Beethoven’s Letters 1790-1826, Volumes I & II

My favorite parts of this collection of Beethoven’s letters are those addressed to his friend, Nikolaus Zmeskall, a cellist, and an official of the Hungarian Chancellory.

Beethoven wrote his last letter to Nikolaus just over a month before he died, and I think that for me reading it has helped to humanize a man I’ve always considered god-like. In this letter he addresses his illness, that it had officially ended his time as a composer, and the sadness which accompanied. However, in the many letters contained in these two volumes, Beethoven’s sense of humor is obvious, and perhaps that was what kept him seemingly in positive spirits until the end.

My very dear friend! A thousand thanks for your sympathy. I do not despair. But what is most painful to me is the complete cessation of my activities. Yet there is no evil which has not something good in it as well. May Heaven grant you too an alleviation of your painful condition. Perhaps we shall both be restored to health and then we shall meet and see one another again as friendly neighbours.

– Heartfelt greetings from your old friend who sympathises with you,


Zmeskall was in bad health as well, but outlived his friend by over five years.

As death approached, Beethoven was informed of the arrival of a gift of 12 bottles of wine from his publisher, to which he responded with his last recorded words, “Pity, pity. Too late!”

A.W. Thayer, Beethoven biographer, summarized the moment of the composer’s death as relayed to him by a close friend who was witness:

“At this startling, awful peal of thunder, the dying man suddenly raised his head from Hüttenbrenner’s arm, stretched out his own right arm majestically—like a general giving orders to an army. This was but for an instant; the arm sunk back; he fell back; Beethoven was dead.”

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