Beethoven as Bacchus


On the dark morning of March 26, 1827, a heavy snowstorm was falling outside the fogged window panes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Vienna apartment. Everything was unusually quiet in this space, so customarily filled with music. Beethoven’s house servant walked into the room to announce that a long-awaited shipment of Rheingau Rieslings, wines sent at his behest by his music publisher Schott, had just arrived. Barely able to muster the energy, the composer sat up in his bed, shook his fist in anger, and muttered these very last words: “Pity, pity, it’s too late…”    

He sank back into his bed, never to speak again. His closest friends gathered throughout the bleak afternoon, trying to revive him with spoonfuls of the newly arrived Rudesheimer Riesling.

Beethoven died that evening. A fitting postscript to a life devoted not only to music but also to wine.

While many historians have perpetuated the theatrical assumption that Beethoven’s last words were a final act of defiance — his rage against God for not allowing him to live on and write down the entirety of the music still swirling in his head — I posit the reality is that Beethoven was speaking instead of a different loss: the wines he would not have time to drink. 

Beethoven was born in the wine-centric Rhineland city of Bonn in 1770, during the peak of German wine dominance in Europe. His grandfather, Ludwig “the Elder,” was not only the director of music for the legendary Bonn Court Orchestra but also a successful and prominent wine merchant, following in the footsteps of Beethoven’s great-grandfather, who himself ran a wine importing business near Mechelen (in modern-day Belgium), at that time a mecca for the wine trade.

While Beethoven never knew his grandfather (he died when Beethoven was only three years old), the one surviving portrait of him depicts Ludwig Senior seated in his trade guild gowns with wine bottles placed on the table beside him. Beethoven treasured this painting more than any other family possession. He hung it visibly in the entryway to nearly every apartment he lived in.

Young Beethoven was surrounded by the wine culture of the Rhine — sampling his first fine wines as a teenager while attending the famous Reading Societies that gathered in Bonn. He later served as a cook and wine steward in the galley of a Rhine river ship for a brief period (his mother worked in the kitchen to yet another royal court); and by the time he reached Vienna, as a promising pianist (and composer) in 1792, he was primed to navigate an obsession the glitering capital shared with him.

Beethoven served as a cook and wine steward in the galley of a Rhine river ship.

Wine was everywhere in Beethoven’s Vienna. It defined the rhythm of life, proudly represented the nonchalance that colored every corner of the great capital. 

Wine was also big business. Vines stretched in every direction within and beyond the city walls, and covered the hills and woods encircling the city on either side of the great Danube River. These centuries-old vineyards fed the unslakable thirst of urban residents who crowded into the city’s numerous Heurigen, or wine taverns, that pulsed with energy from afternoon well into the night. The third-largest city in Europe boasted one tavern for every 100 residents.

Extensive tracts of vineyard land also surrounded the popular spa towns south of Vienna where the baths of Baden and Voslau attracted visitors year-round. So-called spa wines were indeed an added bonus for vacationers, but their main purpose was to quench the inexhaustible Viennese thirst that exceeded what the city’s own vines could provide.

When Beethoven moved to Vienna, his very first patron, Count Franz Lichnowsky, provided him not only with housing but also a monthly stipend that included a line item for the study and purchase of fine wine. Beethoven was expected to be fully conversant with the array of wines he might encounter in the ballrooms and palaces of the elite.

Wine was a constant companion to all genres of entertainment in this glittering city of culture. It was present in concert halls, theaters, and private salons, as well as at grand banquets and official state functions. Every important arts patron and benefactor had some hand in the business of wine. They were as quick to purvey their personal wine interests as they were to promote their favorite artists, often side by side at the same event. 

Beethoven’s first public performances in Vienna were part of the count’s Friday morning music and wine gatherings, held at his own palace. An invitation to these events was highly coveted. The regular presence of the Habsburg Empire’s most famous and respected living composer, Franz Joseph Haydn, himself a noted wine lover with one of the largest private cellars in the city, made these events the pinnacle of musical entertainment in the capital. (Haydn was also an early teacher of Beethoven’s.)

Learning to love wine was vital to Beethoven’s professional success.

In the following years, through close connections with many different patrons, Beethoven discovered the great wines of the world. He drank Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, and the prized lusciously sweet Tokaji wines of Hungary. His Rhineland wines also emerge on occasion, but like all residents of Vienna, he generally consumed the local wines and others grown within the Habsburg Empire — particularly his prized (likely red) Hungarian wines. 

Reminiscences from friends and colleagues add richer detail to the dynamic presence of wine in Beethoven’s daily routine. We hear which wines Beethoven preferred with which dishes in the taverns or in his home, how Beethoven generously purchased wine for friends and colleagues after performances of his music — sometimes even providing wine for the entire orchestra at rehearsals. We know that whenever musicians were invited to work with him in his apartment to prepare a new piece, a glass of wine was never far from Beethoven’s hand. 

Beethoven’s Conversation Books, written notebooks used to communicate with the composer as and after he lost his hearing, reveal many dinner discussions about wine and food that were shared with friends — all accompanied by spicy, intriguing private dialogues. Most compellingly, we learn from numerous witnesses that the vines and vineyards were themselves a backdrop for Beethoven’s creative work. He literally transformed the vines themselves into a composition studio.

Creative Inspiration

Beethoven used nature as the ultimate source for his creative inspiration. A letter from 1810 (in fact, a poem) expresses this beautiful sentiment:

“How glad I am to be able to roam in wood and thicket, among the trees and flowers and rocks. No one can love the country as I do… In the country, every tree seems to speak to me…. In the woods there is enchantment that expresses all things.”

Nature was Beethoven’s escape from the growing scrutiny of his deafness. It was also a safe haven from the government spies and police informants who watched his moves with dogged diligence. (The Hapsburg Empire at that time was one of the most oppressive and censored societies in the world.)

But nature in the broadest sense provided Beethoven with a cosmic awareness that infused his music with its larger-than-life power. Hills, mountains, rivers, streams, trees, birds, storms — all offered a sound palette that Beethoven could copy, mimic, and translate directly into musical ideas that fuelled his boundless invention.

No wonder he took residences in just as many dwellings far out in the vine lands and pastoral suburbs as he did within the city, sometimes keeping even two or three apartments concurrently. 

Today’s well-known residential “wine” districts of Vienna were Beethoven’s nature retreats.

Today’s well-known residential “wine” districts of Vienna, Grinzing and Heiligenstadt, Kahlenberg and Nussberg, were Beethoven’s nature retreats. So too was the wine-centric spa town of Baden 20 miles to the south.

Living adjacent to, and in some cases in and among the vines, Beethoven would spend hours each day hiking up and down the hillsides, through the vineyard pathways, carrying his composition notebooks in his jacket pocket. He walked at a fast pace, hands behind his back, head bowed, stopping occasionally to stare at the sky, sing loudly, and mutter to himself.

Many people reported that he would stomp the ground with his foot or walking stick in rhythmic patterns and then wave his arms wildly, scribble notes onto his pages, and finally rush off again at breakneck speeds. Longer pauses allowed him to stop and gaze over the city or sit below the vines as he penciled more notes into his precious sketchbooks. This cycle of activity continued over and over again for hours each day, rain or shine. 

City dwellers could mark the beginning and end of their workdays by the times when Beethoven would leave the city walls in the morning for his marathon walks. Wild hair, tattered green frock coat, shabby boots — a silent, determined figure roaming the vines by day, a mysterious genius delivering some of the world’s greatest music by night.

Beethoven often lost his way. Disoriented in the darkness and unable to return home, friends would send search parties out to find him. Consumed by the physical presence of nature around him, he often forgot his sense of human place. He was even arrested on one occasion for vagrancy while roaming through the city of Wiener Neustadt, appearing to be homeless. Only on being recognized by the local musical director was he released.

The same was true for the summers he spent in Baden, where he would slip away into the ravines and lush hillsides of the nearby Helenental, sometimes for days on end, communing with nature, miraculously listening “through his deafness” to the subtle and complex polyphony of the habitat.

These two areas — in the case of Grinzing, the wines of Jutta Ambrositsch, and for Baden, the wines of Bernhard Stadlmann  — give us an ideal framework for sampling just a few of the wines we know Beethoven drank. Both locales offer still visible signs of the synergy between their vineyards and Beethoven’s music. So we turn to each for wines that provide a sensory snapshot of Beethoven’s vinous history.

Many of the Ambrositsch wines grow adjacent to some of the very paths Beethoven walked; most are situated within view of his surviving residences near Grinzing and Nussberg today. 

The Stadlmann wines hail from vineyards that were already centuries old when Beethoven hiked directly through them during his summer sojourns. The Stadlmann family was selling wines under its own name a decade before Beethoven even arrived in Vienna.

The Stadlmann family was selling wines under its own name a decade before Beethoven arrived in Vienna.

Two of Beethoven’s own letters, written to his good friend the Baron von Pasqualati in the final weeks of his life in 1827, paint as vivid and detailed a picture of Beethoven’s own passion for wines as we have in the historical record:

Revered friend!

Today, I am asking again for a cherry compote, however, without lemons, quite simple. Also, a light pastry dish, almost like a custard, would delight me; my dear cook has not yet acquired skills as a cook for the sick. I am allowed to have Champagne, however, for the first day I ask for a Champagne glass to be sent along—now, with respect to the wine, Malfatti initially only wanted Moselle wine, but he stated that real Moselle wine can not be obtained, here, so he, himself gave me several bottles of Krumbholz-Kirchner and stated that this is the best wine for my health, since real Moselle wine can not be obtained — Forgive me for being a nuisance and accredit it to my helpless situation.

A day later he writes again:

Revered friend

My thanks for the dish you provided yesterday, a sick man is craving for it like a child, therefore, today, I am asking for peach compote; with respect to other dishes, I first have to ask the doctors — regarding the wine, they consider Grinzing wine advantageous for me, but above all, they prefer old Krump Holzkirchnner — may this explanation not be misinterpreted by you — with sincere esteem

In the last years of his life, Beethoven had increased his drinking, showing a particular penchant for sweet wines. Likely these were from Rust and Tokaji, both highly fashionable at the time. This concerned his doctors. (Malfatti, mentioned in the first letter, was Beethoven’s physician at the time.) They suggested that Beethoven switch to lighter and (curiously “drier”) wines from Germany to ease the gout and debilitating digestive ailments from which he suffered. He followed their advice and promptly placed a wine order with his German publishers in Mainz for the very wines that arrived on his final day.

While he waited for these Rieslings, his letters prove that he wasted no time securing other suitable wines. 

Beethoven’s words may seem to imply that he does not really “know” these Grinzing and Gumpoldskirchen wines, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even in his final days, Beethoven was never beyond using all powers of persuasion — in this case, very personal humor — to obtain his wines as quickly as possible. What seems to be an absent-minded error regarding the second wine is, in fact, an inside joke between him and Pasqualati. 

Beethoven cleverly misspells Gumpoldskirchen first as “Krumpholz-Kirchener” and then in the second letter as “Krump Holzkirchnner” in homage to his dear friend Wenzel Krumpholz with whom he had spent many an evening drinking in the Heurigen. Krumpholz, a mandolin player, had died a decade earlier. 

It is my own theory that Beethoven plays brilliantly on the very common use of guitars as background music in the wine taverns to lend an even deeper layer of meaning to his “confusing” Krumpholz’s name with the wine.

Before we turn to the wines themselves, let us pause here in anticipation of our tasting discovery together to come in TRINK Vol. 6.

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