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is a minority taste outside the German-speaking world; and Sibelius, who once seems sure of a seat on Parnassus, has been replaced by the masturbatory Mahler.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.”