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Book Review: Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

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Before preparing to dig into Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris, you’d be well advised to stock up on a fairly complete collection of his works to accompany your reading. Written by Edmund Morris, this brief biography of the man who is arguably the world’s greatest composer is filled densely with commentary, not only on his life, but upon his very compositions.

Seamlessly weaving together Beethoven’s life and art, Morris (himself a pianist and private music scholar) gives at least equal page space to the music as much as he does to the man. Well researched, readers are steered through Beethoven’s life while avoiding most conjecture, and as forgery is separated from fact, conjecture from the concrete.The author's  skilled guidance is much appreciated by one with little knowledge of the composer’s life outside of caricature-like character sketches.

Still, it is easy enough to become bogged down in the technical descriptions of Beethoven’s sonatas, symphonies, quartets, and so on, as the number of his works multiplies exponentially throughout his life. Even with the aid of the period-appropriate glossary of musical terms to guide the uninitiated through these descriptions, I struggled to ‘hear’ the compositions that were referenced by name and written description alone. Clearly describing music with the written word is a difficult task at best, even for the most accomplished of authors.

Morris also firmly places Beethoven in history, clearly illuminating his influences, the turbulent political climate he lived through, and the nobility that offered him patronage and hospitality (if not true understanding) throughout his lifetime.

More captivating to me, however, were Morris’ descriptions of the man himself: passionate, driven, and very much the social misfit. Morris draws no gentle veil across the face of one of history’s geniuses, and with an artist so clearly human, he never shies away from the contradictions so common in a human life. Beethoven, while he composes religious music in his later life, is both devout and faithful with daily prayer and theological studies; at the same time he continues to frequent prostitutes while harboring a secret love for a married woman. Clearly, this adult-level biography is best suited for older readers, though the text is never explicit or vulgar.

Though Morris clearly strives for only what can be historically shown, he clearly attributes Beethoven with not only the wild behavior in his later years that he is so associated with, but also with a deeper torment of the soul. Some of the book’s most poignant and emotionally powerful passages are those relating to Beethoven’s final years – his increasing paranoia, his failing health, and his wild emotional inconsistencies.

Amusingly, Morris at times abandons clear readability in exchange for artificially (and at times repetitive) puffed-up vocabulary. When combined with long passages describing the technical merits of Beethoven’s music, this can result in some slogging through the text on the part of the reader. Still, I found this work more readable and engaging as it progressed, and as I in turn came to know the man it described more closely. For the curious general reader, there is certainly enough of Beethoven here to satisfy.

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About Jennifer Bogart