Beethoven: The Universal Composer (Eminent Lives Series)

Beethoven: The Universal Composer (Eminent Lives Series)

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by Edmund Morris

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“Brilliant....This book is a perfect marriage—or should one say, duet—of subject and author, every word as masterly as the notes of the artist it illuminates.” — Christopher Buckley, Forbes

“This is not just criticism but poetry in itself, with the additional—and inestimable—merit of being true.”

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“Brilliant....This book is a perfect marriage—or should one say, duet—of subject and author, every word as masterly as the notes of the artist it illuminates.” — Christopher Buckley, Forbes

“This is not just criticism but poetry in itself, with the additional—and inestimable—merit of being true.” — Washington Post Book World

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, Dutch) is one of America’s most distinguished biographers, known for his rich, compulsively readable prose style. His biography of Beethoven, one of the most admired composers in the history of music, is above all a study of genius in action, of one of the few giants of Western culture. Beethoven is another engaging entry in the HarperCollins’ “Eminent Lives” series of biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures.

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Editorial Reviews

Tim Page
… as a historian, Morris knows how to set a scene, tell a story, reconstruct a world. At 240 pages, his Beethoven is succinct but sufficient -- a deft, deeply satisfying mid-length compromise between the brilliant popular profile in Harold C. Schonberg's The Lives of the Great Composers and the exhaustive scholarly biography by Maynard Solomon.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This addition to the Eminent Lives Series by Pulitzer-winning biographer Morris (Theodore Rex; Dutch) does not disappoint. The author provides a close analysis of only one cantata, the early (written at 19) and relatively obscure Joseph II, but leaves no doubt he could easily do the same for the more radical and magisterial works, which are "bothersome to orthodox opinion" about Beethoven's time, were the ground not so well trodden. Outsize in talent, Beethoven was a difficult, ugly little man, uncomfortable with women (Immortal Beloved and a certain amount of "groupie" attention notwithstanding, he seems never to have had a successful romantic relationship), snobbish and a raving egotist. His seven-year legal battle with his sister-in-law over custody of her son assumed "manic proportions" and set him "drifting toward paranoia." Yet not only did his prodigious productivity never falter, his psychosis, alcoholism, chronic rages, famous deafness and increasing illness ("dropsy"-edema-cirrhosis and possibly lupus killed him at 56) actually seemed to spur his genius: the greatest works are the later ones. Morris clearly admires his subject not only for the work but also for his constant fight against the odds, and he has written an ideal biography for the general reader. (Oct. 4) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For more than 175 years, Ludwig van Beethoven has had an enormous following among the general public. Yet nearly all of the numerous books written about him address fans with highly developed musical skills and/or substantive knowledge of technical details. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Morris (Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan; Theodore Rex) redresses the balance, targeting readers who are not necessarily musically literate but are familiar with Beethoven's works and eager to know about the genius who created them. Biographical aspects of the composer's life-e.g., his experiences in the unstable setting of early 18th-century Europe-are explored from an emotional perspective: Morris does not hesitate to interject his own personal feelings of admiration and sympathy for his subject. For those who want more musical detail, Maynard Solomon's Beethoven or Lewis Lockwood's Beethoven: The Music and the Life would be a better choice; however, for the long-overlooked general audience, this is an eminently readable and highly accurate account. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Timothy J. McGee, Hastings, Ont. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This concise, well-organized biography by an eminent music scholar is just the right length and depth for teen readers. Most readers already know that Beethoven was deaf by the time his famous Ninth Symphony was performed, but Morris fills in the fascinating details of how the composer, who began to lose his hearing in his late 20s, developed strategies to continue writing music and to keep his ever-increasing audience from learning his secret. Students who are compelled to practice their music lessons will sympathize with Beethoven's unhappy life as a child prodigy, when he was allowed to raise his exhausted fingers from the clavier keyboard only when it was time for him to take up the violin. Having lived a childhood of straitened circumstances, he became extravagant and frequently fell into debt as an adult. To keep a supply of ready money, he frequently sold "almost completed" pieces that he had not even started to multiple wealthy patrons. He attracted eager young ladies, but his shyness prevented him from forming any attachments except for emotional bonds with married women. Morris has interwoven Beethoven's life story with lyrical passages about the sounds and structures of his major works. These descriptions help show how he used the techniques developed by past masters, while introducing the innovations that would be further developed by composers over the next hundred years.-Kathy Tewell, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Supreme talent facilitated Beethoven's staggering achievement, but it was his genius for transforming his peculiar torment into art that ensured masterpieces. A Jeckyll-and-Hyde of the sacred and profane, Beethoven bellows the angelic "Ode to Joy" of his Ninth Symphony while kicking the chamber pot parked under his piano. He derides his chief patron, "Lobkowitz is a donkey!" and gushes, in love letters, over his "Immortal Beloved," a friend's wife. He idolizes, then demonizes, Napoleon (the Beethoven of politics), and steals his dead brother's son to raise as his pet. By now, of course, the man has become pure myth: the Nietzschean shadow over A Clockwork Orange and the house brand of classical radio. Morris (Theodore Rex, 2002, etc.) carefully refreshes the story. An accomplished pianist, he's especially good at technical analysis. But the tale is ultimately one of personal crises provoking aesthetic breakthroughs: Beethoven avenging himself for his father's knuckle-rapping keyboard tutelage by becoming one of history's greatest pianists; repairing a heart broken by penning the "Moonlight" sonata; overcoming his mathematical illiteracy to cannily bargain for commissions; listening more deeply to his muse while deafness descends. Beethoven's signature curses, Morris holds, were two: loneliness and sickness. And certainly his headaches, rheumatism, ulcerative colitis and speculative retroactive diagnoses of psychosis and Lupus Erythematosus confirm that the five-foot-six titan suffered greatly. Struggling for transcendence, then, meant not only the identification with Eastern philosophy that Morris points out, but Beethoven's commitment to the rapture of music. In the end, character isdestiny, the author argues: Tremendous pain yields tremendous gain. An astute introduction to the life of music's most Promethean composer, an embodied storm, a human cymbal crash.
New York Times Book Review
“Vivid...Morris deftly sorts his way through Beethoven’s biography.”

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The Universal Composer
By Edmund Morris

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Edmund Morris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060759747

Chapter One

The Spirit of Mozart

The British playwright Enid Bagnold once asked a feminist what advice she would give to a twenty-three-year-old housewife who, having lost four children, found herself pregnant again by an abusive, alcoholic husband.

"I would urge her to terminate the pregnancy," the feminist replied.

"Then," said Ms. Bagnold, "you would have aborted Beethoven."

She was not quite right in her facts. Only two of those dead infants preceded little Ludwig -- one of them the child of a previous marriage -- and there is no evidence of Johann van Beethoven ever laying violent hands on his wife. But he was certainly a cruel father, and his alcoholism is a matter of court record in Bonn. So is his chronic lack of money, even though Johann was both a salaried singer on the staff of the Elector of Cologne and the son and heir of Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven, a prosperous, retired master of music whose six-room apartment in the Rheingasse sparkled with silver and fine crystal.

Maria Magdalena van Beethoven gave birth to two more sons who survived: Caspar Carl and Nikolaus Johann. She then produced another son and two daughters, all of whom soon died. Her final confinement left her depressed and frail, doomed to expire herself, at forty, of consumption. Slender, earnest-eyed, moralistic, genteel, she floats like a faded watercolor sketch in the van Beethoven family scrapbook, amid more robust images of men of high color and stocky build. If they look more Dutch than Deutsche, these bourgeois Beethovens, if they signed themselves van rather than von, suggestive of noble ancestry in the Low Countries (outside the Flemish medieval village of Betouwe), they were, by the mid-eighteenth century, established around Bonn, administrative capital of the Cologne electorate -- German in culture, Roman Catholic in religion, Rhinelanders in their fondness for the grape.

Ludwig was born in town, at 515 Bonngasse, on or about December 16, 1770. The date is not definite. However, Catholic parishes of the period required neonate babies to be brought to the font within twenty-four hours, and on December 17 his baptism was registered at the church of St. Remigius. The entry, written in Latin, identifies him as "Ludovicus" -- a solemnization of his name that he came to like in later life, after learning about the grandeur that was Rome. Nor, in view of la gloire de la France, did he ever mind being called "Louis."

He also took pleasure in the fact that old Ludwig sponsored his baptism. This made him the godson as well as the grandson of Bonn's most eminent musician. The same dark eyes that looked down on him in the font were to watch again, oil-painted but still lively, when he lay on his deathbed.

Kapellmeister van Beethoven was everything Johann was not: popular, successful, secure at court (he had served the Elector for forty-two years), a conductor of operas and masses, a shrewd businessman. He even sang better than his son, preserving a magnificent bass voice into old age. Oddly, for a man in his position, he was not a composer. He died on Christmas Eve 1773, just in time to imprint himself on young Ludwig's dawning memory. Near and far, the old man would always float in an ambiguous sfumato, his expression kind, his turban cap pushed back. Was the vision primary or just a rearward projection of that oil painting?

The question is pertinent, and not just because Beethoven insisted that his memories of old Ludwig were "vivid." He also bizarrely believed that he had been born two years later than the register stated. Even when presented with an official transcript of the entry, courtesy of the mayor of Bonn, he rejected its "1770" and scrawled on the back, "1772." Friends were unable to shake his fixation. He told them, "There was a brother born before me, who was also named Ludwig . . . but who died."

In this, he was not altogether deluded. His parents had indeed baptized, and buried, a son by that name -- in April 1769. Transferring the name of a dead child to the next born was common practice in Germany. Dates were never Beethoven's strong point, and his father further confused him, by lopping a year off his correct age when advertising him as a child prodigy. Still, a moment's reflection should have made the mature composer realize that being born in "1772" and having "vivid" memories of a grandfather who died one year later made no cognitive sense.

His indulgence of this paradox has been catnip to Freudians. They surmise that Beethoven did not want to look at any certificate legitimizing him, in order to enjoy a rumor that he was the bastard son of Frederick the Great. The story -- widely circulated in his life-time -- was ridiculous. In 1772, Frederick's main squeeze was Poland, not an obscure housewife in Bonn. But Beethoven never issued a public denial. He rather basked in the supposition that royal blood flowed in his veins.

What has been called his "nobility pretense" will be discussed in another chapter. Suffice to say here that, while he might have preferred some other father than Johann van Beethoven, he always identified with the old Kapellmeister ("my excellent grandfather, whom I so resemble"), long after the name of Ludwig van Beethoven had obliterated the name of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Bonn of his boyhood was a small, walled, black-and-white city, fifteen miles upriver from Cologne. Its peculiar chiaroscuro came from black lava streets and almost universal lime wash. Even the immense electoral palace was white, dazzling in summer but frigid looking in winter. A gilded town hall added some glitter to the market square, but elsewhere plain plaster gables predominated. One of the few buildings to escape the brush was the old stone Munster. For five centuries, its prodigious steeple had cast a wavering reflection across the Rhine, resisting the river's silvery slide. Older still were the Roman ruins around town. Exploring Bonn's black streets, hearing its church bells and Gregorian chants, Ludwig acquired a sense of the remote past, palpable yet irretrievable.


Excerpted from Beethoven by Edmund Morris Copyright © 2005 by Edmund Morris.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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