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Book Review: Beethoven – The Universal Composer (Eminent Lives) by Edmund Morris

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Pulitzer-prize winning biographer Edmund Morris is best known for his detailed biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979) and Theodore Rex. But in Beethoven: The Universal Composer, Morris heeds the call of editor James Atlas and HarperCollins for a contribution to the Eminent Lives series, which also includes similar, short, biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sigmund Freud, and Alexis de Tocqueville.

Morris, a musician and music scholar, has studied Beethoven for 50 years. He distills, in that most British fashion, the life of the great composer, focusing equally on Beethoven’s life, art, personal and professional relationships, health, and place in the history of music. Morris deftly characterizes Beethoven’s place among contemporary and near contemporary composers thusly:

    Of all the great composers, Beethoven is the most enduring in his appeal to dilettantes and intellectuals alike. Bach and Mozart had their periods of misapprehension – the former mocked as passé even in his own lifetime, the latter miniaturized by the Victorians. Handel, by contrast, was giantified, but as the composer of Messiah mainly, at cost to his operatic achievement. Haydn —Beethoven’s teacher — is admired more by connoisseurs than by the general public. Schubert was still being caricatured as an idiot-savant songster long after World War II. Brahms has never gone down well in France; Bruckner is a minority taste outside the German-speaking world; and Sibelius, who once seems sure of a seat on Parnassus, has been replaced by the masturbatory Mahler.

That certainly hits the high points, besides the enduring Beethoven – a name so big he need be known only those three syllables. Lesser gods were known by one name before him, Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle and even lesser ones than that after. Morris captures this bigness without hyperbole if such an exaggerated description can be applied to such a larger-than-life talent. The biographer carefully navigates the composer’s childhood and adolescence, focusing on Beethoven’s paternal grandfather, Ludwig, as inspiration more than his drunken and abusive father, Johann.

Morris details Beethoven’s first publications and evolution toward both the Eroica and deafness. The writing begins to gain momentum when Morris juxtaposes the despair of the Heiligenstadt Testament with the music composed during — and shortly thereafter — Beethoven’s stay in that rural setting north of Vienna. It continues to speed to the famous Third Symphony, where Morris describes the effect of its performance at the Lobkowitz Palace:

    Anyone can walk into the second-floor concert hall and having first gotten used to its disconcerting smallness, imagine two fortissimo chords of E-flat major exploding around the room. They were cannon shots of a new symphonic language, remarkable not for their mere loudness…but for a discharge of energy that almost immediately drove the E-flat in the low strings down to a C-sharp, a pitch so far removed fro the tonic that it seemed a miracle that Beethoven could modulate back home only twelve bars later.

The initial failure of Fidelio is ruminated on at length, ending the unpleasant segment with a description of Beethoven’s December 22, 1808 concert, in which the composer unleashed on a naive public his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Fourth Piano concerto, portions of the C-major Mass and his Choral Fantasy, all to the tune of four hours of music. The concert went poorly and Morris quotes Mark Twain, that it would be merciful to draw, “the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.”

The “Immortal Beloved” is addressed as well as the death of Haydn, the meeting with Goethe, and the family strife in the composer’s efforts to gain guardianship of his brother Casper’s son, Karl. Clearly, Beethoven was quite mad during this period, as evidenced by his paranoid behavior and bad temper. His musical output declined as well as his health, primarily due to chronic hepatic disease resulting from fulminating ulcerative colitis. It was 1815, and the music was indeed running out of the composer. Morris notes that Beethoven, in a spasm of creativity, jotted down four bars that would ultimately become the fugal ending of his future masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven emerged slowly from his personal strife into what is called his “Third” and final creative period. The beginning of this period is debatable, but it more than likely began with the composition of the 33 “Diabelli Variations.” This last period produced the grand Missa Solemnis, the last five string quartets, the last five piano sonatas, and the most sublime, the Ninth Symphony. This is rarified music to be sure. Morris describes the latter:

    It was [Beethoven’s] downbeat, therefore, that produced the most revolutionary sound in symphonic history: a long, hovering, almost inauditable bare fifth on A, seemingly static yet full of storm. High over this cloud layer, like reflections of distant lightening, a series of broken fifths dropped pianissimo and very slowly. They repeated themselves, no louder, while the hovering fifth prevented any sense of acceleration.

An astute listener does not need to read music to understand what is happening. It is as perfectly obvious as it is revolutionary. This is the pinnacle of Western Musical Thought, well described in words. All music was permanently changed with the Ninth Symphony. Not Brahms, Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, or anyone thereafter produced such music. Author Morris not only presents with crystal clarity, he does so in a way beyond argument. Beethoven: The Universal Composer is a grand introduction to Beethoven before one embarks on Thayer or Solomon.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!