Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Beethoven

Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2018

by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books 1977)

I’ve been wanting to read a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven for a long time; a friend lent me this one. Maynard Solomon divides the great composer’s life into four stages: his childhood and adolescence in Bonn; his early years in Vienna; his “heroic” period in Vienna, including the Napoleanic wars and his romance with Antonie Brentano, the “Immortal Beloved”; and the end of his life, post-Immortal Beloved.

Ludwig/Louis van Beethoven never had a real childhood. He was cruelly abused by his alcoholic father when he was very young; by the time he entered adolescence, he was the main breadwinner for the family and responsible for his two younger brothers.

In Vienna, where he went to study under Haydn, Beethoven was known to be eccentric, devoid of social skills, and lacking in normal manners, but his virtuosity at the pianoforte and later his skill as a composer enabled  people to overlook his many faults, and he became famous among musicians and the music-loving public. (This is not to say that everything he composed was marked by genius; he was not above appealing to the common concert-goer.) He seems to have been incapable of forming and maintaining a normal love relationship with a woman. He kept falling for unavailable women; Antonie Brantano, although she did love him in return, was married. Ending the affair forced Beethoven to recognize that he was never going to marry. Perhaps this is why he became so obsessed with wresting his nephew Karl from his mother’s care and acting as his parent (sadly, an abusive one; this was all he knew). It would be the closest he got to actual fatherhood.

The book is very detailed, meticulously researched and footnoted. However, Solomon tends to attribute emotions and motivations to Beethoven (and others) as if they were facts, rather than speculation. In some instances, he bases these pronouncements on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who may have been the God of psychoanalysis in the 1970s but has been largely discredited in the 21st century, making parts of the book seem dated (and less convincing that they probably were back when it was published). The dry, academic tone makes it slow going. I found The Teaching Company’s Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life and Music to be much more accessible and memorable. In fact, some of what I have said here may actually have come from this set of eight lectures taught by Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Greenberg refers often to the Solomon biography, and he credits him with being the first person to conclusively show that Antonie Brentano was the only woman who could have been the Immortal Beloved. But Greenberg takes the same material and presents it in a much more interesting way. Of course, it’s very helpful when one has the chance to listen to excerpts from the music being discussed, which a book cannot provide. Instead, Solomon finishes each of his four sections with a chapter titled “The Music”, in which he describes, analyzes, and gives the historical significance of the music Beethoven produced during that period. I found these chapters deadly boring. for the most part. I am not familiar with most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, and even when I know a piece well, I find it impossible to make sense of or appreciate a historical or musical analysis of it. I would much rather just listen to it. I don’t mind being told about the music (along with hearing it), but just reading about it is deadly. How glad I am that I did not major in music! I would have been forced to read stuff like that, and worse, write stuff like that.

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