Beethoven bio re­vis­its a mu­si­cal ge­nius

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Chris­tine Mazur

COUNT­LESS bi­ogra­phies of one of the world’s most rec­og­nized clas­si­cal mu­sic com­posers, Lud­wig van Beethoven, al­ready ex­ist. Why Bri­tish jour­nal­ist, radio host and ad­mit­ted Beethoven ob­ses­sive John Suchet felt the need to add one more is not en­tirely clear, es­pe­cially since this is his sixth bi­o­graph­i­cal vol­ume about the leg­endary Ger­man com­poser. Suchet’s pre­vi­ous books on his ob­ses­sion in­clude an epic tril­ogy, The Last Master (a de­tailed bi­og­ra­phy), The Classic FM Friendly Guide to Beethoven (lighter read­ing for lis­ten­ers) and The Trea­sures of Beethoven (an in­tro­duc­tion Beethoven’s life and works). Suchet wrote this one, he in­sists, be­cause there is cur­rently no bi­og­ra­phy for non-aca­demics and non-schol­ars of mu­sic who sim­ply love Beethoven’s mu­sic. Not a note or bar staff ap­pear in the text, which is un­like most com­pre­hen­sive works writ­ten to date on the pro­lific deaf com­poser of 138 works pub­lished dur­ing his life, plus hun­dreds more un­pub­lished. Suchet rec­om­mends for fur­ther read­ing The Beethoven Com­pen­dium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Mu­sic (1991) and Beethoven (2000) by mu­sic pro­fes­sor Barry Cooper. What is new here, ac­cord­ing to Suchet, who writes en­thu­si­as­ti­cally in first per­son like a radio host talk­ing to lis­ten­ers, are some source doc­u­ments trans­lated into English for the first time, and ex­tra fo­cus on events in Beethoven’s life (17701827) that were given lit­tle or no at­ten­tion in other bi­ogra­phies. For ex­am­ple, hardly any bi­ogra­phies delve suf­fi­ciently (for Suchet’s lik­ing) into the de­tails of how 16-year-old Beethoven met the leg­endary Wolf­gang Amadeus Mozart in 1787 in Vi­enna. That they met is a fact, but what tran­spired be­tween them is miss­ing. Lack­ing facts, Suchet puts to­gether what might rea­son­ably have tran­spired given the cir­cum­stances of their lives and what is known of their per­son­al­i­ties. Mozart, 31, was ill at that time, with four years left to live. His fi­nances were bad and his fam­ily life was in tur­moil. Suchet spec­u­lates that the el­e­gant Aus­trian would have been less than im­pressed with the messy-haired teenager who sup­pos­edly played the pi­ano. Suchet wants to know: did Mozart give Beethoven les­sons? Why did nei­ther of them write a word about the meet­ing? The only notes in Beethoven’s pa­pers that men­tion Mozart are ques­tions from his nephew Karl in a con­ver­sa­tion book that Beethoven used af­ter go­ing deaf. “You knew Mozart, where did you see him?” and “Was Mozart a good pi­anoforte player?” Suchet laments the fact that Beethoven would have spo­ken his answers out loud, leav­ing noth­ing for pos­ter­ity. Such spec­u­la­tion is fas­ci­nat­ing but none­the­less fic­tion­al­ized — the truth of what was said will al­ways be a mys­tery. One nui­sance in the book is the com­pletely un­nec­es­sary set of foot­notes at the back which mostly serve to dis­rupt the oth­er­wise en­gross­ing nar­ra­tive, adding lit­tle use­ful in­for­ma­tion. Most if not all could have eas­ily been placed at the bot­tom of the page or worked into the body. Suchet’s Beethoven is more like the man re­vis­ited than the man revealed. He is not so dif­fer­ent from the pas­sion­ate, wild ge­nius we al­ready know about from pop­u­lar cul­ture rep­re­sen­ta­tions like the Bernard Rose film Im­mor­tal Beloved (1994) star­ring Gary Old­man, or the chil­dren’s film Beethoven Lives Up­stairs (1992). Win­nipeg writer Chris­tine Mazur has played the vi­olin since she was three.

Beethoven The Man Revealed By John Suchet At­lantic Monthly Press, 400 pages,

$34.50

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