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Beethoven: The Universal Composer

by Edmund Morris.

[In the series Eminent Lives]

Harper Collins Publishers, New York. 2005. 5-1/2" x 7-3/8."

243 pages, including glossary of musical terms.

No index. 1 B&W illustration. US$21.95.

ISBN 13978-0-06-075974-2 and ISBN 10 0-06-07594-7.

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This biography is distinguished by succinctness and clarity of argument, and is comfortably readable in style.

This is the third biography of Beethoven Iíve read and each of the three books might as well have been about a completely different person. Perhaps the reason for this is that there is so much material that any biographer picks and chooses what he wants and can pretty well end up wherever he wants to go. The text does not contain reference citations but in his acknowledgments, the author makes it clear that he is up to the minute in the completeness and integrity of his research, so perhaps those other biographies I read were simply outdated. At any rate this is the best biography of Beethoven Iíve ever read.

The author begins by trying to explain, as have others ó including Bernstein and Copland ó Beethovenís remarkable popularity. But I think all these explanations miss the obvious. Previous great composers such as Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart had expressed universals, the majesty and glory of God, the majesty of kings, the order of the universe, the desired order of society. Personal emotions expressed were restrained to simple joy, or simple sadness, one at a time per movement. Haydnís great contribution was to add genial quirkiness to this list. Beethoven can describe the sometimes abrupt changeableness of our moods, of fleeting thoughts. This author makes the point clearly that in addition to serious chronic physical illness Beethoven suffered from paranoid schizophrenia much of the time, and his glory is also that he is able to arouse the paranoid in all of us. The insane delight of murdering our enemies or achieving kingship over kings, that is the message of Beethovenís Fifth Symphony. While most of us have such feelings fleetingly, on brief occasions, and the author lists several such occasions, Beethoven endured such feelings for years at a time, and was able to sustain them in order to produce many a ten minute sonata movement. Of course, neither he nor we actually murder our enemies, we make music instead, and then go back to our daily struggle feeling satisfied. That is the innovation of the Romantic era. Previously art expressed a consensus of noble emotions, a sense of striving towards an ideal situation. The Romantic era presented human beings as we are, for better or worse. This certainly did not preclude Romantic composers such as Mendelssohn, Liszt and Brahms from progressing towards ideal feelings, but along the way even they visited the particular and at least once or twice each matched Beethoven in gleeful conquering frenzy.

Beyond this, Beethoven was an exemplary craftsman, generally inferior to Brahms and Bach, but equally incapable of spinning out the charming banality of Mozart and Spohr. As a result, like Villa-Lobos in our era, much of Beethoven is ugly, because beauty was never an excuse, beauty was never allowed to cover over a lack of inspiration. He struggled to find an authentic, inspired response for each note, each phrase, and this struggle to achieve, something we all have to do in our daily lives, is another appealing quality in his music. It sounds like he worked at it, like we have to work at what we do. Mozartís music, for all its beauty, is disconcerting because it is obvious how easy it was for him to write it, and how impossible it is for us ordinary mortals ever to do anything like that. Bach and Mozart, as they expressed the glory of God, became God, separate from us, above us. Beethoven is always in touch, never lets go of your hand.

Another author suggested that Beethoven pretended to be insane to avoid being arrested for Republican sympathies, but Morris makes it clear Beethoven was never in any danger, and was perfectly capable of at once hating both the mob and the effete snobbery of the aristocracy while playing one off against the other. At his most insane moment, he was able to get the Emperor himself to intercede to achieve Beethovenís final legal victory over Nephew Karlís mother. Morris never underestimates Beethovenís intelligence or cleverness even when describing how Beethoven was actually incapable of doing sums and keeping track of his money. Like Bach, Beethoven ó constantly pleading poverty ó was one of the richest men of his time and class. Like Wagner, money came to him in huge amounts and was spent with dizzying rapidity.

As I had long suspected, Beethoven could never learn to dance. He was too clumsy and had no physical sense of rhythm. The phrases in Tchaikovskyís music we feel in our muscles, in the weight of our bones. Beethoven is like Ancient Egyptian architecture, columns and lintels, static and unmoving. Even his "apotheosis of the dance" Seventh Symphony has beat, tempo, but no rhythm. It is gorgeous of course, but more like a computer program synthesizing dance than a real dance, a description but not the real thing.

Morris accepts as absolute and final Maynard Solomonís identification of the "Immortal Beloved" as Antonie Brentano. The reader should be aware that there remain good arguments against this identification and there is at least one other fully qualified candidate. All authorities agree that the solution offered in the movie is absurd and impossible. But I still like it.

One frequently hears that Beethoven had syphilis. While this disease can now be clearly implicated in contributing to the deaths of Schumann and Schubert, Morris does not accept it for Beethoven, and includes a careful description of his many symptoms and their possible causes.

It bears reflecting that one of the effects of Beethovenís deafness is that his later piano sonatas were conceived for an ideal instrument that didnít yet exist. Over the next fifty years piano makers fit the instrument to the music, rather than the other way around, and Liszt and Beethoven are very much responsible for the sound of modern pianos and modern as well as late Romantic piano music. It could have gone another way, as anyone who has heard a variety of older pianos knows.

Morrisís language is occasionally either vulgar or elite. He descends into pop endocrinology by saying "testosterone" when he means "masculine". Would he be as ready to refer to Tebaldi singing "O Patria Mia" as "oestrogen" music? On the other hand, does everybody these days really know what is the "Slough of Despond"? As a general rule books these days are not edited capably. It used to be the editorís job to be sure the language is one the expected reader is comfortable with, and this book, while not perfect, is certainly no worse than most and better than many.

The author does not waste time or break the thread of the narrative by trying to describe in words music which is easily available to be heard. Consequently, those descriptions of music he includes are only those which are necessary and one doesnít want to skip over them.

This author has written biographies of Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt. The series "Eminent Lives" also includes biographies of George Balanchine, Ulysses Grant, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and will soon include Mohammed, Shakespeare, de Toqueville, Machiavelli and Freud. I cannot resist gleefully imagining a cocktail party in heaven with all these men together struggling to find a single subject they all want to talk about.

I have occasionally in my reviews spoken disparagingly of Beethovenís music because I believe that too many critics overly praise his music and I feel a corrective is necessary. But this book is not a bash, and I do not recommend it because it brings Beethoven down. On the contrary, I came away from the book with a deepened respect, sympathy and admiration for Beethoven and an enhanced understanding of his music. I came away from the book wanting to hear the music and looking forward to enjoying it. A musical biography should reasonably expect to accomplish at least that.

Paul Shoemaker

I came away from the book wanting to hear the music and looking forward to enjoying it. ... see Full Review



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