Beethoven the Eccentric: From Bad Manners to Artistic Autonomy
While it is well known that Beethoven’s contemporaries found him eccentric due to his gruff manners, sartorial gaffes, and unrefined habits, scholars have not yet situated Beethoven’s legacy within a social history of manners. Beethoven’s lifetime coincided with changes in comportment prompted by the post-Napoleonic realignment of society: the Enlightened nobility cultivated more direct contact and even friendship with Bürger (such as Prince Lobkowitz with Beethoven), and both nobility and Bürger shifted away from elaborate gestural formalities to verbal “compliments” that could be mastered by all classes (Linke, 1996). Amidst these changes, the Bildungsbürgertum grew increasingly self-conscious about politeness, which resulted in an abundance of behavior manuals (Anstandsbücher) that served as a catechism for the ideal Bürger. Even as these manuals derided the ostentation of the nobility, their prescriptions were nonetheless mannered in a different way, replete with rules for how to act natural. Beethoven’s eccentricities were too spontaneous for the prescriptive naturalness that many came to expect from Bürger, which made him at once a posterchild for authenticity and a living curio.
This paper traces how Beethoven’s contemporaries reacted to his eccentricities during his lifetime, and suggests that his legacy as an autonomous artist, and as the champion of the Bildungsbürgertum, was informed by behavior that (paradoxically) distorted the bourgeois ideal. Accounts of Beethoven’s behavior went from puzzlement at his impetuosity in the 1800s, to gentle amusement at his gaffes in the 1810s, to empathy for his deafness laced with revulsion at his habits in the 1820s, to admiration of his autonomy in the years following his death. When we read this early reception against the backdrop of contemporary Anstandsbücher, we see a rupture of theory and practice: Beethoven’s companions favored naturalness in theory, but his abrupt behavior, worsened in later years by deafness, reshaped what naturalness could (or should) look like. This concern was quite different from the politicized persona—in which Beethoven was an uncouth revolutionary whose music shook off the shackles of the galant—that was advanced by posthumous critics and, more recently, by Peter Kivy. In light of Mark Evan Bonds’s insight that Beethoven’s music was not understood as autobiographical until 1830, this picture of the heroic rule-breaker emerges as a product not of Beethoven’s own networks, but of later nineteenth-century commentators who reinterpreted his misbehavior to suit an Age of Revolution.