Bettina Brentano was a writer, publisher, composer, singer, visual artist, an illustrator, patron of young talent and a social activist. She was the archetype of the Romantic era’s zeitgeist, and the crux of many creative relationships of canonical artistic figures. Bettina is best known for the company she kept. She had deep friendships with Goethe and Beethoven and tried to foster an artistic union between them. Many leading composers of the time, such as Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, Johanna Kinkel and Johannes Brahms, admired her for her spirit and her talents. Her composition style was unconventional, in that it molded and melded her favorite features of the old—folk music and historic themes—with unusual harmonies, phrase lengths and improvisations that became synonymous with the music of the time.
Bettina von Arnim was closely related to the German writers Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim: the first was her brother, the second her husband. Her daughter Gisela von Arnim became a prominent writer as well.
Bettina was born in Frankfurt, Germany on April 4, 1785 into a large family of an Italian merchant. Her grandmother was a novelist and her brother was Clemens Brentano, the great poet known for his lyric poems, libretto and singspiel. He was a mentor and protector to her, and influenced her to read poetry of the time, especially Goethe.
In 1811 she married Achim von Arnim, the renowned Romantic poet. They settled in Berlin and had seven children. Achim died in 1831, but Bettina maintained an active public life. She wrote, inspired and published until January 20, 1859 when she died surrounded by her children.
It was thought that she had stopped composing due to her domestic duties after her 1811 marriage, but several more art songs have been recovered and have been publishedd in Werke und Briefe. Another notable fact is that she was the first composer to set the poet Hölderlin’s work to song.
She was a muse to the progressives of Prussia. She was linked to the socialist movement and was an advocate for the oppressed Jewish community. She published two politically dissident works but she evaded chastisement because of her friendship with the King of Prussia.
After the 1831 death of her husband, Bettina continued her dedication to the creative community. She published a collection of seven songs as a public sign of support for Prussian Music Director, Gaspare Spontini, who was under a great deal of duress.
The life of Bettina von Arnim, particularly her relationship with Goethe, was explored at length by the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera in his novel Immortality. Closely tied to the main theme of his book, Kundera interpreted Bettina as attempting to achieve lasting fame through her promotion of and relation to great men. However, it is not disputed that thirteen letters to her from Goethe have been found as has been one to her from Beethoven. The text of the found letter from Beethoven is identical to what she published.
In 2002, the Beethoven Journal, published by the American Beethoven Society, included an article that claimed that Bettina was Beethoven's famous "Immortal Beloved". (see Vol 17, Issue 2). Bettina had published three letters she claimed to have received from Beethoven. Only one has been found and it was identical to what she had published. In the found letter, Beethoven acknowledged receiving two letters from Bettina and begged her to write to him again "soon and often". He also wrote that he had carried one of her letters around with him the whole summer and that it made him "often supremely happy". In closing the letter, he addressed her in the intimate German "du-form", which so far as is known, he never used in his letters to any woman except to the Immortal Beloved. If another of the three letters from Beethoven that Bettina published is genuine, it would conclusively prove that she was his Immortal Beloved.