Since 1818 Beethoven’s deafness was so far advanced that he had to use small notebooks to communicate with other people. Gerhard von Breuning, a friend of Beethoven, wrote in his memoirs that he always had a notebook with pencil at hand, in which visitors could write down their contribution to the conversation, to which the master usually answered orally. These “Konverzationshefte” read like overhearing a telephone conversation, without being able to hear the voice of the person (in this case Beethoven) on the other end.
Beethoven not only used the notebooks for conversation, but also to pen down musical ideas or important thoughts. So, thanks to these notebooks, of which 139 have been preserved, we not only can have a peek in his composing workshop, but also have a closer look at the man himself.
Besides musical sketches and lofty thoughts we come across banal matters too, because also in his everyday worries Beethoven had to depend on pencil and paper to understand his interlocutors. Often it is about food or problems with the servants, apartments or suppliers; later about diseases and remedies. So, from 1818 until his death, we also know the little, ordinary things of Beethoven’s life, including what the man liked to eat.
In a conversational notebook of July 1823 we read: “Rice Soup, but no veal, because she could not get it. Green peas with ham. Leg. Pastry. Salad” and, in the hand of Karl, Beethoven’s nephew, in October 1824: “Bread soup. Meat with sorrel. Turnips with small fish. Carp in black sauce.” Equally, in some of his letters and in the memoirs of his friends and acquaintances, like the composer and conductor Ignaz von Seyfried and the publisher Maurice Schlesinger, we find Beethoven concerned with what was an important point for him: his food. Beethoven gave meticulous attention to what he ate and drank. From all these sources a picture emerges of a passionate man, straightforward, averse to frills and frippery, who loved simple, but well prepared food, which had to be absolutely fresh and of high quality.
With all this information, combined with the cookbooks that were published around that time in Vienna, we can give a fairly accurate picture of Beethoven’s eating habits. For entertainment, but also for our instruction, because, as the great gastronome Brillat-Savarin -a contemporary of Beethoven- put it: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges; je te dirai ce que tu es” : “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”.
© Marcel Wick, 2016
Beethoven – the Noble Art of Cooking
Beethoven – bread soup
Beethoven – rice soup
Beethoven – frittatensuppe
Beethoven – macaroni with cheese
Beethoven – peas and ham
Beethoven – veal
Beethoven – carp in black sauce