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15 January 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:13pm

Meet the maestro: Beethoven’s fraught personal life

Two very different biographical works give surprising insight into the great composer's character.

By Nicholas Lezard

Conversations with Beethoven
Sanford Friedman
New York Review Books Classics, 304pp, £9.99

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
Jan Swafford
Faber & Faber, 1,104pp, £30

A Peanuts cartoon from 1974 shows Schroeder the musical prodigy playing his piano while the lovelorn Lucy van Pelt, as usual, leans against it. She reminds him that it is Beethoven’s birthday tomorrow and asks what he is going to buy her. “I’m not going to buy you anything,” replies Schroeder, who becomes increasingly animated. “You know why? Because you don’t care anything about Beethoven! You never have! You don’t care that he suffered! You don’t care that his stomach hurt and that he couldn’t hear! You never cared that the countess turned him down, or that Therese married the baron instead of him, or that Lobkowicz stopped his annuity!” He storms off. (And Lucy asks after him, after two silent panels: “If the countess hadn’t turned him down, would you buy me something?”)

Such succinct poignancy. Schroeder’s rage and exasperation deliberately echo Beethoven’s, as well as his reactions to the public’s sense of mystification and obscure insult when presented with some of his later works. When the composer learned that the audience had not asked for the string quartet composition Große Fuge, Op 133 to be encored, he said, “And why didn’t they encore the fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!”

This we all know, or vaguely know, about Beethoven: his temper, his deafness, that there was someone he called “immortal beloved” in his life, his erasing of Bonaparte’s name from the title page of the score of what became the Eroica; but not, I would suspect, much else. The Peanuts cartoon works equally well, but very differently, whether we know anything about Beethoven’s life or we don’t: the chances are the reader doesn’t. (This despite any number of biographies extant and in print.)

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“It is always interesting and sometimes even important to have intimate knowledge of a composer’s life, but it is not essential in order to understand the composer’s works,” wrote Daniel Barenboim in a piece on Beethoven for the New York Review of Books in 2013; and Charles Shulz’s cartoon expresses in ten panels what Jan Swafford’s new biography manages in about 1,100 pages. In terms of insight, that is, not in detail. This is deliberate. Swafford’s model, as he says in his introduction, was Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s monumental five-volume study, published between 1866 and 1908. “That American writer,” Swafford says, “set out with the goal of assembling every available fact about Beethoven and putting it down as clearly as possible. ‘I fight for no theories and cherish no prejudices,’ Thayer wrote.” Interesting how Swafford specifies Thayer’s nationality and quotes his disdain for “theories” and “prejudices”. What this means is that we are going to get a competent and inclusive biography and Thayer is not going to stray into territory that might demand us to think about Beethoven rather than learn about him.

There is no mention, in either book or bibliography, for instance, of Theodor Adorno, who wrote at some length and with great insight about Beethoven’s music. There is an implicit, subliminal rebuke there, for those who have ears to hear it. (So it is also interesting when, a few pages later, Swafford talks about his first youthful exposure to Beethoven – in this case the purchase of a recording of the Eroica in his teens in Chattanooga, Tennessee: “It went in one ear and out the other,” Swafford writes with winning candour. And yet, “Reconstruct how I heard Beethoven as a child” are the opening words of Adorno’s “prelude” to his Beet­hoven: the Philosophy of Music. Adorno is less modest – for, one suspects, all sorts of reasons – about his initial reactions.)

Beethoven, however, is a subject rich in material for biographical exploitation. He was not a man to abide by the polite conventions and there was always something going on around him, either in his household or in society at large. There was also always something that would make Beet­hoven kick off. His brother had signed off a New Year greeting to him with the words “Johann van Beethoven, landowner”; Beet­hoven responded by writing “Ludwig van Beethoven, brain-owner” on the back.

The most lionised composer of his time, the fulcrum of a new musical movement, he was also the most controversial. His personal life was fraught: when he wasn’t being turned down by one countess, he was getting into compromising situations with other women, flirting with the pianist Marie Bigot enough to enrage her husband (in his defence, she was a very good pianist). And in his later life he had his nephew Karl to worry about, a wildly unstable young man who ran away from home and attempted suicide – in an era when this was not seen as “a cry for help” but an arrestable offence.

You will learn all this from Swafford. Also, when discussing the loves of his middle to later years, that: “Only to youth can love seem easy. With the years come losses that taint the yearning and the passion.” Swafford may spurn theory but he does not disdain the wide-ranging proclamation. “Most of the time the extraordinary begins in the ordinary,” he tells us at the beginning of chapter two (“Father, Mother, Son”). “The father who has extravagant dreams for his child. The father who . . . ” This continues for three further “the father whos”, one “the son who”, one “the mother who”, one “the wife who” and one “the wife and mother who”, none of these being strictly necessary or relevant. I would rather have read Swafford – for he is a more-than-competent transmitter and explicator of the structure and effects of music – on, say, the astonishing gasps of the first violin in the cavatina of the String Quartet No 13, Op 130, like a kind of syncopated silence; but this will have to do.

Another approach to discovering the character of the man comes in the form of Sanford Friedman’s Conversations with Beethoven, a novel that is constructed from a very clever and simple idea: the notes that people had to write in order to communicate with the deaf composer, whether face to face or over long distances. Friedman, who died in 2010, was something of a prodigy – a playwright and novelist who also won a Bronze Star in Korea – but until now never found a publisher for this book, which is a scandal. But at least NYRB Classics (which has never published a duff book since it came into being, so far as I know) has rescued it from limbo.

If the form, tone and indeed chapter headings of Swafford’s book are conventional, Friedman’s fiction is unconventional and rigorously so – a bit like his subject’s music, you might say – and at times as moving in the same way, as it, too, exploits silences and pauses. A sample passage:

Great maestro, you have my heartfelt thanks for permitting me.

Alas, I realise that things will never be the same with us, not at least while Holz is with you. But perhaps after his impending marriage.

You misunderstand, my tears are
not for myself.

Friedman sticks to this, except for a few times when Beethoven writes down, rather than speaks, his replies, or when he writes a letter; but otherwise the novel, while being as formally audacious as, say, William Gaddis’s J R (written almost entirely in dialogue), is not as forbidding. We get to work out very quickly who is writing the notes – and having to join the dots ourselves, as it were, reconstructing Beethoven’s words from the way people have replied to him (“Nonsense! No one has forgotten you”), creates, somehow, something much more than an outline. For a time, we become him. It is an astonishing achievement.

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