the Volscians: ‘Cut me to pieces’, he taunts, ‘stain all your edges on me’. They oblige, and he dies to the words, ‘Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him’. That is just what happens, moreover, in the Schlegel translation. However, as far as the genesis of the overture is concerned, things are not quite so final. The autograph score in the Beethoven archive shows the composer originally considered a highly dramatic finale, shot through with cross-strokes on the first violins, like swords penetrating flesh. In the event, he opted for the more measured collapse of the final version, consistent with the decorum of classical rather than Shakespearean tragedy. Discarding Schlegel, Beethoven chose Collin. So, while Lockwood is happy to associate the play of C minor and E flat major both with the contrast between hero and mother and the conflict within Coriolanus himself, the literary hero Shakespeare again turns into a ghost left behind on a manuscript.

Uncertainty also characterises discussion of the ‘Ghost’ Trio, in whose slow movement Jan Swafford detects an ‘obsessive concentration on one motif, its strange whisperings and flutterings, its spare and bizarre textures’.23 The music alone seems enough to earn the trio its nickname of the ‘Ghost’, those strange key shifts and extremes of register in the Largo setting a new benchmark for what Swafford calls ‘the weird and uncanny’ by a composer not generally thought susceptible to the more sensational excesses of German Romanticism, in spite of E. T. A. Hoffman’s famous statement that Beethoven’s music ‘evokes terror, fright, horror and pain’.24 Swafford does not specify the real occasion of the nickname; another modern biographer, Lewis Lockwood, does.25 In 1842 Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny wrote that the movement reminded him of the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Unknown to Czerny, however, a draft of the Op. 70 No. 1 Largo resembles sketches Beethoven had made in the sinister key of D minor for an opera based on Macbeth. It is believed those sketches were intended for an opening chorus of witches, but the motif would doubtless also have whispered and fluttered its way through dinner with the ghost of Banquo. In other words, the music may be ghostly, but the question of which ghost from which play, or whether a ghost was meant at all rather than a witch, leads to a dead end of speculation.

These three musical examples therefore present common problems. We can’t even be sure which plays inspired what music, or even whether it really matters. We may want to believe with Hoffman and Wagner that one genius must have consorted with another across the centuries, perhaps doing battle for supremacy as envisaged by Harold Bloom’s seminal work of literary criticism, The Anxiety of Influence, which represented the history of literature as a Freudian battle with creative forefathers.26 Equally true is that one destiny of compositional genius is to turn verbal lead into musical gold, as Purcell did with Nahum Tate’s libretto for Dido and Aeneas or Schubert with Wilhelm Müller’s bourgeois poetry. The analytic or formalist tradition of Beethoven scholarship has the composer recognising Shakespeare only to reduce him to scribal marginalia: an act, perhaps, of monumental defiance which invites us to revise our categories of what happens in the process of what is commonly called creative appropriation. In the case of Beethoven and Shakespeare, disappropriation may be the more likely term.

Yet however much critics may insist on detaching the music from the ‘programme’, the musical notes on the printed page from the literary words beyond it, there are serious questions about the relationship between Beethoven and Shakespeare which have barely been asked. Attached professionally to the idea that the study of music ultimately comes down to the play of harmony, melody and key signatures – to the idea, that is, of a music transcendent over time and history as well as the composing self – formalist critics have fallen into the trap of assuming that Beethoven must have engaged with a Shakespeare similarly transcendent, rather than the one shaped for readers and audiences by the lenses of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century translation, theatre practice and philosophical critique. We might, for example, find in Beethoven’s Shakespearean editing not the negation of historical context but its replication. The same is potentially true of his engagements with the spectral. In other words, whether or not it is right to remember Romeo and Juliet when we hear the First String Quartet, it is worth asking how the versions of Shakespeare available to Beethoven influenced his use of Shakespearean material.

* * *

Ghosts, Shakespearean and otherwise, were a subject of heated debate in Germany as Beethoven grew into adulthood. An obvious challenge to Enlightenment thinking, the concept defied scientific method and forced the most rigorous minds to ponder how little they understood about themselves, never mind the world at large. Four years before Beethoven was born, Immanuel Kant stated that while he had often heard and spoken the word ‘ghost’, he had never stopped to ask himself what it actually meant.27 We might recall the anecdote about society lady Madame du Deffand who, asked if she believed in ghosts, replied, ‘No, but I am afraid of them.’28 If ghosts had been held to haunt the world because of crimes or crises left unresolved in their former lives, belief in them came in itself to seem ghostly, the residue of past superstitions or mental habits that had stubbornly survived the onward march of science and reason. And if a plausible scientific explanation of ghosts was that the people who witnessed them had undergone some trauma, that meant the human mind was less rational, less perfectible, than many Enlightenment thinkers preferred to believe. Making ghosts less supernatural did not make them less worrying.

In a study of ghosts in eighteenth-century German literature that deserves greater attention, Rory Bradley traces a progressive scepticism as to their existence and an accompanying anxiety about their place in fictional texts.29 Where nature was the object of an avowed neoclassicism, the supernatural was a problematic topic. Johann Christophe Gottsched’s Critique of Poetry of 1730 declared that ghosts were henceforth not a proper subject for literature.30 A wave of stories followed that featured false ghosts, impostors in a literary world devoted to the forensic discovery of psychological truth. Bradley identifies the reverse swing in the wave of spooky ballads – Gespensterballaden – that arose in the 1770s and 1780s during the Sturm und Drang movement. This was part of a retreat into German tradition; often the ballads reflected, purported to reflect, or purported actually to be old folk tales. That deceit was pursued by Karl August Musäus in his 1787 tale The Escape, often identified as the first ghost story in German, and later plundered by Matthew Lewis for his bodice-ripping novel of clerical depravity, The Monk. Both revolutionary in its anti-establishment tendency and alive with the nervous horror of revolution, this newly spectral literature admitted the existence of ghosts, but as fictions.

For English publishers, the phrase ‘in the German fashion’ became a convenient cover for all manner of shocking material for which they did not have to claim responsibility. Among German thinkers, Bradley notes a contrary trend: a discomfort with the idea that ghosts could be treated with such frivolity and used so blatantly to work upon readers’ emotions. Philosophy had been reduced to pulp fiction. But the experience of seeing ghosts became analogous to that of reading. To decipher text was to overcome an immediate affective response in order to discern hidden connections between discrete phenomena; to understand ghostliness was to conquer fear and dread in the quest to establish root causes in psychology and folklore. Such was the conclusion of Karl Philipp Moritz’s unfinished Fragmente aus dem Tagebuch eines Geistersehers of 1782. If we can deal with the initial shock and yet not forget it, seeing a ghost is an aesthetic experience. Relating that insight to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen, Bradley makes the case for a rehabilitation of ghost stories as naturalistic in the minds of their readers: in his words, a reassertion of the ‘edifying cognitive value of the ghost story’.

The corollary is to release literary depictions of ghosts from their associations with the past and instead see them as signposts to the future. Paradoxically, Bradley notes, the ghost ‘plays a central role in the [German] Enlightenment’ not as a reminder of less rational times but as ‘a problem to be solved, a challenge to be met with courage, a past to be reckoned with, a suspenseful occurrence demanding resolution’. The effect is to create ‘the possibility of an as-yet-unimagined future, imbuing the present with a potentiality that propels it forward’.31 There is a deliberate echo of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, which in 1994 urged its readers to ‘live with ghosts’ at a time when the end of history was universally – and now, it seems, somewhat prematurely – prophesied. What we dismiss as ghosts may, after all, turn out to be the future. As Hamlet says to Horatio after talking to a ghost, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in his philosophy. It is such a phenomenon, I will suggest at the end of this essay, that informs the ghostliness of Beethoven’s Piano Trio, Op. 70 No. 1.

* * *

What might the standing of Shakespeare in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany tell us about Beethoven’s response to him? As in England, Shakespeare was well understood in the 1740s and 1750s as a poet of nature, and specifically of human nature. Johann Elias Schlegel went so far as to describe two fundamental types of tragic drama: the Aristotelian, with its primacy of plot, and the Shakespearean, in which characters are the focus. This was partly a reaction to the writings of Gottsched who had, like Voltaire, been alarmed by the eclectic tone, loose construction, and absence of clear moral purpose in Shakespeare’s plays. One of the more classical among them, Julius Caesar, caused Gottsched particular grief.32

Taking Schlegel’s cue, Gotthold Lessing dispensed entirely with the neoclassical tradition, proclaiming Shakespeare superior to Corneille as a dramatist who could connect with the passions of ordinary mortals. He did so on a perilously limited foundation – his only references are to Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III – and there is a suspicious coincidence between his disavowal of French classical models and Frederick the Great’s reversal of alliances in 1756. But his intervention was the prompt for a new translation of twenty-two plays by Christophe Martin Wieland. Completed in 1766, Wieland’s work is credited with bringing Shakespeare into educated households across Germany, even though he stole his editorial apparatus from English editions and in his own commentary betrayed a surprisingly dismissive, Voltairean attitude towards the plays and their protagonists (Hamlet he described as a ‘humorist’, as though conceived by P. G. Wodehouse).

It was when German critics began to consider the impact of Shakespeare in performance that his value seemed less equivocal. Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg argued that the ‘character-drama’ of Shakespeare did not confront its audience with ethical propositions but drew them into an illusion of reality that enriched their imaginations and moral being. The nature and significance of that illusion was debated by Herder and Goethe, but it was the cornerstone of their shared feeling that, whatever it was, it defined Shakespeare’s ascendancy. German drama tried to follow suit, with characters and scenes patently borrowed from Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet in particular. From the 1770s onwards, Pascal notes, Shakespeare was ‘produced all over Germany’ in more or less free adaptations and translations that might spare Hamlet the poisoned foil or jog Juliet into wakefulness just in time.33 Sometimes they fuelled the ambitions of a new generation of actor-managers; others, such as Konrad Eckhof and August Iffland, resisted, fearing that the intensity and scale of Shakespearean drama would spoil their actors for plays about middle-class life (an ironic reversal of the common fear expressed today by many actor educators and directors that soap opera spoils actors for Shakespeare).

In his Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre of 1796, Goethe provided a counterbalancing narrative, treating the characters of Hamlet almost as though they had emerged from a soap opera. They possessed the rich past lives whose reality L. C. Knights famously doubted when he asked the knowingly futile question, ‘How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?’34 Yet in Goethe’s own Shakespearean productions at Weimar, and in the translations by Schiller which he sponsored, naturalism of character often went with a self-conscious classicism designed to dampen the excesses of Sturm und Drang drama and create a new, hybrid form. The most popular German Macbeth of Beethoven’s maturity was Schiller’s, first produced at Weimar in 1800 and revived in 1804, 1806, 1808, and 1810. Shakespeare’s witches turned into something like the choruses of Aeschylus and Sophocles; casting the play, Goethe opted for attractive young women rather than bearded hags, so following (whether knowingly or not) the precedent set by Shakespeare’s main source, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland. Goethe’s theatrical language became more symbolic and his adaptations more radical. In 1812 he even planned a Hamlet that would end with Claudius taking Polonius’s place behind the arras and promptly suffering his fate.

Behind those stage adaptations lay a conviction that Shakespeare was more a novelist than a playwright. His psychological insights were unparalleled, yet his command of theatrical structure was erratic when set against the ancients or the masters of seventeenth-century France. But it all depends on what is meant by structure, of course. If Beethoven was as familiar with A. W. Schlegel’s writings on Shakespeare as he was with his translations, he would have recognised the case for a different kind of formal consistency than the one favoured by Aristotle. Schlegel argues that the apparently random details and changes of register typical of a play such as Romeo and Juliet serve both thematic patterns and give definition to its characters. Earlier critics could not abide Mercutio or the Nurse; in Schlegel’s view they give colour to the fugitive, fantastic nature of the doomed protagonists. That meant, in turn, that Shakespeare should be understood as a conscious artist whose texts should be treated with respect rather than botched up with premature or over-conciliatory conclusions.

In his Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature of 1809, Schlegel turned his attention to Shakespeare’s historical context, and found in it ample justification for that most perplexing feature of the plays, the ghost. Belief in such fantastic entities was another aspect of Shakespeare’s extraordinary psychological insight. By unfolding the mental processes of people two hundred years before, Shakespeare told us something about the terrors modern literature sought to inflict on its readers. Historicism became presentism; analysing the minds of human beings circa 1600, Shakespeare showed how we are all palimpsests of accumulated ideas. To acknowledge ghosts is not to be bound by discredited superstition, but to know what it is to be human. Part of the self, they do not transcend it.

* * *

On this basis there is a case for arguing that, while Beethoven knew Shakespeare partly via Schlegel’s translations, he was less drawn to Schlegel’s ideas about Shakespeare. In the Coriolan Overture he excised the violence of the hero’s end, preferring instead a stoically classical conclusion. In the First String Quartet he tuned out all the inessentials to focus on the primary contrast and ultimate union of the two lovers. But what of the ‘Ghost’ Trio? What did he apprehend in those strange whisperings and flutterings? Dare we ask for what drama that supernatural music was originally intended? We have the evidence that Beethoven at least thought about an opera based on Macbeth, to a libretto by Collin. Heinrich Anschütz recalled talking to Beethoven about the play in 1822, with the composer growing animated by the idea of a sequence of set pieces including ‘the witches, the murder scene, the ghostly meal, the apparition of cauldrons, the nightwalking scene, Macbeth’s death rage’.35 The theatrical and musical opportunities might seem obvious, but flirtation with a tyrant and serial killer is surprising if we consider Beethoven’s other engagements with heroic figures: Egmont, defier of Spanish tyranny; Coriolanus, the lone hero against the uncomprehending masses and scheming political classes; Napoleon, even, at least until the point when he declared himself emperor and so lost the dedication of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony.36 For Beethoven, heroism meant the radical libertarianism of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, which Lockwood notes he had intended to set more than twenty years before the Ninth Symphony was first heard. In his landmark study of the composer, Scott Burnham moves conceptually from ‘Beethoven’s Hero’, an anti-establishment force who in a musical sense moves forever forward, overcoming the interruptions and obstacles that stand in his way, to ‘Beethoven Hero’, heroic because of his unparalleled ability to use fierce musical logic to achieve closure.37

It is worth asking why, in such a context, Beethoven would have been drawn to Macbeth. Surely not for the sake of the kind of supernatural weirdness he normally rejected? The play had two attractions that went deeper than political conviction or theatricality. The first was Beethoven’s profound belief in his own worth when set against worldly authority. In a famous letter to Bettina von Arnim on 15 August 1812, he recalled walking with Goethe towards Archduke Rudolph:

I pressed down my hat more firmly on my head, buttoned up my greatcoat, and crossing my arms behind me, I made my way through the thickest portion of the crowd. Princes and courtiers formed a lane for me; Archduke Rudolph took off his hat, and the Empress bowed to me first. These great ones of the earth know me. To my infinite amusement, I saw the procession defile past Goethe, who stood aside with his hat off, bowing profoundly. I afterwards took him sharply to task for this[.]38

He was as capable of the most cringing compliments as any courtier; in 1823 he wrote to Rudolph, ‘To flourish under the shade of a stately verdant fruit tree is refreshing to anyone capable of elevated thought and feeling, and thus it is with me under the aegis of Y. R. H.’ Still, an implicit sympathy with Macbeth’s vaulting ambition runs through his correspondence. Lockwood vividly describes his ‘temperamental resistance to servitude’.39 This was a symptom of the quality that had drawn him to Napoleon. As Eric Hobsbawm put it,

Napoleon was the little corporal who rose to rule a continent by sheer personal talent … Every young intellectual who devoured books … wrote bad poems and novels, and adored Rousseau could henceforth see the sky as his limit, laurels surrounding his monogram.40

Perhaps the attraction of Macbeth was more darkly personal. It is not just a tale of ambition and tyranny but of progressive alienation, of morbid introspection, of a retreat into an inner world no one else can share. Not for Macbeth the romantic suffering that is Hamlet’s; not for Beethoven the ‘charismatic personality’ that preoccupies Lawrence Kramer. Macbeth offered the composer a model of what it meant to be so profoundly alone as to be alienated from oneself. ‘To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself’, he reflects after the murder of Duncan. ‘Why do you keep alone’, Lady Macbeth demands in Act III, ‘Of sorriest fancies your companions keeping?’ ‘Till then’, he concludes, ‘we will bide the time alone.’ By Act V, he mourns ‘the troops of friends [he] must not look to have’. From Heiligenstadt on 6 October 1802, Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann,

Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like an exile. In company I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions, from dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed.41

The reason, of course, was his increasing deafness, a condition for which two years before, in a letter to his friend Wegeler, he had devised a very pertinent metaphor. This is one of the very few occasions when Beethoven specifically writes of a ghost:

You could scarcely believe what a sad and dreary life mine has been for the last two years; my defective hearing everywhere pursuing me like a spectre, making me fly from everyone, and appear a misanthrope[.]42

He might have agreed with the horror novelist Peter Straub, who argued that the ghastly truth of every ghost story is the assertion that you, the haunted, are the ghost that haunts you.43

It is often said of Beethoven that the extraordinary power of his music is like that of Shakespeare’s plays, in putting the listener in the shoes of the hero’s suffering and redemption. If that is so, we might relate that quality to the unfolding of Shakespeare in German criticism as an incomparable master of psychological imitation and illusion. That would present an alternative to the view that Beethoven’s readings of Shakespeare were essentially neoclassical, filtering out the noise and violence of the plays in favour of a balanced interplay of themes. Beethoven cannot, therefore, merely be compared to Shakespeare, as Müller and Swafford do, but must be understood as having comprehended in his use of the plays contradictory strands in Shakespeare’s German critical history. He perhaps arrived early at the moment identified by Pascal as happening in 1815: the point at which Shakespeare ceased to be a figure of controversy, bandied between rival critical schools, and was accepted as both a classic and a point of departure rather than imitation. If Beethoven left Shakespearean ghosts behind on the manuscript, he was only doing what other German artists increasingly felt able to do.

Yet the ghost in the trio still haunts us, asking its persistent question. If Beethoven’s suffering was in being haunted less by another great artist than by his own condition, what sense can we make of his music? Swafford’s subtitle, Anguish and Triumph, advertises the obvious. As Lockwood observes, ‘Crisis’ and ‘triumph over adversity’ are the watchwords most often used to describe Beethoven’s life and development in the years between 1798 and 1802;44 the years, that is, when he knew he was going deaf. Lockwood gives due weight to a paradox: that this was also the period when Beethoven’s ‘compositional output expanded and gained momentum’. His growing isolation was, perhaps, an advantage: in a letter to Amenda written in 1801 he even claimed his piano-playing had improved.45 Lockwood speculates that deafness gave a socially awkward, irascible man the perfect excuse to spend time with his own music; withdrawing for the same reasons from the spoken word of the theatre, his engagement with Shakespeare likewise became a matter of private communion with the written word. In the same letter to Amenda, Beethoven did after all admit that ‘when I am playing and composing my affliction hampers me the least; it affects me most when I am in company’.

Although Lockwood offers a sophisticated counterbalance to the routine tale of triumph over adversity, his emphasis on the creative focus and inner intensity Beethoven gained from isolation still suggests that deafness was something the composer merely sought to defy. The ‘Ghost’ Trio, I suggest, asks to be heard otherwise, and a clue comes from one of its most distinguished interpreters. Eugene Istomin, pianist on the magisterial 1971 recording with Leonard Rose and Isaac Stern, remarked that ‘the other instruments are his friends, his relatives, his beloveds, but the piano is Beethoven himself’. That is literally true in the sense that Beethoven first played the piece with his friends Schuppanzigh and Joseph Linke. But listen again. That muted opening on the cello, as though heard far away, a rumble in which higher frequencies lie smothered:, then answered gently but forcefully under the fingers of the composer as the half-heard sound world is coaxed into the foreground before, ten or eleven minutes on, fading back into a muted distance. Isn’t this what Beethoven himself meant when he wrote during the composition of the Third ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet (Op. 59 No. 3) in 1806, ‘Even as you tumble into the whirlpool of society … Let your deafness no longer be a secret – even in art’?46

Maynard Solomon picks up on the statement, but renders its significance as psychological rather than artistic: this was the moment when Beethoven came ‘to terms with his deafness’.47 We must go further, into the textures of the music: the episodes in the late piano sonatas where the right hand plays in the highest octave, beyond what he could have heard, as though sound were being remade by haptic technology in the fingertips. What if there is no transcendence, merely a living in the body, imperfect as it is? It is a conclusion writers about Beethoven have been reluctant to embrace. We had, as Swafford argues, ‘best forget’ the man if we want to hear his music. But to end somewhere near where we began, in the ‘Ghost’ Trio we hear not so much a heroic struggle against deafness as the most brilliantly creative quotation of disability: a sound like a ghost, the ghost of a sound not quite caught, not fully present but driving on through an unfurling richness of expression, a future made from the relics of the past, of more things than are dreamed of in our philosophy.


See Thayer’s Life of Beethoven, rev. and ed. Elliott Forbes (Princeton, NJ 1970) pp. 29, 31.
As recorded in the diary of Fanny Giannatasio del Rio (1816) and listed in Klaus Martin Kopitz and Rainer Cadenbach (eds.), Beethoven aus der Sicht seiner Zeitgnossen (Munich 2009) p. 301.
See Glenn Stanley, ‘Beethoven at Work: Musical Activist and Thinker’, in id. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven (Cambridge 2000) p. 25. According to Sieghard Brandenburg, even Beethoven’s written German was often incorrect (cited in Stanley, p. 25). Beethoven’s admiration for Thomson was recorded in 1825 by Sarah Burney Payne, who had met the composer at Baden. See Kopitz and Cadenbach (eds.), Beethoven aus der Sicht seiner Zeitgnossen, p. 167.
The piece is available in Beethoven’s Letters, ed. A. C. Kalischer, trans. J. S. Shedlock, 2 vols. (London 1909) ii. 248. The letter in question is dated 26 Apr. 1823. Beethoven’s enthusiasm for Sir John may have been encouraged by his composition teacher, Antonio Salieri, who wrote a Falstaff opera.
Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life (New York 2003) p. 114. Lockwood quotes from Beethoven, Briefwechsel: Gesamtausgabe, ed. Sieghard Brandenburg, 7 vols. (Munich 1996–8). On Beethoven’s library, see Letters to Beethoven and Other Correspondence, trans. and ed. Theodore Albrecht, vol. iii: 1824–8 (New York 1996). Beethoven owned Johann Joachim Eschenburg’s edition of Shakespeare’s Schauspiele: see Letters to Beethoven, ed. Albrecht, p. 236, and, for the catalogue of the book sale on 5 Nov. 1827, ibid., p. 232.
Cited in Thayer’s Life, p. 466.
In a conversation with Thayer, Julius Benedict recalled meeting Beethoven in 1823 and thought he resembled King Lear. See Kopitz and Cadenbach (eds.), Beethoven aus der Sicht seiner Zeitgnossen, p. 54.
Wilhelm Christophe Müller, obituary of Beethoven in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (May 1827), cited in Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (London 2014) p. 934. There are similar testimonies by Friedrich Wähner, who in 1818 observed that ‘[Beethoven] is not always correct, but one can see that he could be when he wanted. He is not to be blamed for violating the rules any more than Shakespeare.’ Cited in Kopitz and Cadenbach (eds.), Beethoven aus der Sicht seiner Zeitgnossen, p. 1047.
Karl Johann Braun von Braunthal, writing in 1840, as recorded in Kopitz and Cadenbach (eds.), Beethoven aus der Sicht seiner Zeitgnossen, p. 92.
Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, p. 936.
Richard Taruskin, Music in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford History of Western Music 2 (Oxford 2010) pp. 648–51.
See e.g. Victor Standing, ‘Shakespeare and Beethoven’, The Musical Times, 105/1456 (June 1964) p. 439.
Recent critiques of the ‘late’ were partly prompted by Edward Said’s Late Style (London 2007). For counter-arguments, see Gordon McMullan, Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing (Cambridge 2007), and Christopher Dingle, Messiaen’s Final Works (Aldershot 2013).
Angus Watson, Beethoven’s Chamber Music in Context (Woodbridge 2010) p. 86.
A view strongly expressed by Barry Cooper, Beethoven and the Creative Process (Oxford 1990) pp. 42–3. Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 225, examines Beethoven dislike of having his own music described as programmatic with particular reference to the Sixth Symphony.
Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 263.
For further thoughts on the significance of this key, see Michael C. Tusa, ‘Beethoven’s “C-Minor Mood”: Some Thoughts on the Structural Implications of Key Choice’, in Beethoven Forum, vol. ii (Lincoln, Nebr. 1993) pp. 1–28
Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 265.
Lawrence Kramer, ‘The Strange Case of Beethoven’s “Coriolan”: Romantic Aesthetics, Modern Subjectivity, and the Cult of Shakespeare’, The Musical Quarterly, 79/2 (Summer 1995) pp. 256–80.
Ibid., p. 274.
Ibid., pp. 274–5.
Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, p. 474.
Cited in Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 220.
Ibid., p. 306.
Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford 1973). Some of this excitement leaks into Watson’s study of the chamber music, where Shakespearean references crowd many descriptions of musical effects.
Immanuel Kant, Träume eines Geistersehers erläutert durch Träume der Metaphysik (1766).
Charles G. Harper, Haunted Houses: Tales of the Supernatural with Some Account of Hereditary Causes and Family Legends, 3rd edn. (1907; repr. London 1927) p. v.
Rory Bradley, ‘The Enlightening Supernatural: Ghost Stories in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany’, Ph.D. thesis, University of North Carolina, 2016.
Lockwood Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 32, notes that Gottsched was acquainted with Beethoven’s teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, but speculates that it was Neefe who introduced his pupil to the literature of Sturm und Drang, as he did to the rather different art of J. S. Bach.
A point explored in John Michael Cooper’s Mendelssohn, Goethe and the Walpurgis Night (Rochester 2007). Cooper shows how both Mendelssohn and Goethe embraced the traditional witches’ celebration as an engine of social change.
See R. Pascal, Shakespeare in Germany, 1740–1815 (Cambridge 1937) p. 3.
Ibid., p. 14.
L. C. Knights, How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? An Essay in the Practice and Theory of Shakespeare Criticism (Cambridge 1933).
In Kopitz and Cadenbach (eds.), Beethoven aus der Sicht seiner Zeitgnossen, p. 14.
Edward Bauernfeld recalled discussing with Beethoven a possible opera about Brutus, a bust of whom remains in the Beethovenhaus in Bonn. See Kopitz and Cadenbach (eds.), Beethoven aus der Sicht seiner Zeitgnossen, pp. 47–8. Shakespeare’s Brutus, with his own sleepless visions, is a precursor of his Macbeth.
Scott Burnham, Beethoven Hero (Princeton, NJ 1995).
Beethoven's Letters, ed. A. C. Kalischer, trans. J. S. Shedlock, Vol. I, pp. 263–4.
Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 49.
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1799–1848 (New York 1962) p. 99.
Beethoven's Letters, Vol. I, p. 60.
Beethoven's Letters, Vol. I, p. 35. 16 Nov. 1800.
Peter Straub, Ghost Story (New York 1979).
Lockwood Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 111.
Cited ibid., p. 114.
Beethoven, ‘Sketchbook for the Razumovsky Quartets’, cited in Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life, p. 111. There is a counterpart in the poet David Wright’s reflections on his own condition: ‘I am now, after forty years of what we will term silence, so accommodated to it … that were the faculty of hearing restored to me tomorrow it would appear as an affliction rather than a benefit. I do not mean I find deafness desirable but that in the course of time the disability has been assimilated to the extent that it is now an integral condition of existence, like the use of a hand. By the same token the restoration of my hearing, or the loss of my deafness, whichever is the right way of putting it, would be like having that hand cut off.’ From David Wright, Deafness: A Personal Account, in Brian Grant (ed.), The Quiet Ear: Deafness in Literature (London 1987) p. 46.
Maynard Solomon, Beethoven (London 1977) p. 125.
This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (