Why Don’t You Study Beethoven?

This was the little voice that began to repeat over and over in my head. It’s the reason why I embarked on an adventure one day in 2016 that lasted several years. I delved into the depths of

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Beethoven’s psyche.

Why me? Why this subject? From a very young age, I have been fascinated by psychology. I have often wondered why we are the way we are, why we do this and not that, what makes us unique, what brings us closer, or what differentiates us. I am convinced that, in large part, that pushed me to become a psychologist. The 11 years that I have been teaching and researching at CEU San Pablo University, as well as my time as a psychotherapist, have generated more questions and given me few answers. In short, they have made me grow and continue to believe in how captivating it is to discover the human being.

I am also sure that I came into this world with a love of music. I sing, play the guitar (and a little of piano), and write songs. Since childhood, I have admired and appreciated classical music and long suspected that Beethoven had been unfairly judged, described, and represented. An individual who composed in such a splendid way could not be reduced to a negative set of characteristics such as unpleasant, misogynistic, and melancholic as popular tradition has established. There had to be so much more to him. That’s perhaps why I couldn’t ignore that little voice in my head, and I accepted the challenge. I still remember some reactions and responses that warned me that this would be an almost impossible mission to accomplish, but I had already made the decision and it felt like the most correct of my last choices.

The Difficulties and Challenges of a Composer’s Psychobiography?

I spent long periods in Germany, the United States, and Spain researching Beethoven’s diary, his thousands of letters, his conversations, books, numerous testimonies, and more. That is how I listened to and observed this composer, getting to know him to the point that I feel as if he is a part of my family. Looking for the best way to approach my goal, I found psychobiography. The definition that I like the most is that of Dan McAdams (1988): “The efficient use of psychological theory to convert the subject’s life into a coherent and illuminating story” (p. 2). As a psychologist, an expert on personality and emotions, as well as a music lover with some background in the field, I worked to establish a kind of dialogue with the composer to not merely describe but understand him in depth. The why and how of his most habitual behaviors, the causes or consequences of his changes, the evolution of his attachment style, ideas and goals, his emotional management, his narrative

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identity, and so on.

However, I am not talking about my conclusions. I am going to share the behind-the-scenes aspects of my research. Specifically, six of the challenges that I have had to deal with throughout these years as a psychobiographer of Beethoven.

One: A Large Amount of Bibliographical Information

The first mission of my research was to discern between those sources that I should consider and those that would contaminate or not contribute to my study. For that goal, I conducted a consultation with experts from various international centers and institutions. This allowed me to gather common suggestions and get to know their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, I was able to extract a large but manageable number of sources to work with.

Since the objective of my study is not just Beethoven’s life but his psychology, as a second step, I decided to apply two approaches to navigate through the data within the sources: one, choose a theoretical framework to orient and formulate general questions; and two, allow the data to reveal itself by using criteria to select salient content. That would allow more specific questions about Beethoven’s personality to be asked. But before this leads me to talk about the selection of a psychological framework, I would like to mention a big question that I had for a long time.

Two: What to do About His Music

How should I use his works for my study? Should I? His music was part of him, a part of the way he related to the world and the message or messages he wanted to leave behind. At the same time, it was just his job.

I felt very hesitant at first, although I recognized that studying his music could give me some good information. However, most of it was instrumental with very few words, and there are already plenty of experts on his music. I thought about it carefully and even tried to gather those works which were songs based on poems from renown authors that he selected, with topics that he must have found especially interesting. But I soon realized many of those were demanded by patrons, so they were not very spontaneous choices. I finally decided to leave it aside and later used interviews and conversations with musicologists to complete my results.

I spent the first year only reading sources without considering any specific theoretical framework. Once I finished my research, I

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added an expert panel to enrich my conclusions.

Three: The Selection of a Psychological Framework

At a later stage during my research, answering some recommended questions from Carolina du Plessis’ 2017 study helped me make my final decision for the theory. The questions were: What is most suitable for Beethoven, grand theories, or specific explanations? What kind of theory is most appropriate, developmental theory or theory of personality? Is there going to be one or several theories? Does the selected model have empirical support?

I ultimately chose the three-level model of personality (dispositional traits, characteristic adaptations, life stories) by McAdams (1995) based on four reasons: one, it is a grand model to start considering general questions; two, it is a theory of personality that also contemplates the individual’s development; three, it includes different levels/layers of personality, which would allow me to select other specific theories for each level once I got specific questions; and four, it is one of the most recommended theoretical approaches for its structure and clarity, as well as for its empirical support.

Also, to cover the second approach I mentioned before, I used criteria to select salient content within the sources. Among many others, I used overemphasis (e.g., the many times Beethoven insisted his heart is good, he has good intentions), repetition (such as conflicts/misunderstandings and illnesses), and turning points (deafness is undoubtedly one of them). That is when more specific questions arose and I had to choose concrete theories to help cover them.

Four: Tendency to Reductionism

Sometimes psychobiographers may employ somewhat reductionist perspectives, such as focusing excessively on the subject’s childhood, a single period, or a significant event, suggesting that those are the main cause of all the later development. An example of this would be if I only paid attention to Beethoven’s relationship with his father when the musician was a child, his deafness, or his relationship with his nephew.

In some other psychobiographies, the emphasis is on psychopathology. However, a person is not a disorder; a person has a disorder/problem. If I focused on Beethoven’s depression states or another emotional problem, that would only give me a label, a simplistic description, but it would not help me understand him as a

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whole.

So, in response to the warnings of possible reductionism, I made two decisions from the very beginning of my work: one, to remain open to information that could appear in the literature without hastily making any interpretation and applying the minimum framework or prejudice possible; and two, to not read any publication that included aspects of personality or psychopathology about the composer. Moreover, the psychological framework I selected later, which contemplates both personality and development, also contributed to avoiding any reductionism.

Five: The Subject’s Absence

This is a common occurrence in psychobiographies. Initially, this may seem to be a disadvantage, mainly because we cannot consult or contrast with the protagonist. Also, we run the risk, if we do not avoid it, of understanding and interpreting according to our culture and context, which likely happened in the past with some documents about Beethoven.

However, from the point of view of my psychological research, Beethoven’s absence had a positive side. Because his life had already finished, it allowed me to observe and understand his life over time and therefore offered me a more balanced perspective. Furthermore, I was not forced to rely mainly on his words (which is quite common if the protagonist is alive) but could rely on the words of many (carefully selected) others. This made it possible to configure a more adjusted image of the musician since an individual is not only who they believe and say they are but is also what others perceive and receive of them. This is also part of who they are.

Six: The Researcher’s Subjectivity

When we get deeply involved in the study of an individual’s life, impartiality is impossible. This happens to any individual when they become acquainted and intimate with another. It is crucial to be aware of this and apply strategies to avoid harming the course and conclusions of the study.

As a starting point, reflection is recommended. I did this by answering some questions, such as: Why this subject? What is the drive behind this investigation? What do I want to know about this subject? Is this subject of interest to people other than me? Will learning about this subject help us understand other similar types of people?

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Throughout the project, I developed an appreciation for Beethoven as a person and a greater empathic understanding of his way of being. Moreover, I recognize that I occasionally experienced moments of countertransference, that is, attribution of aspects of myself to Beethoven. Practicing reflective writing, a qualitative research tool, helped me acknowledge those moments and understand my emotional connection to the composer so as not to act on my countertransference.

I also had numerous and frequent formal and informal conversations about the composer. These two strategies not only added great value to the entire research experience but also contributed to understanding the relationship established between the researcher and the researched, preserving the quality of my perspective as a psychobiographer.

The care given to these six and other challenging moments of my research has allowed me to reach, in my view, a concrete, integrative, renewed, and well-supported psychological knowledge of the figure of Beethoven. This knowledge is not set in stone and hopefully will lead to raising new dialogues and even new questions in the future. I am sure Beethoven took with him pieces of his puzzle that have yet to be discovered.

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References:

  • du Plessis, Carolina (2017). The method of psychobiography: presenting a step-wise approach. Qualitative Research in Psychology14(2), 216-237. doi: 10.1080/14780887.2017.1284290
  • McAdams, Dan P. (1988). Biography, narrative and lives: an introduction. Journal of Personality, 56(1), 1-18. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1988.tb00460.x
  • McAdams, Dan P. (1995). What do we know when we know a person? Journal of Personality, 63(3), 365-396. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1995.tb00500.x

Authors:

Abigail Jareño Gómez

Abigail Jareño Gómez, PhD, is a lecturer at CEU San Pablo University, Madrid, Spain. She trained and worked as a psychotherapist for more than five years treating anxiety, depression, and personality disorders mainly. Her most recent publications are the book Ludwig van Beethoven: Humor, genio y corazón (Ludwig van Beethoven: Sense of humor, genius/temperament and heart) (2022) as well as papers like “Ludwig van Beethoven in a Snapshot: Exploring His Own Words” (2021) and “Applying A Step-Wise Approach In Writing A Psychobiography” (2021). Dr. Gómez can be reached at .

How to Cite This:

Gómez, A.J. (2023). The challenges of writing a psychobiography of Beethoven. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 336-342.

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