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Forte: Beethoven and his mysterious Immortal Beloved

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Denise Dillenbeck, Yakima Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster

“… my ideas yearn towards you, my Immortal Beloved, here and there joyfully, then again sadly, awaiting from Fate, whether it will listen to us. I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. … Your love made me the happiest and unhappiest at the same time. … What longing in tears for you—You—my Life—my All—farewell.”

I’ve been reflecting on the doomed romance between Beethoven and his mysterious Immortal Beloved. In 1957, passionate letters between him and Josephine Brunsvik were discovered that made some believe she was a likely candidate, but we’ll never know the truth. Regardless of the answer to the mystery, Josephine’s unfulfilled relationship with Beethoven twists at my heart.

In Beethoven’s first letter, he presents his Piano Sonata in E flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3 to Josephine as a gift. I put on a recording of it as I read their letters, and gradually I became aware of what I was hearing. The sonata seemed to be singing her name. From the very first note of the music, I heard “JO-sephine!” I shook my head to wake from the dream, stopped reading the letters and started listening.

I hear her name uttered with such tender love in this music, sometimes with pain and questioning, sometimes admiration, sometimes a sweet humor. The music is reverential, then frolicsome; it has a flush of forward motion that will suddenly melt in a sigh of her name. Tears came to my eyes as I felt the hopefulness of this youthful gesture. I felt I was eavesdropping on them during an intimate moment of longing and love. So beautiful, and so painful to witness. It took my breath away.

Beethoven’s Andante favori was written for Josephine, and it’s full of love and fantasy; also his song An die Hoffnung. Although there is no evidence that he had her in mind when he wrote this sonata, if it were indeed true it wouldn’t be surprising. It’s most likely my imagination that planted her name in the music, but I believe her name was planted in Beethoven’s heart.

• Denise Dillenbeck is Yakima Symphony Orchestra concertmaster. She and other symphony members write this weekly column for SCENE. Learn more about her and her role at www.ysomusic.org/about/concertmaster.

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