More from Books

If we stop idolising Beethoven we might understand him better

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

18 July 2020

9:00 AM

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces Laura Tunbridge

Viking, pp.288, 16.99

Ludwig von Beethoven belongs among those men whom not only Vienna and Germany, but Europe and our entire age revere. With Mozart and Haydn he makes up the unequalled triumvirate of more recent music. The ingenious depth, the constant originality, the ideal in his compositions that flows from a great soul assure him… of the recognition of every true admirer of the divine Polyhymnia.

Originality, nobility, greatness, genius – when it comes to Beethoven, we all know the score. It was a beatification that happened early, as this paean from Germany’s deliciously titled Morning Paper for the Educated Classes reminds us.

Published in 1823, a few years before Beethoven’s death, it starts the process of polishing up a living man into a musical god, ready for his eternal altar. Whether conscious or unconscious, that subtle substitution of the aristocratic German ‘von’ for the workaday Dutch ‘van’ in Beethoven’s name is revealing — part of the glossing and gilding, the retouching that, over the centuries, has become indistinguishable from the man beneath.

Beethoven was one of the earliest figures to be commemorated by a statue — supported by no lesser champions than Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. But having started her book at the foot of this towering bronze figure that still stands in Bonn’s Munsterplatz, Laura Tunbridge spends the rest of it dismantling it, gently but firmly tugging Beethoven down until we’re no longer gazing up at that stern, glowering face, but looking it square in the eye.

Tunbridge is less interested in the cult of Beethoven and its many myths than by the process of myth-making itself and its stakeholders. By anchoring the composer firmly in his age and home town of Vienna, she offers a brisk corrective to the image of the lofty Romantic hero, isolated from society by deafness and genius. The Beethoven whom we meet here, drinking in coffee houses and walking the streets, negotiating with publishers and wooing city officials to his cause, is both grubbier and warmer to the touch: a man of political passion but also expediency, an artist as well as a shrewd businessman not above a little dishonesty to further his gains, a composer with lofty ambitions and a sociable extrovert who loved puns and crude jokes.

A slimmer volume than most biographies of the composer, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces cuts straight to the action. Taking nine of the works as prisms to explore broader themes of family, spirituality, love and politics, Tunbridge cuts an idiosyncratic path through a large and unwieldy output. Some will be horrified by her choices and omissions: no Fifth or Ninth Symphony; no Appassionataor Pathetique Sonata; no Violin Concerto or Emperor Piano Concerto. But she does find room both for the early Septet and the rousing orchestral novelty Wellington’s Victory, alongside the more obvious Eroica Symphony, Grosse Fuge and Missa Solemnis.

These choices may be unexpected, but they are neither wilful nor contrarian. In redirecting her focus, Tunbridge balances the traditional narrative of universal, timeless genius, of innovation before its time, with a pragmatic, jobbing musician working hard to make a living. There’s a tiny note at the start about money — a brief discussion of currencies and their value. Don’t be tempted to skip it; it’s the subject that underpins the whole book, the theme that hums distantly but audibly in the background of every chapter.

Tunbridge’s interest lies in the business of music-making: the precarious system of patronage that sustained a city that, while it prided itself on artistic status, lacked a professional, full-time orchestra throughout Beethoven’s lifetime; the self-funded Akademie concerts that helped make Beethoven’s name (where, in a single, disastrous night, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Choral Fantasy were all premiered); the tussles with rights and publishers in an age new to intellectual copyright.

When we start to see Beethoven as a cog in this unwieldy system, rather than as a composer whose genius suspends him above it, we begin to see the music differently too. Works such as the mighty Hammer-klavier Sonata go from familiar war horses to risky new music, not always welcomed or understood by first-time audiences; and pieces such as the Septet and Wellington’s Victory, often dismissed as jingoistic or overtly populist, take on a new stature and significance.

Tunbridge’s attitude is as brisk as her prose. She has no truck with romance or the ‘Beethoven syndrome’ of reading biography into every bar of music, and the book is at its best when it examines the ledgers and sketchbooks of a life. She makes the potentially dull interesting — but at the cost of sometimes making the interesting rather dull. Topics such as the identity of the composer’s mysterious ‘immortal beloved’ may be speculative, gossipy and impossible to anchor in fact, but there’s a reason they’ve held the imagination for so long. To dismiss them is both reasonable and rational, but does risk rubbing more than just the gilding off this enigmatic, difficult, compelling character.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments