Mahler's Beethoven

Portrait of Beethoven by Mähler1

Early 19th-century oil painting of a young man

Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien

Willibrord Joseph Mähler (1778-1860), a talented amateur poet, musician and painter from West Germany, was introduced to Beethoven in the fall of 1804 at the latter's apartment in Vienna, Austria. When asked to play something for his guest, Beethoven rendered a piano version of the finale to his Eroica symphony, just then nearing completion.

Sometime that winter Mähler painted this portrait, of which his subject was especially fond. With his proper left hand resting on a Greek lyre, and a Greek peristyle behind his right, the composer clearly considered himself a disciple of the Classical tradition whose plenipotentiaries were Mozart and Haydn. Only the dark cloud above his head hints at the stormy spirit of musical Romanticism of which he was to become the herald and hero, and which the painter must have felt in Beethoven's playing on the day they first met.


1. No relation to the German composer Gustav Mähler (1860-1911) who was a musical heir of Beethoven, and one of the last exponents of the Romantic movement.