One day, probably in Leipzig during the 1830s, Robert Schumann attended a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. At this performance, amid the lead-in to the finale—the passage where soft strings trace ghostly patterns against a drum tattoo still menacing after even the nth rendition—Schumann noticed that a small boy in the next seat “pressed closer and closer to me; when I asked him why he did so, he answered, ‘I am afraid.’” That small boy thus proved himself a first-rate Beethoven critic.

The fear that Beethoven inspired in him should also extend to those who would seek to capture Beethoven’s spirit in a mere book, or, still more recklessly, in a mere article. Discussing Beethoven’s supreme feats, we risk imitating the silly woman in Dorothy Parker’s anecdote, who, upon her first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, blathered: “Well! It certainly is attractive.”

Not the smallest hint of that female’s reductionist idiocy mars Edmund Morris’s beguiling, gripping, and wonderfully written account. Morris displays organizational confidence that, by an insoluble paradox, can derive from humility alone. Lucky is the neophyte who acquires his first sustained introduction to Beethoven’s life and times from this book. Perhaps luckier still is the expert, his palate jaded by overfamiliarity, whom Morris’s enthusiasm will enable to fall in love with Beethoven’s achievement all over again.

Morris shares something of Beethoven’s sheer verbal bluntness: anyone who can, like Morris in his prologue, dismiss Mahler with the single superb epithet “masturbatory” possesses an obvious scorn for fads. There is also in Morris something of Beethoven’s astounding compressive gifts. In fewer than 250 widely-spaced pages of actual text, Morris conveys Beethoven’s depth with a skill that eludes many a dissertation twice as long. Here is no mere sketch, no dumbed-down Cliff’s Notes-style résumé for airheads. One finishes Morris’s homage not only with the sorrow involved in farewelling a musical genius but with the sense of an epic journey now finished.

Of the Kenyan-born Morris, and probably of no previous Beethoven scholar, it can be said that Beethoven literally saved him from death. Once, in Nairobi, after Morris had sat in virtual darkness with his father while listening to a Beethoven LP, the question arose: “which of us was going to get up and turn the lamp back on? I was too poleaxed by the music to move, so Dad did. This was fortunate, because the light disclosed a six-foot cobra that had somehow snuck in and coiled up on the warm parquet in front of the fire. Had I been the one to go to the lamp, I would have stepped barefoot right onto the cobra, and it would definitely have made its displeasure known.”

In his first chapter Morris depicts Bonn unforgettably, holding the reader’s attention at once: “The Bonn of his boyhood was a small, walled, black-and-white city. … Its peculiar chiaroscuro came from black lava streets and almost universal lime wash. Even the immense electoral palace was white, dazzling in summer but frigid looking in winter.” Redressing the imbalance caused by those who concentrate solely on Beethoven’s middle and final years, Morris delineates with obvious relish Beethoven the exuberant young pup, anticipating Nietzsche’s dictum “That which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Here is Beethoven’s father Johann, a bullying drunk whose life’s purpose seems to have lain in making Leopold Mozart resemble music’s greatest humanitarian—when Johann died, Bonn’s elector jeered, “The revenues of the liquor excise have suffered a loss.” Here are details of Beethoven’s apprenticeship under Haydn’s tutelage, during which a guarded mutual courtesy failed to hide a seething mutual impatience. Here is Haydn in his pathetic old age, suffering “a kind of torture inflicted by the body on the brain. He complained that his head was full of music beyond anything he had composed before, but that he simply could not write it down … he was good for little else but a daily session at his piano, playing that same anthem [“The Emperor’s Hymn”] over and over.” Here is a long, elaborate description of Beethoven’s first outright masterpiece, the “Funeral Cantata For Joseph II,” which could well have given Haydn some ideas for certain passages in the latter’s oratorio “The Creation,” although Morris dismisses, with justice, the notion that Haydn consciously plagiarized from his pupil. Here—treated, with a born dramatist’s art at the end of chapter two—are the first intimations that Beethoven, hitherto famed for his freakishly acute ear, might be going deaf:

Many decades later, Countess Therese Brunsvik recalled climbing those three flights of stairs ‘in the last year of the last century’ with her sister Josephine, a volume of music under her arm. Beethoven was ‘very friendly,’ and accompanied Therese as she sang for him. One thing struck her as odd. His piano was out of tune.

We still cannot be certain of what gradually, pitilessly, destroyed Beethoven’s hearing. The latest research blames this disaster upon lupus or some other autoimmune condition. This at least marks an improvement on the 1960s biographical craze for assuming that any famous man with mysterious health problems must have been syphilitic. A surprising number of other mysteries remain about Beethoven’s life, for all the billions of words it has elicited. No one has discovered the precise day, in 1770, of his birth; records indicate only that his baptism occurred on Dec. 17, from which it has been assumed, rather than proven, that his birth was the day before. And while speculation as to the identity of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” has largely ceased—in 1972 she was convincingly identified as Antonie Brentano, dedicatee of his “Diabelli Variations”—the relationship’s exact nature and extent continues to be guesswork. This has not prevented Hollywood from spewing forth the wildest conjectures about Beethoven’s sex life, notably in “Immortal Beloved,” a cinematic debauch beside which “Amadeus” looks like the epitome of tactful scholarship. It is “Immortal Beloved’s” ludicrous premise that Karl van Beethoven was not the composer’s nephew but his son. It could have been worse. Another baseless and yet more offensive theory describes Karl as being his uncle’s catamite.

Throughout Beethoven’s later life, many thought that his mental health had indeed gone the way of his auditory nerves. Berlin musician Carl Friedrich Zelter, the teacher of Mendelssohn, flatly assured Goethe, “Some say he is a lunatic.” By the time Beethoven reached his mid-40s, he could scarcely even hear others’ screams, much less their efforts at ordinary speech with him. His demonic—and ultimately successful—warfare against his licentious sister-in-law Johanna van Beethoven for the guardianship of young Karl is well summed up by Morris: “a whirl of litigation, fantasy, intrigue, and hyperactivity that resulted in a double precipitate: pain for all the human beings involved, and music that was, almost beyond credence, pure and grave and grand.” Eventually Karl took the royal road traveled by other misfits down the ages: he joined the army. Having done rather well in uniform—after life with Uncle Ludwig, any sergeant major, however insensate, must have seemed refreshing—he survived until 1858.

Even the best-known public triumph of Beethoven’s last years, namely the Ninth Symphony’s premiere in 1824, had the character of a bad dream. Either after the second movement or after the finale (sources differ), the audience clapped wildly, but Beethoven—lost, on the podium, in his reveries—continued conducting. “One of the soloists, the teenage soprano Caroline Unger, had to take him gently by the sleeve of his coat and turn him around so that he could see the tumult.” Three years later he perished, just after, with sublime appropriateness, a ferocious thunderclap. One startled guest in Beethoven’s sick room swore that at this thunderclap, “he saw Beethoven lift his right hand and clench it for several seconds, with staring eyes. Then the hand dropped.”

Soon the hangers-on struck. Anton Schindler, the master’s former secretary, stole Beethoveniana in huge quantities, including 138 of the conversation books through which Beethoven had striven to communicate with those around him. Schindler also poisoned the wells of Beethoven studies with such malign diligence that a hundred years elapsed before musicologists realized his full propensity as forger. Today, Morris laments, Austria’s and Germany’s Beethoven sites “have a tired, touristy, stop-at-the-shop quality to them. Guides recite Schindler’s fake anecdotes, and shrug when challenged.” Nevertheless, even on the tourist trail Morris finds genuine pilgrims—as distinct from clueless rubbernecks—to admire: “Climb the mildewed stairway of the most obscure building he ever lived in, and you can be fairly sure of bumping into a Welsh choral society, or a party of reverent Japanese.”

In Beethoven’s house are many mansions. For some music-lovers, the “Missa Solemnis” represents the peak of Beethoven’s output; for a much larger number of music-lovers, his last string quartets contain his quintessence. This reviewer, if his desert island allowed CDs of only one Beethoven genre, would choose the piano sonatas, preferably played by Claudio Arrau, with Artur Schnabel’s ancient performances—the fast movements mostly magnificent ruins, the slow movements exceptionally profound—as a supplement. With the piano sonatas, Beethoven has “not youth nor age.” There the shopworn tag about him being “the Shakespeare of music” is especially applicable because not only does no sonata resemble any other composer’s—except in the most superficial respects—but no sonata fundamentally resembles any of its companions either. Some look simple enough on the printed page for any sophomore with vague keyboard instincts to strum through them passably. Others, such as the “Hammerklavier,” are among the most forbidding obstacle courses—for performer and listener alike—that man’s mind can devise. Long may they continue so. As the late British pianist-musicologist Denis Matthews observed in his splendid monograph on these works: “The triumph of Everest would be nothing if one arrived at the summit by helicopter.” 

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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