The Magazine

Hello, Beethoven

A look at the life behind the music.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
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This new biography of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) begins by taking us to the scene of his funeral. We ascend the stairs of the Schwarzspanierhaus, just outside the city walls of Vienna, and enter a candle-lit room, where we see Beethoven in his coffin, arms folded over the front of his body, a wax cross and large lily in his hands. Pallbearers solemnly close the coffin and carry it down the steps into a bright courtyard, where nine priests offer blessings and Italian court singers intone a funeral ode as soldiers restrain an immense crowd of admiring citizens. The throng presses forward in an attempt to get closer to its departing hero, pushing tightly against the 40 torchbearers that line the route. 

Mary Evans Picture Library / Everett Collection

Mary Evans Picture Library / Everett Collection

Vienna had never seen anything like this, we are told, and the extraordinary homage ends the final act of a life filled with paradox, contradiction, and turmoil.

Traditional biographers have not skirted the dramatic aspects of Beethoven’s life, but they have kept them in the background, concentrating instead on the composer’s personal growth and his creation of an unprecedented series of pathbreaking works. Like the music, these accounts have been serious affairs, beginning with Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s magisterial five-volume Ludwig van Beethovens Leben of 1866-1908 (translated, abridged, and revised by Elliot Forbes as Thayer’s Life of Beethoven) and continuing into modern times with Martin Cooper’s insightful Beethoven: The Last Decade, 1817-1827 (1970), Maynard Solomon’s psychoanalytic Beethoven (1977), and Lewis Lockwood’s Pulitzer-nominated Beethoven: The Music and the Life (2003).

Past writers have viewed Beethoven through the lens of his music, commonly dividing his life into four periods, defined by the evolution of specific bodies of work: his initial training in Bonn as a piano prodigy under the watchful eye of Christian Gottlob Neffe (1770-1792); his move to Vienna and his composition of ambitious but mostly conventional pieces up to the Second Symphony (1792-1802); his turn to a new “Heroic” idiom in the Third Symphony (Eroica), the Fifth Piano Concerto (the Emperor), Fidelio, and other innovative works (1803-1813); and a final phase marked by singular masterpieces such as the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, and late quartets (1813-1827). Taken as a whole, the four phases reflect Beethoven’s compositional journey from Classicism to Romanticism.

There is no sense of that development here. John Suchet, a popular commentator on the morning program of Britain’s Classic FM, focuses instead on Beethoven the man. “He might have been one of the greatest artists who ever lived,” Suchet states in the preface, “but he was still a man who had to live among fellow mortals, eat and drink, buy clothes, pay his rent. That is the Beethoven of this book.” It certainly is—and the author takes us through the emotionally charged events of Beethoven’s life with remarkable gusto, unencumbered by any serious consideration of the music. The First Symphony and Pathétique Sonata are dispatched in a single sentence; the Eroica Symphony is discussed solely from the standpoint of its ill-fated dedication. (Beethoven famously tore up the title page naming the work for Napoleon when the latter declared himself emperor of France.)

Indeed, Beethoven’s erratic behavior and fiery temperament are front and center in Suchet’s volume, which is organized into 20 chapters, each addressing a sensational episode in the composer’s career: “My Poor Hearing Haunts Me (But there is ‘a dear charming girl who loves me’)”; “Two Pistols and Gunpowder (An invitation to get away from it all)”; and so forth. The result is a narrative that reads much like a highly charged exposé from People, and it is easy to imagine its transformation into a screenplay, perhaps for a film directed by Bernard Rose and starring Gary Oldman in the lead role. We have before us the potential script for Immortal Beloved II.

But that is not necessarily a bad or inappropriate thing, for Beethoven’s eccentric personality lends itself well to such an approach. Immortal Beloved (1994) may have embellished the story of his life here and there, but it was great fun. So is Suchet’s biography.