Stumbling Upon Happiness: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.

Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament

In his brilliant book Stumbling Upon Happiness Daniel Gilbert discovers just how little we know about what makes us happy.

When it comes to ‘achieving our dreams’, we’re terrible at predicting how this will make us feel. And even worse at remembering those feelings accurately later on.

One group of long-suffering football fanatics found the league title they had longed for was quite underwhelming when it finally arrived.

Yet a few years later, it had become an experience they longed to repeat. Why? They had completely re-written their memories, crafting that disappointing victory into one of the greatest days of their lives.

And so they went on, chasing a feeling that will never come.

Don’t worry there’s good news too. We’re equally bad at understanding how adversity will hit us and just how well we’ll rise from it:

The year is 1802, this is Heiligenstadt — now Eastern Vienna.

In a small room, a man sits hunched over a narrow desk. At this hour, only the frantic scratching of his pen and the odd hiss from a faltering, yellowish candle, break the silence.

O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic, how greatly do you wrong me, for you do not know my secret…

This man has lived his life for music. Sound is his everything, his only thing.

But now, he is going deaf.

I was eager to accomplish great deeds, but for six years I have been a hopeless case, aggravated by senseless physicians, cheated year after year in the hope of improvement, finally compelled to face the prospect of an endless malady.

I have been compelled to isolate myself, to live in loneliness. For when I tried to forget all this, oh, how harshly was I repulsed by reality. For how can I admit to men ‘speak louder, shout even, for I am deaf’?

The man’s name is Ludwig van Beethoven. Blessed with the greatest ears and musical mind of his century, this disaster, this endless silence, is impossible to comprehend.

And yet, day by day, it descends. Now, in despair, he prepares for the end.

With joy, I hasten towards death — if it comes I shall have had an opportunity to show all my artistic capacities.

It will still come too early for me. Despite my hard fate, I shall probably wish it had come later. But even then I will be satisfied, for will it not free me from my state of endless suffering? Come when thou will — I shall meet thee bravely.

Farewell brothers and do not wholly forget me when I am dead. I deserve this of you. In life I have long thought how to make you happy, please be so.


October 6,1802. Ludwig van Beethoven

It seems that even as he writes, the noises around him stutter and fade. Yet as they do, something extraordinary happens.

Music begins to play.

Not the music of loss or of death but radiant, heavenly music.

Hushed strings, gentle horns. A single violin, soaring over the top.

This is music that even the healthy Beethoven could not have heard. Music of life and of rebirth. A Violin Concerto, welling up from this darkest of abysses. An answer for this most impossible of challenges.

And so, with the ink still wet on that letter to his brothers, Beethoven entered into the most productive period of his career, churning out masterpiece after masterpiece.

The jewel in this crown of work was surely the Violin Concerto. Even now, on its thousandth playing, I have to question whether a hymn of such peace, joy, and purity can truly be of this world.

Quite how or why the human spirit does this, where it finds such power when our conscious minds have given up the fight, we shall never know.

Let us just remember that it does, and not only to geniuses like Beethoven.

Let us remember that in our darkest, most hopeless times, we may well find our greatest music.

A wise man once said: in clichés lie the most important of truths.


In my last post, I spoke about the need for musicians to fuse themselves with the music. To bring it to life through their own personality.

However, there are a few moments when we must recognise that we are a vessel for something far greater than ourselves. Moments when stillness is the only answer; when to do any more than just play would be to spoil what is already perfect.

I learned this lesson as a young violinist, watching one man play one piece. Henryk Szeryng, performing Beethoven’s miracle Violin Concerto.

From the first note, you forget about the orchestra, you forget about Szeryng. Perhaps, you even forget that this is music at all.

Whatever you do see, hear or feel instead, is, of course, up to you. But whatever it is, it will be, without question, utterly pure and utterly perfect.