Karl van Beethoven died in 1815. Thereafter, a great deal of Ludwig's emotional life was spent in a custody battle with his sister-in-law. He was forty-five years old when the fight began.
For nearly two years, Beethoven - then Europe's greatest composer - wrote nothing. Directing his attention toward his nine-year-old nephew simply consumed too much time.
Deafness in his ears was not Beethoven’s only deafness. He was also deaf to the pleas of others to stop fighting Johanna over the care of her child. He would hear nothing of sharing custody, however. He was completely obsessed with becoming a “father” to young Karl.
The odds were stacked against Johanna. In January of 1816, the Austrian court gave Beethoven sole custody of his nephew. Ludwig seemed the only person happy with the result.
If adults were never able to measure-up to Beethoven’s high standards, what chance did Karl have? How could he live-up to the expectations of a perfectionist uncle?
Despite his strong desire to provide the best for Karl, Beethoven could not effectively raise the young boy. He often sought advice from his friend, Nannette Streicher, but some of his actions made the child believe his uncle disapproved of him.
Initially, Beethoven transferred his intensity for creating music to caring for his nephew. He would tell his staff that without Johanna's influence, Karl would be a better man. Yet, he deprived the child from seeing his mother and, when he skipped school to be with her, Beethoven exploded with anger. He did much, in other words, to drive the child away from him.
His staff, in fact, had little appreciation for Beethoven's work and sometimes little regard for the man. Two stories - from Beethoven, A Character Study, by George Alexander Fischer - are interesting:
To illustrate the slight regard his servants had for Beethoven and their absolute ignorance of the value of his work, an incident related by Schindler [the maestro's friend and secretary] about the loss of the manuscript of the Kyrie of the Mass in D is in point. On reaching Doebling in 1821 on his annual summer migration, he missed this work and the most diligent search failed to bring it to light. Finally the cook produced it; she had used the separate sheets for wrapping kitchen utensils. Some of them were torn, but no part was lost. No copy had yet been made, and its loss would have been irreparable.
... and ...
Complaints about servants appear frequently in his correspondence . . . "I have endured much from N. (Nanny) to-day," he writes in a letter to his good friend Madame Streicher, who was very helpful to him in his domestic matters [especially regarding his nephew]. On one occasion, when her conduct became unbearable, he threw books at her head . . . He reports soon after to Madame Streicher, "Miss Nanny is a changed creature since I threw the half dozen books at her head. Possibly, by chance some of their contents may have entered her brain, or her bad heart. At all events we now have a repentant deceiver." (Fischer, Beethoven, A Character Study, pages 184-187.)
Johanna took Ludwig back to court after Karl ran away from Beethoven's home. She argued that her brother-in-law was disregarding her son’s best interests.
Forced to abide by legal rules - as he battled for control over his nephew in court - Beethoven composed by breaking rules. During the second custody battle, Beethoven worked on his extremely complicated piano solo, the Hammerklavier. Its music is unrelenting, difficult-to-play and emotionally explosive. One can almost hear its creator’s pain.
Yet, when the court battle was over, Johanna lost all control of her son. Karl soon went back to boarding school. He must have wondered, time and again, what all the fighting was about.