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. 

In truth, Beethoven thrived as a strong-willed but socially adept virtuoso pianist and composer for his first 25 years or so. As he developed hearing problems in his late 20s, however, and moved toward the realization that the malady was irreversible, he began to turn inward. As he descended into deafness in his 30s and 40s, he grew increasingly mercurial, irritable, and paranoid. At times, he appeared to be fully irrational. He wrote emotional confessionals and fought with members of his family. He flirted with numerous women but was unable to sustain a lasting relationship. He moved restlessly from dwelling to dwelling, changing residences in Vienna more than 30 times in 35 years. A smart dresser in his youth, he appeared increasingly unkempt and disheveled. In his final decade, he became so dissipated that he was once mistaken for a vagabond and thrown into jail. By any measure, Beethoven’s personal life was bizarre.

All this is well-documented in his diary and conversation books (in which acquaintances wrote questions that the deaf Beethoven answered verbally), his voluminous correspondence, court proceedings and printed reports, and eyewitness accounts. Anton Schindler’s Biographie von Ludwig van Beetho-ven (known to English readers as Beethoven As I Knew Him), written and revised within 20 years of Beethoven’s death, is filled with tantalizing anecdotes about the Vienna years. Beethoven himself contributed fuel to the fire by leaving behind neatly written, carefully preserved testimonials seemingly aimed at posterity. As Suchet points out, the famous Heiligenstadt Testament, in which Beethoven describes his inner battle with deafness and declares that he will live to compose, as well as his letter to an “Immortal Beloved,” in which he confesses his passion for a mysterious, unnamed woman, were thoughtfully preserved through the composer’s many moves in Vienna from one dwelling to another.

The Beethovenian paradox of “crisis and creativity”—to use the phrase coined by Solomon—has been well described in the past. But no one before Suchet has focused quite so intensely, and so eagerly, on the crisis part—and the composer’s melodramatic highs and lows: stopping the orchestra during an already overly long performance and insisting that the players start again from the beginning; refusing to bow before passing royalty when walking in the park with Goethe; receiving a distinguished visitor with an unemptied chamber pot under the piano. Such stories, well known to historians, are too good to make up.

Or so one thought. Suchet doesn’t hesitate to embellish them further when the facts are insufficient to make a truly memorable tale. Consider his recounting of Haydn’s visit to Bonn in December 1790. Haydn was traveling to London for the first performance of his symphonies at the Salomon concerts, and on a stopover in Bonn, he was treated by the elector to a surprise banquet with local musicians. Two years later, Beethoven would set off for Vienna to study with Haydn (carrying with him Count Waldstein’s famous benediction: “With persistent hard work you shall receive Mozart’s Spirit through Haydn’s Hands”). But Beethoven’s initial encounter with Haydn may have taken place at the Bonn dinner. Although there is no concrete evidence that they met in Bonn, past biographers have pondered the possibility. Suchet does not hesitate to fill in the gap: “I shall now shamelessly indulge in speculation,” he informs us, before placing Beethoven at the event and manufacturing an exchange with Haydn that might have taken place. “I confess the conversation and that last quote are drawn from my imagination,” he admits upon finishing the story. This broad interpretation of the facts is typical of Suchet’s approach.

In the case of Eleonore von Breuning, or “Lorchen,” the personable young daughter of the von Breuning family to whom Beethoven gave piano lessons in Bonn, Suchet proposes not only that Beethoven fell in love with his pupil soon after commencing instruction (she was only 16 at the time) but that he attempted to put his feelings into action with an unwanted kiss. This she rejected, Suchet reasons, causing Beethoven to write her later from Vienna, apologizing for the earlier offense. The letter, containing a reference to a disagreement, exists; the physical attraction and attempted caress are pure hypothesis. “I imagine he made an ungainly lunge at her, which she rejected and which left her seriously upset,” Suchet writes, after warning us at the start that “we are in the realm of conjecture now, but I make no apologies for what follows.”

Elsewhere, Suchet recounts the celebrated row between Beethoven and his patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky. In 1806, Lichnowsky invited Beethoven and a group of French Army officers to dine together, despite the fact that Beethoven’s animosity towards the French (who were occupying Vienna at the time) was well known. In Suchet’s retelling, the officers repeatedly ask Beethoven to play the piano, which he refuses to do. When Lichnowsky joins in the pleading, Beethoven storms out of the hall, goes to his room upstairs, locks the door, and packs his things to leave. Lichnowsky follows and has servants force open the door. An angry confrontation succeeds, during which Beethoven picks up a chair and threatens to strike Lichnowsky. 

At this point, the prince is persuaded to leave, and an indignant Beethoven then pens the oft-cited remark: “Prince, what you are, you are by accident of birth. What I am, I am through myself. There have been and will always be thousands of princes. There is only one Beethoven.” Beethoven later seizes the marble bust of Lichnowsky in his Vienna apartment and smashes it to the ground. Suchet admits that there are several versions of this story, but assures us that he has chosen the most dramatic.

Rigorous Beethoven scholarship this is not. Yet, somehow, we forgive Suchet, for if he is shameless, he is also sincere. He has most of the facts right, and he alerts us to the fabrications along the way. This is not just Beethoven revealed, but Beethoven hyped—the great anecdotes related and embellished by an enthusiastic, engaging raconteur.

The most compelling portions of Suchet’s book are the detailed discussions of the “Immortal Beloved” and Beethoven’s troubled guardianship of his nephew Karl. On the latter: When Kaspar Anton Carl van Beethoven died in 1815, he named his wife, Johanna, and his brother Ludwig as co-guardians of his 9-year-old son, Karl. This was not acceptable to Beethoven, who sued for sole possession of the child on the grounds—fully unsupported—that Johanna was unfit to be a mother. The Landrecht, or court of the nobility, ruled in Beethoven’s favor, and he assumed Karl’s care. Three years later, Johanna appealed the case before the Magistrate, or lower court, and won Karl back. Two years after that, Beethoven appealed the case once again—and prevailed, this time not only winning Karl but obtaining an injunction against visiting rights for his mother. Thus began Beethoven’s overbearing attempt to raise his nephew as a pianist, even though the boy had neither talent nor interest in music. It also became quickly apparent that Beethoven was unsuited for parenting. 

The disastrous guardianship eventually came to a head with Karl’s attempted suicide at the age of 20. Beethoven’s maliciousness towards Johanna, and his misguided treatment of his nephew, have been difficult for biographers to handle. How does one reconcile the composer of such radiant pieces as the middle movements of the Emperor Piano Concerto and the Pathétique Piano Sonata with the vengeful, slandering uncle who emerges during this ugly affair? Suchet relates the story well and gives us a good sense of the legal tangles and emotional upheaval caused by Beetho-ven’s actions. Of Beethoven’s perplexing relationship with Johanna, he writes:

A modern-day psychiatrist would require many sessions with Beethoven on the couch to try to get to the bottom of just why he disliked Johanna so intensely. Was it to mask a hidden desire for her? Was it more simply that he was envious of his brother’s success in finding a wife? Was it that he thought she was unworthy to carry the name “Beethoven”? We cannot know.

Suchet also presents ongoing reports regarding Beethoven’s gastrointestinal issues, which run through the book like an idée fixe. These begin with a description of the stomach pains and diarrhea that Beethoven experienced before his first concert at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1794, followed by periodic updates on his irritable bowel syndrome, bad digestion, irregularity, acute constipation, colic, distended stomach, and more. While these disorders have been noted elsewhere, they are presented in unusual detail here, so much so that one begins to wonder whether the book might have been more aptly titled The Inner Beethoven. This may be more information about Beethoven’s bodily functions than we want to know.

Not unexpectedly, Suchet rounds out his story by taking us back to the Schwarzspanierhaus for the dramatic account of Beethoven’s last moments. Late in the afternoon of March 26, 1827, as the composer’s closest friends gathered in his living quarters in anticipation of the end, a violent storm arose, with driving snow and hail. It was unusual weather for early spring, and to those present it seemed to reflect the tumult of heaven as it prepared to receive the soul of the defiant composer. Beethoven had been ill and bedridden for some time, suffering from an acute deterioration of the liver. Several days earlier he had conceded to those present: “Plaudite, amici, comedia finite est” (“Applaud, my friends, the comedy is over”). Now, as the curtain was about to fall on the final act of that comedy, he rallied one last time. The pianist Anselm Hüttenbrenner later reported:

At around a quarter to six, there was an enormous clap of thunder, which startled everyone present. Beethoven opened his eyes, lifted his right hand, and looked up for several seconds with fist clenched, as if he wanted to say, “Inimical powers, I defy you! Away with you! God is with me! Courage, soldiers! Forward! Trust in me! Victory is assured!”

In the spirit of this book, we may imagine there was a bit more: “And do not allow a certain John Suchet to delve into the particulars of my private life after I am gone!” But for one reason or another, the inimical powers did not oblige, and as a result we have this pleasurable and highly entertaining read.

George B. Stauffer is dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts and distinguished professor of music history at Rutgers.