Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Beethoven: The Universal Composer

Posted by nliakos on November 14, 2007

by Edmund Morris; read by John McDonough (Recorded Books 2005)

Although I have known Beethoven’s symphonies and some of his piano sonatas all my life, reading this biography brought home to me just how much music he wrote that does not get played a lot on classical radio and that I have never heard, or even heard of. It made me curious about several pieces; one that I just had to listen to was the Cantata on the Death of the Emperor Joseph, which I paid my first visit to the Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland to obtain. I’ve listened to it once, and plan on listening many times more before I have to give it back next week. Beethoven wrote it when he was only nineteen.

What little I knew of Beethoven the man I got from Vicki’s Classical Kids tape, Beethoven Lives Upstairs. That was set near the end of his life, when he was composing the Ninth Symphony. This book covers his whole life from childhood to death at age 56 from (perhaps) a lupus-related liver problem. I have to admit that descriptions of individual pieces of music leave me cold because if I can’t hear or remember the music, they don’t mean much; I sometimes found my attention drifting as I listened, or else I was wishing I could listen to the piece simultaneously.

Beethoven was surely an unusual person. He seems to have had Asperger-like behaviors. He was hopeless at math, was sometimes slovenly, and does not seem to have been capable of empathizing with others. The worst came when he fought with his dying (then dead) brother’s widow over their son. He wanted custody of the boy, and he did not want the mother to be co-guardian or even to visit him. He suffered from paranoia; he accused her of all manner of things. The poor mother must have been frantic, but several courts sided with the famous uncle rather than with her. The boy, Karl, should have been traumatized but seems to have gotten through the years of battle relatively unscathed; I can’t imagine how.

On the whole, I enjoyed learning about the man behind all that gorgeous music, even if I don’t think I would have liked to know him personally.

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