None of Beethoven’s biographers can find evidence of much social connection between him and his peers as a child. There are no tales of shared laughter and games; the few stories that do surface from his school-fellows are mainly remembering him vaguely on the edges of the group, unkempt and silent. In our modern world, these signs of neglect and struggle would perhaps be noted by a child’s teachers and friends, which would allow problems to be addressed, but in Beethoven’s time all of this simply served to amplify his isolation. The world must have seemed to be an incredibly dangerous place to this young boy. He was subject to its chaos, and also saw that it was useless to hope for help from anyone outside himself. As the eldest child in the family, he gradually took responsibility for the family’s survival, intervening with the police when his father’s drunkenness got out of hand, asking his father’s employers to send a portion of his father’s wages directly to him in order to pay the bills, and caring for his younger brothers when his mother died.
I don’t imagine there was much time for childish play in Beethoven’s life, and I doubt he was encouraged to innocently explore the world and discover playmates. His family turmoil put a wall between him and such normal activities, and it seems that as he had dealings with people around him, it was from a clear, structured position—taking care of business. It is so much easier to interact with others when giving or taking orders, when you understand exactly what your role is and what is required of you to play it correctly, than it is to traverse the everyday unknowns presented by neighbors and strangers, where the protocol is improvised and every moment is full of the risk of rejection or misunderstanding.
So it makes total sense to me that Beethoven began sitting at the piano, making things up. In improvising, and eventually composing, he found a release from the rigid structures that kept his life in place and kept him safe behind his wall. He could indulge every fantasy through music, creating worlds around him that he filled with all of his deepest hopes and imaginings. The music nourished him, because he could fill it with all the love that he yearned for but didn’t receive in his early life. It makes me sad that this beautiful, redemptive quality of music also furthered his isolation from others, as he spent more time exploring these internal worlds than learning to invest and love in the outer one. And it is heartbreaking to think that his experience of isolation was gradually, irrevocably widened by his early deafness. This man, who never learned how to safely relate to and love others, was pulled further behind the wall separating him from them all by actually not even being able to talk with them. His inner musical world expanded as his presence in the outer world shrank, and it’s no wonder to me that listening to his late quartets gives me the feeling of flying through the constellations of distant galaxies. This was a person who had a huge capacity and longing for love, and the only tools he had to explore this with were musical ones.
In looking at the scruffy loner who made the bottom grades in the class, who would have guessed that galaxies of music waited to make their way out of him? Who would have thought that this lost boy would save himself, and add to the saving of the world, through the daily whittling at his art?