Ludwig van Beethoven never married, but he was in love several times, usually with women who were married or otherwise out of reach. His dedication to his work and his increasing deafness may have played a role in why he was never truly happy in love or successful at a long-term relationship.
Famously, Beethoven wrote a passionate love letter that he never sent; it was discovered after his death. He calls the woman he writes to “my Immortal Beloved,” and her identity remains a mystery to this day.
The year and location of the letter’s writing were determined in the 1950s, when the paper was analyzed and his whereabouts established. Whoever it was seems to have met Beethoven in Prague around July 3 of 1812. He arrived in a nearby spa town on July 5, and while there on July 6 and 7 wrote the “Immortal Beloved” letter to a woman he had seen in Prague. This information helped eliminate some women and made others more likely. Scholars feel that the two best possibilities are Antonie Brentano and Josephine Brunsvik.
The married Antonie Brentano had been in Prague at the right time, although her itinerary didn’t leave much time for a clandestine meeting. Beethoven was definitely close with the Brentano family, but there’s no evidence of a romance between them, and her marriage appears to have been happy.
Josephine Brunsvik seems the more likely subject of Beethoven’s adoration. Love letters addressed to her surfaced in the late 1950s and have many similarities to the “Immortal Beloved” letter. Beethoven wrote these letters to her between 1805 and 1809, when she was a widow, and called her his "only beloved.”
Life began well for Josephine. She was born in Hungary to a wealthy family and grew up in a castle. In 1799, when she was twenty, her mother brought her to Vienna and asked the famous young pianist and composer Beethoven to give her piano lessons. He agreed, and continued to teach Josephine even after her mother married her off to a much older Count. The Count died in 1804, leaving Josephine with four children and Beethoven as a frequent visitor and sender of love letters. Her family didn’t approve of him, and even though she seems to have returned his love, she couldn’t marry a commoner because it would be bad for her children.
Josephine ended up in a terrible marriage with Christoph von Stackelberg – ironically, a man her family didn’t approve of – and she quickly had two more children. The constantly fighting couple ended up financially ruined, and Christoph went away in June and July of 1812. This means Josephine could have been the woman Beethoven met in Prague – and she did write to someone that she intended to go there but didn’t say why.
She reconciled with Christoph in August, but he left her when she had another child in 1813, perhaps because he wasn’t the father. He reappeared in 1814 and had the police forcibly take his three children away from Josephine – although he soon abandoned them.
In yet another case of bad judgement, Josephine then hired a tutor for her four older children, fell for him, and ended up pregnant again. Christoph reported her immorality to the police (as was common in those days). The tutor took the illegitimate daughter away and she later died of measles. In late 1815, Josephine found out where her three Stackelberg children were and hoped to reconcile with them, but then Christoph’s brother took them. In 1821, Josephine died an outcast at age 42, after what can only be described as a tragic life.
Whoever the “Immortal Beloved” was, she was out of reach, as were most if not all of the women Beethoven loved. In the letter, he writes, “Can you alter the fact that you are not entirely mine, and I am not entirely yours?” Clearly, she could not. Beethoven himself died in 1827, an often despondent and lonely figure despite his incredible talent, leaving us to speculate about the love of his life and wonder what might have been.