Authors: Colin Dickey
OSENBAUM WAS ALWAYS
well aware that something like this might happen. He had heard rumors that the prince was finally going to honor his obligation to the dead composer, and he could easily have guessed the likely outcome. He was well connected and had enough friends still in the prince's employ that he could keep abreast of developments. Throughout the investigation his own network of
kept him updated. The afternoon Haydn's body was exhumed, Rosenbaum noted calmly the discovery of the theft and that the prince was “infuriated at the deed.” He also learned that the prince had already launched an investigation, upon which Rosenbaum noted dryly, “All the ferrets were set in motion.”
At first he was not particularly worried by the investigation
and treated the unfolding events with great levity. “We talked about the Prince sending Haydn's remains, minus the head, to Eisenstadt on Monday,” he related in his diary, “and that everyone is having a good laugh at the Prince's expense.”
Twenty years before, the prince had kept Rosenbaum from acquiring something that he dearly lovedânow, in an unexpected turn of events, Rosenbaum had something precious that belonged to the prince. He was going to enjoy every minute of it.
But the weak link, Rosenbaum quickly saw, was Peter. Once Sedlintzsky's men heard the story from Schwinner, who had named Peter as the owner of the skull, Peter panicked. The next day he came to Rosenbaum “in a fright,” “moaning and wailing” and threatening to divulge the whole story.
Rosenbaum was furiousâthe theft of Haydn's skull was his great triumph, and he had worked too hard to see it lost because of this man's lack of nerve.
He repeatedly threatened Peter, demanding that he not tell the police anything. But Peter would not be quieted. Rosenbaum saw that Peter could not be trusted to stonewall the investigators, so he shifted tactics. He left the room and returned with a skull, already working on a new story. The police were simpletons, he explained. They were looking for a skull, and to them any skull would do. The best thing to do was to put all of the blame on their dead friend Eckhart, who was certainly in no position to protest.
This worked much better than either man could have hopedâthe police bought the story completely, accepted the head that Peter provided, and thanked him for his cooperation. All that was needed now was Rosenbaum's version of the events, merely as a matter of record. The next day they came to Rosenbaum, who told them the same story. As he realized that the police had bought it, he visibly relaxed, and his conversation with the investigators became “good natured.” Amazed at their gullibility, he and Peter convened afterward and “spoke laughingly about the Prince's foul tricks.”
It was all a game, he saw, between him and the princeâthe two of them alone moved around pawns such as Sedlintzky and Peter. Rosenbaum could easily stay two steps ahead of the prince, who, for all his money and power, would never be able to outwit this common accountant.
But due to carelessness or apathy, Rosenbaum had given Peter a skull that even a cursory inspection revealed was the wrong age. Realizing that they had been duped, the police came back to Rosenbaum's house before he had any time to prepare. While they waited impatiently downstairs, he frantically looked for a hiding place. Not knowing what to do with the head and fearing the imminent search, he hid it in the mattress and threw down some blankets. Seeing right away that this wouldn't work, he told his frightened wife to get in bed and cover the skull herself. Twelve years after she had fled the room to get away from his
morbid project, he had finally enlisted her as an accompliceâas he had enlisted Peter, Demuth, Eckhart, and so many others into his singular passion.
OSENBAUM HAD SAVED
the composer, rescued him from the oblivion of burial, that wall of earth that hides our remains for eternity. In time, he hoped, all would be able to see the skull of the great composer and meditate on his genius.
Alone in his room, finally left in peace by the police, he could take out the skull of Joseph Haydn, turn it in his hand, like a Renaissance painting of Saint Jerome or Mary Magdalene, and ponder the skull's mysteries in the flickering candlelight.
We have a very large collection of the skulls of murderers, who have been executed, and of soldiers killed on battle-fields, also of Indians, Africans, Egyptians, Chinese, and Cannibals, but we have only a few from the higher class of minds, such as Reformers, Statesmen, Scholars, & c. Of these we have hundreds of casts, and busts from living heads, but not their skulls. What a treasure it would be if some plan could be devised, by which these leading “types” could be preserved as specimens, for scientific purposes.
The Phrenological Journal,
The comedy ended for Beethoven, finally, on March 26, 1827. Four months earlier he had traveled from Vienna to Bonn to care for his nephew after a failed suicide attempt, and on the way home he came down with a fever and a hacking cough after spending the night in a village inn without heat. When the attending physician, Andreas Wawruch, came to see him on December 5, he found the composer breathing hard and spitting blood. To Wawruch it looked like pneumonia, and he treated it accordingly. After a week Beethoven had improved and was walking around, but a quick relapse followed, this one far more serious.
Wawruch diagnosed him this time with dropsy (what is now termed edema, a condition that results in an imbalance of fluid buildup inside the body), and two weeks later close to eleven liters of fluid were drained from his abdomen; as water flowed from his body, Beethoven wryly commented,
“Professor, you remind me of Moses striking the rock with his staff.”
His sense of humor still intact, the maestro bore his illness well, but his condition continued to deteriorate. Over the next two months three more draining operations took place, each removing over ten liters of fluid from the composer's distended body. The writing was on the wall, and none saw it more clearly than Beethoven himself. When Wawruch tried to cheer him up that March, suggesting that the spring weather would hasten a recovery, Beethoven responded, “My work is done; if any doctor could still help, his name shall be called Wonderful!”
The reference was to Isaiah 9:6âa verse Handel had transformed into a joyous chorus in the
. But no such messiah was forthcoming; on March 23 Beethoven signed the final codicil to his will, and the next day he received the last rites. Shortly thereafter he slipped into the coma from which he would not recover.
MONG THOSE PRESENT
during the maestro's final days was a young boy named Gerhard von Breuning whose father, Stephan, had been a childhood friend of the composer. Stephan and Beethoven's relationship had gone through rough patches,
including a ten-year period during which they stopped speaking altogether. But in 1825 they had reconciled after Beethoven had sent Stephan a miniature portrait accompanied by a letter pledging absolute devotion: “I know, I have wounded
, but my own emotions, which you must certainly have noticed, have punished me enough. It was not
towards you that was in my mind . . . it was passion
Shortly thereafter, the composer moved around the corner from the Breuningsâto a house that had once been a monastery and was called Schwarzspanierhaus, “House of the Black-Robed Spaniards”â and their friendship had resumed as if without a hitch.
Gerhard, who was twelve at the time, struck up a fast friendship with the composer, who referred to the young boy affectionately as either “Trouserbutton” (because he stuck to Beethoven like a button to a garment) or “Ariel” (after the ephemeral spirit from Shakespeare's
). It was Gerhard who, in his own immature way, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Beethoven was stone-deaf and could not even hear music, as some had alleged: When Gerhard arrived early for his music lesson one day, Beethoven asked the boy to wait while he finished work on a quartet. Bored, Gerhard went to the piano, where Beethoven could not see him, and began to play lightly. “I kept looking in his direction to see whether he might be feeling bothered,” Gerhard later recalled. “When I saw that he was completely
unaware of it, I played louder, and intentionally quite loudlyâand I had no more doubts.”
In two short years Beethoven and Gerhard grew extremely fond of one another, and when the composer's health failed, Gerhard and his father were among those who kept constant vigil. Beethoven had designated Stephan as his executor, and it fell to Stephan to put his affairs in order. On the afternoon of Monday, March 26, Stephan went to see about securing a grave plot for Beethoven in the WÃ¤hring cemeteryâwhere his own family plot was, so that he could be close to his childhood friend in deathâ while Gerhard remained at the House of the Black-Robed Spaniards. “I had stayed in the room of the dying man with Beethoven's brother Johann and Sali the housekeeper,” he later recalled.
It was between four and five o'clock; the dense clouds drifting together from every quarter increasingly obscured the daylight and, all of a sudden, a violent storm broke, with driving snow and hail. Just as in the immortal Fifth Symphony and the everlasting Ninth there are crashes that sound like a hammering on the portals of Fate, so the heavens seemed to be using their gigantic drums to signal the bitter blow they had just dealt the world of art. At about 5:15 I was called home to my teacher. The end could be expected any minute;
I left him alive, or at least still breathing, for the last time.
A half hour later, the composer was dead. Fellow composer and friend, Anselm HÃ¼ttenbrenner was one of the few present at the moment of death, and described the scene even more poetically. After a loud crash of thunder, he wrote, “Beethoven opened his eyes, raised his right hand, and gazed fixedly upwards for some seconds, with clenched fist, and a solemn threatening expression, as if he would say: âI defy you, ye adverse powers, Depart! God is with me.' Or his appearance may be described as that of a brave general, exclaiming to his fainting troops: âCourage, soldiers! Forward! Trust in me! Victory is ours!'” Many saw portents in the thunderstorm that day; even Wawruch later asked, “Would a Roman augury not have concluded that the chance uproar of the elements was related to his apotheosis?”
death, his final days, and his afterlife. Much of the confusion stems from Anton Schindler, an acquaintance of Beethoven who took it upon himself to write the first major biography of the composer. Peppering his work with exaggerations and outright fabrications, Schindler used his book to aggrandize himself and persecute his enemies, in
the process distorting much of the historical record regarding the composer. This biography, along with Beethoven's troubled and peculiar health throughout his life, the dizzying number of symptoms recorded by his doctors, and the mystifying way in which his body was handled after his death, has left a record of a life with so many gaps and inconsistencies that the truth about the composer may never be fully known.
There are unanswered questions surrounding the way he died. What caused the dramatic and sustained illnesses that Beethoven suffered in the final years of his life? Was there some root sourceâsuch as lead poisoning or treatment with mercuryâthat might account for the host of symptoms? What led to the fatal edema that caused his body to fill with fluid? Could Wawruch have done more for him? Was the original diagnosis of pneumonia a fatal error, and could more have been done if Wawruch had recognized the edema earlier?
There is the mystery of the composer's deafness. Like the deaths of Mozart and Napoleon, the source of Beethoven's deafness has been one of those enduring medical mysteries over which musicologists, doctors, and historians have puzzled for close to two centuries now without arriving at anything close to a definitive answer. In 1879 George Grove postulated that the composer's symptoms were “most probably the result of syphilitic affections at an early age in life.”
Though only vague, circumstantial evidence exists for this idea, the hypothesis has stubbornly
persistedâin the century since Grove's first suggestion, dozens of commentators have repeated the diagnosis. But over the past two centuries a host of other theories have been advocated to explain Beethoven's deafness, including alcoholism, amyloidosis, arteriosclerosis, brucellosis, cerebral congestion, drug-induced ototoxicity, otitis media, otosclerosis, Paget's disease of the skull, presbycusis, rheumatism, sarcoidosis, acoustic neuritis, tuberculosis, typhus fever, and Whipple's disease. Peter J. Davies assessed all these theories in 2001 and was unable to offer a final conclusion (though he was able to debunk a good number of them)âeach diagnosis matched some symptoms, it seemed, but most were ruled out by others.
There is also the mysterious lock of Beethoven's hair that appeared for sale after World War II. This memento (now known as the “Guevara Lock”), which became the subject of a book by Russell Martin, was clipped from the maestro's head by the composer Ferdinand Hiller while the body lay in state and was passed on to Hiller's son Paul in 1883. But in the tumult of the early twentieth century both Paul and the lock of hair disappeared. Improbably, the lock turned up in the Danish town of Gilleleje in 1943, in the hands of Kay Fremming, a doctor working to give safe passage to Jewish refugees as the Nazis occupied Denmark. But the circumstances of the lock's travels over the missing years remain obscured, despite Martin's extensive research. How it got
to Gilleleje, who gave it to Fremming, and what happened to Paul Hiller may never be known.