Talking History on

On Sunday 27 September 2020,

from 7-8pm,

 there was a live radio  discussion,

led by Patrick Geoghegan,

about Ludwig van Beethoven,

on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of his birth in 1770.

The programme was broadcast from Dublin,

and the panel comprised

Michael Lee, Wolfgang Marx, Simon Taylor and George Fleeton.

 The Talking History series is produced for Newstalk FM106-108 by Susan Cahill.


Listen here -


Beethoven’s sestercentennial

A sestercentennial, or quarter-millennial, is a 250th anniversary, and among the events in Ireland this year to mark Beethoven’s birth in 1770 were Lyric Opera’s fully-staged production of his only completed opera Fidelio (1814) in Dublin’s National Concert Hall on February 22 and 23, and Newstalk 106-108FM’s live discussion, in its Talking History series, of Beethoven’s  life and music, on September 27.

The Fidelio production is fully discussed  in these pages, see menu, left; as for Newstalk’s radio discussion, for those of you listening to it on the link above, I have added these notes on my own contribution to the programme.


The human side of the historical Beethoven is exceptionally well illustrated by the two letters he seems never to have posted and which were found in a secret drawer in his writing desk after his death in 1827.

These two documents fundamentally reshape our perception of the kind of man he was, i.e. his personality, his eccentricities, the rumours and scandals that swirled around him, and  all that is mitigated by the insights which these letters give into how he had suffered from deafness, from unrequited love and from having no wife or children.

The first document, the Heiligenstadt Testament was a long, stream of consciousness  letter written to his two surviving, younger  brothers Carl and Johann in 1802, explaining the gradual deterioration of his hearing, his grief at his condition and why he might seem to others “malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic.”

It reads too  like a last will and testament, even if he was only about 32, but it is the single most important piece of writing he ever produced that was not in the form  of musical notation, and considerably more neatly written than most of his musical manuscripts, and yet he never told anybody about it

The second document, also locked away in his desk, is  a 10-page love letter, written in pencil in 1812 to an unnamed woman, who may have returned Beethoven’s love, but is referred to only as the Immortal Beloved and addressed in the first line,  as “My angel, my all, my very self.”

But there is no extant evidence to confirm or even to suggest who the Immortal Beloved was.  So, it is most likely that she was a woman as yet unknown to history.

Apropos, Jessica Duchen’s novel “Immortal – who was Beethoven’s beloved?” will be published on 29 October 2020.

Classical music’s most difficult and complex character, as he became increasingly and incurably deaf over the final 30 years of his life, was changing music for ever.

He claimed to hear music [in his deaf world] that no one else could hear, and so he set out to write  it down for us.

If, by the act and the effort of composing, he is addressing full-on his deaf affliction, then that makes his music  very special, very effective, indeed unique: the 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 16 string quartets, 35 piano sonatas – all were a struggle as Beethoven had to tear  the music out of himself on his journey from darkness into light, and all of that struggle is there in his music.

His was a tortured soul, a lonely, unsettled, intolerant, overbearing, high-handed, irritable man, and his supreme, sublime innovations in music seldom brought him release or comfort, acknowledgement or applause in his own lifetime.

Put simply, Beethoven’s music is his autobiography, and the piano is his voice.