Karl, Beethoven’s Nephew

Written by Harry Clark
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven

1W: Johanna van Beethoven
2M: pianist and cellist OR pianist and violinist

“I will now fight a battle for the purpose of taking a poor, unhappy child from the clutches of his unworthy mother. I will win the day! I am husband and father – senza wife!
Ludwig van Beethoven, from his conversation book

Before Beethoven’s corpse was yet cold, several of his well-meaning or self-serving friends and confidants removed a dozen conversation books from the composer’s apartment. These confiscated conversation books, writing pads that the deaf Beethoven wrote in to communicate, contained insane ramblings about his sister-in-law and her son, Karl.

In 1815, Ludwig’s brother Caspar Carl died at the age of 41, leaving behind his widow, Johanna, and their nine-year old son, Karl. For the next 10 years, Ludwig battled Johanna personally and through the courts for custody of the sole Beethoven heir. Ludwig served as his own legal counsel, and among his many fraudulent claims were that he was related to nobility, that Johanna was nothing more than a harlot, that Karl was the next Mozart or perhaps Goethe, and that the composer cum lawyer was the only one suited on terra firma to raise his nephew.

Three court cases ran for years (one is reminded of Dickens), and the insanity stopped only after Karl, in desperation to free himself of his uncle’s impossible demands, attempted suicide. One bullet misfired, the other grazed Karl’s skull, and this scream for deliverance brought Ludwig back to a semblance of reality before his death a year later.

Kathleen Chalfant

Several audience members have informed me that I was maligning the mighty composer. Never! First, It is wholly remarkable that during this time of mental chaos he was composing such works as the Ninth Symphony. And despite the utter folly, Beethoven was attempting to re-create an idealized family life; one that he and his brother Caspar Carl were deprived of with beatings and rages by their drunken father. A madness with hoped for change: Ode to Joy—O friends, no more these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!

Kathleen Chalfant and Jean Marsh, two extraordinary artists, have both given gripping accounts of sister-in-law Johanna, as she struggles for her son’s soul and in so doing redeems hers as well.