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Karen Sue SmithSeptember 02, 2014
Beethovenby John Suchet

Atlantic Monthly Press. 400p $30

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 31, though not feeling well, was hard at work composing the opera “Don Giovanni” when he was asked to listen to a 16-year-old pianist from Bonn who had traveled to Vienna in the hope of studying with him. The teenager played a prepared song, then improvised at the keyboard. The improvisation impressed Mozart. “Watch out for that boy,” he told the people in the next room. “One day he will give the world something to talk about.” Four years later Mozart lay in a pauper’s grave. The teenager who had played for him, Ludwig van Beethoven, was headed for Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, where he would spend 34 years dazzling Europe’s music lovers in fulfillment of Mozart’s prophecy.

This story, as the biographer John Suchet admits, is a second-hand account written 60 years after Mozart’s death, but it positions Beethoven as Mozart’s true musical heir. Like Mozart, Beethoven was a musical prodigy, though his father was not as adept as Mozart’s father in marketing his son’s talent. Beethoven had mastered the entirety of J. S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” by the age of 12. At 11, Beethoven showed Christian Gottlob Neefe, his teacher, his first composition for the piano. “The Dressler Variations” is based on the work of Ernst Christoph Dressler, a German composer. Neefe, to his lasting credit, made sure that his pupil’s manuscript was published. Next Beethoven composed three piano sonatas, which, Suchet argues, deserve to be added to the standard 32. And at age 13, Beethoven secured his first paying job as assistant court organist (not apprentice) to Neefe. These were extraordinary accomplishments.

Mozart may never have given Beethoven a single lesson. The Vienna trip was cut short when word came that Beethoven’s mother was seriously ill; she died within three months. Six years later, Beethoven, 22, made another trip to Vienna, where Joseph Haydn, 60, taught him musical theory and counterpoint. This time Beethoven learned that his father had died. For years Beethoven had been the family breadwinner, so at the news he hunkered down away from home to make his name. He studied, performed, composed and quickly took Vienna by storm. He was, writes Suchet, “a piano virtuoso unlike any this city had seen, not excepting Mozart.”

Beethoven’s grandfather Ludwig had been Kapellmeister, the leading musician in Bonn, prominent in the community and stable financially. But Beethoven’s father, Johann, a talented young tenor, never lived up to his potential. Instead he became a notorious alcoholic who failed to develop his talents and shirked his role as a provider. Fortunately, the little genius had a long list of other mentors.

The two central dramas (both “tragedies”) of Beethoven’s life make the most compelling reading in the book. First, Beethoven had trouble forming close reciprocal relationships. He managed to make several important friendships. Stephan von Breuning, for example, Beethoven’s closest and longest lasting friend, was at his bedside on the day Beethoven died. Stephan was a child in an aristocratic family that virtually embraced Beethoven as a member, though he was hired to teach the children piano. That said, Beethoven floundered repeatedly at intimacy. He fell in love with several women and had one genuine romance—the “immortal beloved” (still unidentified) he addressed in a famous love letter. Yet Beethoven never found a marriage partner. What makes this fact tragic is that Beethoven manifested an extra large heart, enormous passion and an outsized longing for intimacy.

A very different example also ended tragically. Upon the death of his brother Carl, Beethoven filed suit for custody of his nephew, Karl. That would have given Beethoven a son and an heir. But once Uncle Wolfgang took in Karl, his dominating style of guardianship ultimately sent the youth packing. Given his own father as a role model, it is not surprising that Beethoven would fail as a surrogate. Neglect was not Beethoven’s failing, but rather overzealousness to the point of suffocation.

Deafness is the best known drama of Beethoven’s life, though I had not realized how young Beethoven was, 26, when he began to lose his hearing. Deafness is also central to the most poignant passage in Suchet’s book, a page-turner account of the premiere performance of his Ninth Symphony. The lead-up includes the usual conflicts and reversals that made difficult any concert with Beethoven. There were arguments over the venue, the costs, the singers and musicians, the performance dates and the conductor. In those days the composer, as his own agent, had to do all of that work and assume all the financial risk.

This time Beethoven insisted on conducting the symphony himself, though all of Vienna knew that Europe’s foremost composer had grown stone deaf. Somehow Michael Umlauf was engaged, but only as a backup conductor. After Beethoven mounted the dais, Umlauf stood directly behind him. Beethoven conducted the music, hearing it only in his head, but Umlauf led the musicians, who played “as if their lives depended on it.” After months of anticipation, the audience was rapt, and Umlauf moved the music at a driving pace. At the final chord, the audience rose to cheer the composer, chanting his name and stomping their feet in praise. But Beethoven, oblivious, was still conducting at a slower tempo (I assume he had his eyes closed in concentration). Seeing this, the contralto touched his shoulder, and he nodded toward the crowd. Suchet writes: “At that moment Beethoven knew the gift he had given to the world.”

The climactic reference recalls one of the most significant points Suchet makes in this general interest biography aimed to show Beethoven as both man and musician. Musical genius left Beethoven feeling extreme isolation and rejection at times; deafness magnified the effects. Once when Beethoven contemplated suicide, his acceptance of responsibility for genius saved him. He realized he had been given a musical gift for the world and felt compelled to use it fully. John Suchet, a radio host, Beethoven scholar and enthusiast, shows how “the greatest musical genius in Europe” buckled under the strain at times, but ultimately bore up and triumphed.

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