Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Your Breeches' Button

Beethoven's Love Letters to His Nephew Karl

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven

The great composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) never married and never seems to have had an intimate relationship with a woman. His personality is a very complex one, but the popular mythology that requires this romantic musician to have had a string of passionate heterosexual relationships has no basis in reality. In fact his "grand passions" were always women of a higher social position than he and already attached to someone else — as if he deliberately addressed those he knew were out of his reach. In 1801 he wrote about a charming girl who could make him happy but he immediately qualified this by saying she was not of his class, and anyway he was very busy with his music! His relationships with Josephine Deym, Magdalena Willmann, Giulietta Gicciardi, and Therese Malfattti were clearly platonic. The famous letter to his Immortal Beloved, which was written in two instalments over two days in 1812, essentially indicates his unwillingness to give total commitment, and he finally renounces the opportunity for union forever; in any case the letter was never sent, for it was really just written to resolve his own mind.

On the other hand, Beethoven had many close friendships with men of his own age and he enjoyed the company of younger men, such as Ferdinand Ries early in his career and Karl Holz at the end, as well as Stephan von Breuning, Wegeler, Gleichenstein, the attractive young pianist Karl Friedrich Amenda, the handsome Baron de Trémont and others. Karl Maria von Weber, also a good-looking young man, reported:

He received me with an affection which was touching; he embraced me most heartily at least six or seven times and finally exclaimed enthusiastically: "Indeed, you're a devil of a fellow! — a good fellow!" We spent the afernoon very merrily and contentedly. This rough, repellent man actully paid court to me, served me at table as if I had been his lady.

Beethoven almost certainly had unconscious homosexual feelings for his beloved brother Caspar Carl, whom he felt had been stolen from him by his marriage to Johanna Reiss in 1806. When Carl died in 1815 Beethoven adopted his son Karl (born in 1806), and engaged in a bitter feud with Johanna over possession of the boy.

His nephew Karl became the recipient for all the love he had felt both for his brother and for his Immortal Beloved. Beethoven was declared Karl's joint guardian in 1816, and from that date his relationship with Karl became his sole emotional outlet, effectively a marriage, and no woman henceforward occupied any significant role in his life. Karl was withdrawn from his tutor to live with his uncle from 1818, when the composer began his Ninth Symphony. Beethoven used a German phrase, acknowledging that he "clung to him like button to trousers" — a telling choice of metaphor. But Karl continued to love his mother despite his uncle's loathing of her, and sometimes ran away to her. After a series of court battles, Beethoven finally obtained sole guardianship in 1820. Beethoven's legal adviser told him to stop taking Karl to eat in taverns (they always ate out) because it was causing "gossip and false interpretations" and might harm his case.

While studying at university and the polytechnic in Vienna, Karl visited his uncle on weekends and holidays, and acted as his secretary and bookkeeper and housekeeper. Beethoven was jealously possessive, even asking friends to spy on Karl's activities in town, and they had bitter quarrels. Beethoven moved to Baden in 1825 to attempt a cure for his gout and other complaints, and Karl had to organize his Vienna affairs and run constant errands for him, as well as staying with him frequently; about 40 letters survive from this traumatic period. Beethoven constantly alternated between spoiling and punishing the lad, now 19 years old and good-looking, who was made to feel guilty for wanting some independence. One day Beethoven would berate him for wasting money on the theatre, "my heart has suffered too much from your deceitful behaviour to me," and almost the next day he would write "Dear Son — Dear Boy — ... All good wishes, little rascal."

In October 1825 Karl ran away to his mother, after being accused of selfishness by his uncle, but Beethoven tried to patch up their relationship: "Stop, no further — Only come to my arms, you won't hear a single hard word. ... We will lovingly discuss what has to be considered and what must be done for the future. On my word of honour you will hear no reproaches." But it was no good: in July 1826 Karl bought a pair of pistols and tried to kill himself, saying he was "weary of imprisonment." The bullet lodged in his head, and he was taken to his mother's home, and subsequently spent a month in hospital, during which time the composer's Ninth Symphony was published. When the police asked Karl why he had attempted suicide, he said "Because my uncle harrassed me so" (weil mein Onkel mich so sekkiert hat).

After Karl's recovery, he returned to live quietly with his uncle for four months, but their love had died. Beethoven was devastated by the incident, which shattered the father/son illusion. In December 1826 Karl nursed Beethoven with loving care, but was not even allowed to go out of doors for some relaxation or go to his room to be alone for a little while. In one conversation he says to his uncle "I beg you again not to torment me as you do. ... you must remember that other people are human too." Karl was allowed to enter military service in January 1827. After this obvious rejection of his love, Beethoven's physical stamina collapsed almost overnight and he died two months later. During the last few months of Beethoven's life Karls's place was taken by a vivacious 13-year-old boy, Gerhard, son of Beethoven's friend Stephan von Breuning. They grew so close during this short period that Beethoven even called him "trouser-button," reverting to his earlier metaphor about his relationship with Karl. Karl was named Beethoven's sole heir. Karl went on to have a successful military career, got married in 1832 and had five children; he was a good pianist, and settled in Vienna as a man of leisure; he died in 1858.

Beethoven's first and official biographer Anton Schindler destroyed 240 of the 400 Conversation Books (communication via notes written on slates or paper which became necessary due to Beethoven's deafness) because of the material they contained about Karl, and advocated that their letters (which were not in his possession) be destroyed. Those notes that do survive, document a tormented relationship, and Beethoven's jealousy over Karl's friendships with other men. For example, Karl wrote to Beehoven in August 1824:

I see very well that you are incensed, I even have to take it as natural, unfortunately! — And yet I still hope that in a calmer hour you will think otherwise and will not entirely give me up. Do not rob me of this hope, and do not cast me down completely; I am sufficiently so as it is. Allow but a little time for your full conviction and I know it will be different again. — I have no girl friends.

Beethoven even disliked the occasional boyfriend that Karl brought to his uncle's home to help allay his own loneliness: Beethoven: "I find him crude and common." Karl: "For my part, I shall not cease to love him, as I could love my brother if I had one. .. . I never forced him on you. ... You do not need to quarrel. If you stop talking about it the subject will be closed." And the letters are full of moral blackmail: Beethoven to Karl:

I have no doctor, not even a sympathetic soul at hand — If you can manage to come on Sundays, do come. But I don't want to interfere with your plans in any way, ... — Oh, where have I not been wounded, nay more, cut to the heart?! ... if it is at all possible for you to do so, well then, in my solitude I shall look forward to having a human heart beside me ... With all my heart I embrace you.

Beethoven's most devoted biographer, Alexander Thayer, kept getting intolerable all-day headaches whenever he tried to deal with Beethoven's relationship with Karl, and Thayer kept putting off volume IV of his biography which would have contained it, until his death, so the nature of the relationship was never revealed.

Letters from Ludwig van Beethoven to Karl van Beethoven

c. September 18, 1816]

My Dear K,

According to the orders of v. Smetana, you must take some baths before the operation [for hernia]. Today the weather is favourable, and it is exactly the right time. I shall be waiting for you at the Stubenthor [entrance to the baths].

Of course you will first ask Herr v[on] G[iannatasio]'s permission. Put on drawers [a pair of underpants] or take them with you so that you can put them on when you come out of the bath, in case the weather should again become cooler. If the tailor has not yet been to you, when he comes let him also take your measure for linen drawers. You need them. If Frau v. G. knows where he lives, my servant can tell him to go to you.

My son farewell; I am, and indeed through you,
Your breeches button,
L. v. Beethoven

August 16, 1823

My dear Boy,

I did not wish to say anything to you until I felt better, which is not yet quite the case. I came here with a cough and a cold, both bad for me, as the normal state, anyhow, is catarrhal; and I am afraid this will soon cut the thread of my life, or worse still, will gnaw continually at it. Also my ruined bowels must be restored by medicine and diet, and for this, one has to thank faithful servants. You can imagine how I am roaming about, for only today I really (not really, but involuntarily) commenced my service of the Muses. I have to do it, but it shall not be perceived — for the place tempts one, me at least, to the enjoyment of beautiful Nature, but nous sommes trop pauvres et il faut écrire ou de n'avoir pas de quoi. Now see that everything is ready for your exam., and, especially, be modest, so that you may show yourself higher and better than people suppose. Send your washing straight here. Your grey trousers can at any rate be worn at home [i.e. to save your good clothes for public show], for, my dear son, you are a very dear one to me! ...

If one could only write as quickly as one thinks and feels, I could tell you many things. For today I only wish that a certain Karl may prove himself full worthy of my love and of my great care for him, and also know how to value it. Although I, as you know, am not exacting, still there are so many ways in which one can show to noble- minded and better people, that it is recognised and felt by them.

Hearty embrace from
Your truly faithful father.

August 23, 1823

Little rascal! ...
Best little rascal! ...

Dear child, I receive today your yesterday's letter. You are speaking about 31 fl. [florins] As I have also sent the 6 fl. you wanted, the lot of tittle-tattle among the leaves must have prevented you from seeing them. ... If your clean linen is not very urgent, leave it until I come on the 29th, for if you send it here first, it will be scarcely possible for you to have it back on the 28th, the day of the examination. In case of need give the servant a pair of trousers, which can easily be washed in the neighbourhood. ...

Wednesday, May 18, 1825]

Dear Son!

The old woman [housekeeper etc.] has already come, so do not trouble, study diligently and rise early in the morning, when you might try to do many things for me which have to be done. It is becoming to a youth nearly 19 years old to combine his duties to his benefactors and supporters with those of his education and progress — as I truly did to my parents.

In haste, your true

May 22, [1825]

Although I have been informed by somebody that again there have been secret meetings between you and your mother, up till now I have only suspected it — have I once more to suffer the most abominable ingratitude?! No, if the tie between us is to be broken, let it be so, but you will be hated by all impartial people who hear about it. The statements of my Herr Bruder [Johann] and those of Dr Reissig, as he says, and yours yesterday concerning Dr Sonleitner who necessarily must feel offended with me, as the law court decided exactly the opposite of what he demanded, do you think that I would risk once more to be mixed up in those vulgarities? — no, never more — if the pactum is irksome to you, then, let it be so, I leave you to divine providence; I have done my part, and can appear fearless before the highest of all judges. Do not be afraid to come to me tomorrow, I still only suspect. God grant that nothing of it is true, for in truth there would be no limit to your unhappiness, lightly as this scamp of a brother of mine and perhaps your mother, may think of your gossiping with the old woman. I shall expect you with certainty.

June 9, 1825

I wish at least that you could come here on Sundays, but I do not receive an answer from you. God be with you and with me. ... I have written to Herr von Reissig to ask you to come here on Sundays. The coach starts from his house at 6 o'clock, that is from the Kugel auf der Wieden. You have therefore only to work and study a little in advance so as not to lose time. I am sorry to give you this trouble. In the afternoon you can start again from here by the same coach to Vienna. Everything is paid for, you can shave here, and have a necktie and shirt, so that you may arrive here in time.

Farewell, even if I am grumbling at you, I do not do so without cause. I should not like to have spent so much merely to have provided to the world an ordinary man. I hope to see you for certain.

If, however, the intrigues have achieved their purpose, declare it openly (and naturally), and you always will find in me a man who remains the same for all that is good. The house was advertised in yesterday's newspaper, so if you were not able to do anything in this matter [i.e. finding an apartment for them to live together in Vienna], you might have got somebody else to write about it, if you perhaps were unwell, I should be glad not to be obliged to act otherwise. You know how I am situated here in this cold weather; the constantly being alone weakens me only the more, for really my weakness seems almost like a swooning away. Oh do not grieve me any more, the Scythe Man will not, as it is, fail to come soon.


July 1825]

My dear Son,

Come soon!
Come soon!
Come soon!

... I press my loving seal on your loving trustfulness and affection towards me. If you neglect anything, stay there.
As ever,
Your affectionate solicitous,

August 2, 1825

Dear Son

... Write me a few words and send them here tomorrow. Take care of yourself, do not forget the baths — only spend your money properly, be my dear son. What an unheard of dissonance it would be if you were false to me, as some people say is the case.

God be with you,
Your faithful Father.

October 5, 1825

My dear beloved Son

I have just received your letter. Already most anxious, I had already determined to hasten today to Vienna. Thank God, it is not necessary. Only follow me, and love, like happiness of soul united with human happiness, must be with us; then you will unite inward with your outward happiness, although it would be better to give the foremost place to the former — il fait trop Froid — I hope to see you on Saturday, write whether you come early or in the evening, when I will hasten to meet you. I embrace and kiss a thousand times not my lost, but new-born son. I wrote to Schlemmer [where Karl lodged, near the Karlskirche], do not take it amiss, I am still too moved.

My love and my solicitude for you whom I have found again will always show you that I am your affectionate father.

Summer, 1826]

Since you at least have followed my advice, all is forgiven and forgotten, more about it with you by word of mouth. Today quite calm. Do not think that any other thought weighs with me than that of your welfare, and judge my actions from this — do not take a step which may bring you into trouble and may shorten my life. I only got to sleep about 3 o'clock, for I was coughing the whole night. I embrace you heartily, and am sure that you will soon misunderstand me no longer, thus do I also judge your behaviour of yesterday. I expect you without fail today at one o'clock, give me no more trouble and anxiety, meanwhile farewell.

Your true and faithful father.

[PS] We are alone, I would not let H[olz] come on that account, all the more as I wish that nothing may be said about yesterday, come then — let my poor heart bleed no longer.

Copyright © 1998 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved.
SOURCES: Selections are from Beethoven's Letters, trans. J.S. Shedlock, 2 vols, London: J.M. Dent; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1909. Biographical sources: The Beethoven Compendium, ed. Barry Cooper. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991; E. and R. Sterba, Beethoven and his Nephew, New York, 1954; The Letters of Beethoven, ed. Emily Anderson, 3 vols, London: Macmillan, 1961.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Your Breeches' Button: Beethoven's Love Letters to His Nephew Karl", Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, updated 9 Jan. 2000; 16 January 2020 <>.

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