Beethoven: The Universal Composer (Eminent Lives Series)

Beethoven: The Universal Composer (Eminent Lives Series)

by Edmund Morris


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060759759
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/09/2010
Series: Eminent Lives
Pages: 243
Sales rank: 639,673
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Edmund Morris is the author of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award), Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, and Theodore Rex (Los Angeles Times Book Prize). A pianist and private scholar of music, he has been studying Beethoven for a half century.

Read an Excerpt


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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Beethoven: The Universal Composer (Eminent Lives Series) 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore who had to do a research, I chose to do my topic on Beethoven because of my  interest in music and the life story of the composer. I find this book to be interesting and fascinating with Beethoven's struggle of being deaf , I had learned more about Beethoven's everyday life and how he was able to live a life with music and having to be able to communicate while being deaf. Another reason why I found the book interesting on the fact that it helped me visualize and understand what Beethoven had did and went though. Although it was a great book, one thing I did not like about it was that Morris had listed and talked about what he had spent on things. Morris was very specific in things that Beethoven had did on a daily basis and his struggle with his disability of being deaf. he also talks about  Beethoven's music career and how he started to compose music while being set back with him being deaf. Overall I had enjoyed reading this book and do recommend it if you are interested in music and the  composers history.   
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not a musicologist, just a casual music lover who wanted to know more about Beethoven. This slender volume is an excellent introduction to the life of this complex individual whose personal history is one of the great tragedies of all biography (as Morris himself says). Morris does an especially good job of explaining the historical events surrounding Beethoven's private life--you can't talk about Vienna of that period without background of the politics. He uses a lot of primary source material--it is fascinating to read The Master's own words to discribe himself. My only complaint is that the author's musical explanations are not very simple for a novice like me who doesn't read music. There is a well-meaning musical glossary that is somewhat helpful. A discography of suggested performances of the major works discussed in depth in the book would have been equally helpful to illustrate Morris' points, but I know that this isn't within the scope of a "brief life" context. I will go back through the book and match the works covered with the pieces in my CD collection. To be fair, the book isn't titled "Beethoven 101" or "Deaf Composers for Dummies."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome book
billiecat on LibraryThing 3 months ago
A good, short biography. The Eminent Lives series is intended to be briefer and present "strong points of view" for the general reader, not scholarly works. If you want a more complete work, you should be buying Maynard Solomon's biography. Despite the "strong point of view" criteria, Morris's book does not read as if it is trying to push some agenda or re-evaluation of the subject (unlike, I would guess, Christopher Hitchen's bio of Jefferson in the same series). Morris, author of the infamous "Dutch" fictionalized biography of Reagan and the more respectable biographies of Theodore Roosevelt (two volumes down, one to go), sticks closely to Beethoven's work as a framework for hanging the events of his life upon - and notes the many surprising incongruities, such as that some of the most sublime works were written during periods when his everyday life was most unsettled. Nothing in this is new, but Morris handles it well and his personal background as a pianist and "private scholar of music" makes a good bridge between the general reader with no music theory background and the specialist. Morris occasionally dips into more technical descriptions of Beethoven's music, but these excursions are not so challenging that an intelligent and interested reader can't follow them, nor so long or deep that, if a reader can't or won't follow, the book is ruined.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi, I am a high school sophomore who chose Beethoven for a research project because we share a similar interest like we both like music. This book was compelling and did a great job of explaining Beethoven's personal life. The book had definitely opened up a greater understanding in music, especially in the romantic era. The book mainly focuses on Beethoven's growth in music and how he came to be the world famous composer that we still hear and know about today. Although i wouldn't count on the book being a good source if you want to know about other composers or want to understand how to write or read music. One thing that i wasn't a big fan about in the book was that it didn't provide me personally with sufficient information to know more about the compositions he wrote and simply and truly why he wrote about what he did in more detail though i will say that it did help me in a better understanding with musical terms because it had a musical term glossary in the back of the book. Overall i would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know more about Beethoven because the way the author, Morris explains his life is quite fascinating.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a  high school sophomore who researched Beethoven because of my passion for piano . In the book The Universal Composer ;Beethoven, Edmund Morris provides in detail many facts about Ludwig. I liked that he  described not only about Ludwig's musical talent but also what kind of person he was He clearly describes what his influences were , hardships he lived through , everyone what was involved in his life and their effect , and the  politics he was involved in. Morris goes into deep detail of Ludwig's life and provides information  that cannot be found on the internet. This book helps me to fully understand what kind of person Ludwig  really was inside and out. . Another great thing Morris includes is a glossary of musical terms to help understand  the book a little more .The only thing I didn't like about this book was the unnecessary information Morris provided . For example , how he included the amount of money he earned or spent.Overall this book is very engaging ,and would be  even to  those who aren't interested in music . I highly recommend this book if you want to know more about Beethoven.
Mon-H More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore who was assigned to read this book in order to complete my research  project. The topic I chose to base my project on was Beethoven because his life caught my interest  in an early age. I find this book very helpful and interesting it has the perfect amount of information. This book obtains a lot of information that can assist you with any type of assignment you are assigned to do. It includes Beethoven's early life before he became a composer, his educational life, his family life, his life as a composer, and the difficulties he had throughout his music life. Not only did the author, Edmond Morris, include where he lived and where he was born, but also included the way he lived by informing the reader his expenses and his relations with many others involved in the book. The author also included the era and new sound he had created and how he expressed his feelings in his music. I strongly recommend this book if you are to do a school assignment based on Beethoven or if you are interested in music or Beethoven's life and how he came to be one of the greatest and well-known composers in history.     
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore who had to do a research project.  I chose this book because my topic was Beethoven.  I chose Beethoven because i wanted to know more about Beethoven and his music.  This book was very good in explaining his life from year to year without getting me confused.  It helped me understand his family life and how he got to what he is known for now which is one of the greatest composers in the world.  This book also explained everything before he became a famous composer and what he had to do to become a famous composer.  In my opinion, this book could have been a little easier to understand.  There were some parts that did not make sense because there was just too much information in one spot.  There is some parts in the book where it just kept rambling about one thing and then all of a sudden it skipped a year or two ahead and it kind of got me lost.  I got a lot of great information about Ludwig van Beethoven out of this book.  I enjoyed learning about him and his life before he became a famous composer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I had to read this book for a research project.After reading Beethoven the Universal Composer, I’ve concluded that I do like this book. I like this book because it gives me a better understanding about Beethoven’s life. A great thing about this book is how it would separate each chapter by different years of the events that occurred. Also, since I’m not familiar with music terms, the book is helpful to include a glossary for musical terms, which helped me while I was reading. Beethoven’s life is discussed in great detail, which enables me to properly answer the questions I have been assigned to answer. Author Edmund Morris gives readers a deeper personal view of what Beethoven had to go through in order to become a great pianist.Overall, this book provides light detail for someone who would want to learn or research about Beethoven’s life. I would recommend this book to the next person who decides to pick Beethoven as their research topic, or anyone who would just want to learn about Ludwig van Beethoven.
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