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Beethoven: The Man Revealed
by John Suchet
443 pages and 8 colour plates
ISBN: 9781783964963, paperback
First published 2012 – revised 2020 (in association with Classic FM) Elliott and Thompson
Despite the widespread praise accorded the original publication of this, John Suchet’s biography of Beethoven – a success reflected in its substantial sales - it inevitably came in for some criticism, beginning with complaints regarding the author’s supposedly “journo-chatty” style. However, as Suchet makes clear in his preface, the book was not written for the academic or musicologist; his informal prose is clearly designed with the general reader in mind. I certainly do not find his manner to be irritating; his writes in the clear, uncluttered fashion typical of the seasoned quality journalist, without affectation or undue starchiness but also without descending into vulgarity. Another complaint was that the paucity of real facts about Beethoven’s life obliges him to speculate freely and frequently regarding the circumstances of the composer’s life then frequently apologise for that speculation, however interesting. For some, that amounts to taking excessive licence and fails in its aim of giving the reader a better understanding of the essential personality of the man. Indeed, whether the ambitious claim enshrined in the subtitle – “The Man Revealed” – is fulfilled is debatable, but Beethoven was enigmatic and contradictory and the post mortem destruction of over a hundred of his conversation notebooks by his secretary has rendered the biographer’s task more much difficult than might have been the case had they been preserved and for the most part, his conjectures are plausible and stimulating.
It would seem that Ludwig’s father Johann attempted to exploit his son’s precocious talent rather as Leopold had done with Wolfgang Amadeus, but Johann’s alcoholism and venality meant that Beethoven enjoyed less paternal affection than did Mozart. Fortunate in his teacher Neefe and the patronage he received in his youth from the Elector, the Bonn Lesegesellschaft and Count Waldstein, Beethoven otherwise found life increasingly difficult as he aged, and a picture emerges of a lonely and conflicted man; I cannot see how Suchet could have done much more to bring his gloomy subject alive, although perhaps more quotations from Beethoven’s correspondence might have been helpful.
A further criticism of the first edition was that there wasn’t sufficient commentary on the music itself – in particular, neglect of the originality of the earlier music and only a brief mention of the Missa solemnis, which Beethoven regarded as his greatest achievement- so this “updated 250th anniversary edition” in paperback includes “a new music section covering all Beethoven’s most important works”, in which the Mass gets its own brief chapter and is credited as “far and away Beethoven’s greatest piece for orchestra and voices.” While it is true that Suchet could have made more of the innovative nature of the first string quartets, he could not have covered everything and does the reader the service of drawing attention to neglected masterpieces such as the nineteen-year-old composer’s first masterpiece, Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, which languished unperformed until Brahms advocated its revival in 1884 and the author’s own “candidate for Beethoven’s most neglected and underrated composition”, the Choral Fantasia, Op. 80. (I recommend sampling the clips of the cantata
on YouTube sung exquisitely by Kiri Te Kanawa in a live concert conducted by Colin Davis in 1970 in the Royal Festival Hall.)
The biography begins arrestingly with an evocative description of the Beethoven’s funeral arrangements, highlighting the ironic contrast between the homage paid by the citizens of Vienna and their neglect of him in his declining years. It ends with a similarly evocative and moving description of Beethoven’s last days, tended by devoted doctors and friends.
Touchy, physically imposing but unprepossessing and serially rejected in his unilateral passions for unobtainable women, Beethoven’s undoubted status as the successor to Mozart and Haydn and the premier virtuoso-performer-composer in Vienna and the world at large did not necessarily compensate for his deteriorating health and hearing and glum private life. The flashes of wit and joy which manifest themselves both anecdotally and in his music are sporadic; for the most part, Beethoven’s life was one, long struggle and exterior events such as the effects of the Napoleonic Wars exacerbated his difficulties.
There are some fascinating anecdotes which show Beethoven to be irascible, cantankerous, humorous, remorseful and prudish – as ever, a mass of contradictions but, in short, a very complicated human being. The latter characteristic is demonstrated by the story of George Bridgewater, the Afro-European violinist who astonished Beethoven with his virtuosity.
He forfeited, via an off-colour remark about a lady, the dedication of the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata and died in poverty and obscurity in London almost sixty years later still regretting his lost opportunity – while Kreutzer, ironically, never played the composition that Beethoven re-dedicated to him.
Suchet synthesises various sources to concoct an entertaining narrative of Beethoven’s chaotic existence, lurching from disaster to triumph and back again, his progress interspersed with sometimes ludicrously inept premieres and performances of some of the greatest music the world has ever heard, his personal life a farrago of opportunities lost and gained, rows, tantrums, the alienation of benefactors, doomed affairs of the heart, and his unscrupulous – at best – wrangling over custodianship of his nephew Karl whose attempted suicide so exacerbated his uncle’s precarious mental and physical condition. There are occasional cheering interludes, such as Broadwood’s gift of the grand fortepiano and the triumphant premiere of the Choral Symphony, but for the most part the tale is a grim one. The miracle is that amid so much dysfunctionality works of enduring genius were composed.
Suchet frequently alludes to the one, tragic “fact everyone knows” about Beethoven: that he went progressively and ultimately profoundly deaf. However, although he began to lose his hearing as early as 1797, recent examination of new contemporary sources by academic Theodore Albrecht at Kent State University, Ohio, suggests that Beethoven might have retained some faint hearing ability in his left ear even as late as the year before his death in 1827. As Suchet himself says in the preface, “Given that new facts and information emerge constantly, there are some aspects of this book that will inevitably become outdated or even prove incorrect” but on page 130, Suchet writes that the implication of sentiments expressed by Beethoven in his will is that “he never totally lost his hearing. Something always got through, however distorted, right to the end” and he recently commented about the new research that “[i]t confirms what we have always suspected - Beethoven never went completely deaf”. He will undoubtedly discuss this in more detail as part of his ongoing, year-long series of broadcasts about Beethoven every Saturday evening on Classic FM and you may read more about it on
the Classic FM website.
The three final sections of the book supplement the narrative usefully: the most important music, according to Suchet, in its various, different genres, is considered under the triple format of “Background; Form; Listen out for:”, then there is a Cast of Characters and a Timeline – all very convenient and user-friendly. No examples of musical notation are given for the reasons given in my opening above but the amateur listener is given helpful pointers. The eight pages of glossy illustrations – some of which are colour plates – are a welcome embellishment. Anyone seeking a thoroughly readable, digestible and entertaining biography of a great, flawed man will find this book more than satisfactory.