Edmund Morris: Switches to a biography of Beethoven

Historians in the News

When he isn't fashioning gigantic biographies of American presidents, Edmund Morris has often written about music, including a brief but distinguished tenure as a reviewer for this newspaper. Morris has the ability to impart genuine aesthetic and technical information to his audience without devolving into jargon; he recognizes that while the effect music has on us may be mysterious, any description of its processes shouldn't be.

Moreover, 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.

Morris has chosen an apt subtitle, for Beethoven is indeed as close to a "universal composer" as our culture has yet produced -- a man who has occupied the central position in Western classical music for more than 150 years. There is hardly an orchestra on the planet that fails to include at least one of his nine symphonies in its annual schedule; the leading ensembles run through a complete cycle every few years. Conservatory applicants are generally permitted to choose their own audition programs nowadays, but all aspiring piano students are still expected to have at least one of Beethoven's 32 sonatas ready for performance. And then there are the concertos, the cello and violin sonatas, the 15 string quartets, masses, oratorios, songs and a single opera, "Fidelio."

Like most composers, Beethoven was writing music before he formally knew how. He was born on or about Dec. 16, 1770, in Bonn, Germany, into what would now be considered a frightfully dysfunctional family. Father Johann was autocratic and abusive, and it is likely that his son's lifelong hostility toward authority of any kind dates from this initial filial rebellion.

Unlike such predecessors as Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, all of whom managed to make some temperamental accommodation with their enormous gifts, Beethoven found his genius difficult to bear. As Morris puts it, "Ludwig's eruptive talent could be a curse as well as a blessing. Music was like magma inside him." He grew up to be prideful, ill-mannered and intemperate, and he not only burned but incinerated bridges with many who would gladly have helped him.

comments powered by Disqus