The Universal Composer
Edmund Morris
John McDonough,

(Recorded Books)
Beethoven was a strange duck indeed. As he walked the streets of Vienna, he would wave his arms about, mutter, call out, sing. He would go in a café, sit, groaning to himself, forget to order, sit some more, and then ask for the bill. Or he would eat, drink a bottle of wine, then get up and leave without paying ... because he had simply forgotten where he was.

He could be a royal pain, literally: He tried to brain one of his patrons with a chair; he stood in the doorway of another's castle, called him "oaf." It got so bad that the Archduke Rudolph decreed that the usual rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven.

He was probably the first musician to bring to mind the cliché of the potty genius. Certainly Telemann, Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi, Rameau, and Couperin didn't try to brain one of their patrons or accuse the servants of spying on them.

This is not to say that Beethoven was without guile. In his first months in Vienna, he borrowed 500 guilders from Haydn at the same time that he was receiving contributions from his patron in Bonn. Haydn was not pleased. When, later in his life, Beethoven composed the massive "Missa Solemnis," he tried to fob it off on various publishers, succeeded in selling it to more than one, claimed --- falsely --- that he had cut it into three separate Masses. It was a Ponzi scheme made up of cadenzas.

His piano playing --- before he went completely deaf --- was astounding: he was a jazz musician before there were jazz musicians. He would take a theme from Mozart, say, and spend an hour or so weaving it about, entrancing all. When not composing, or performing, he would be fighting with his brothers, or with his nephew Alex, or Alex's mother, or the servants. The legal documents filed in his attempt to get young Alex away from his sister-in-law Johanna are alarmingly misogynistic.

Morris claims that Beethoven was bipolar in his daily life and in his music. He was born swarthy, was called "the bear" and "the Spaniard." He was built more or less along the lines of a fire-hydrant, and sometimes, when spouting music, or ideas, or rage, acted like one. His face was pock-marked, his hair unruly, his humor coarse, but, because of his genius, he was admitted to the highest levels of society in Bonn and Vienna. He learned how to act the gentleman --- when he cared to.

Vienna was his home for most of his life. In his time there, he was prized, pawed over, permitted to be eccentric if not downright boorish. His long-suffering patrons paid exorbitant sums for his sonatas, chamber music, and symphonies. His first major work, composed when he was nineteen, was a cantata on the death of Emperor Josef II of Austria. Most of us are unfamiliar with that work, but Morris claims that it is a startling piece of music, with hints of the startling works to come.

§     §     §

Beethoven was often ill. Colic, arthritis, gout, asthma, jaundice, liver complaints, lung problems, headaches, pneumonia, various diseases of the day, and --- the one that did him in --- lead poisoning. When he wasn't flat on his back --- as he had been during a dry period in much of 1822 --- he was filling notebooks with snatches of this and that, exhortations to himself, bits and pieces of songs, sonatas, and symphonies, insults, bad jokes, mots drawn from the Bible or from Eastern religious works. When he turned deaf, the notebooks were used for questions (or answers) to friends and visitors. Some of these still survive.

When he wasn't composing and fighting with people, he was moving somewhere else in Vienna. At one time he was paying rent on four apartments, leaving one, clearing out his massive collection of notebooks and manuscripts from another, preparing to move into another, renting a summer place in Baden.

As kids we had been told that Beethoven was stone-cold deaf because his father would box his ears when he didn't perform well at the piano. Morris says no: It was probably an infectious disease. They always say that deafness is the cruelest tragedy that could befall a composer yet our biographer states that Beethoven went through "to the other side." There's a wonderful quote from an English visitor from 1820, John Russell. He found the composer "communing with himself at the keyboard:"

    When playing very piano, he often does not bring out a single note. He hears it himself in the "mind's ear." While his eye, and the almost imperceptible motion of his fingers, show that he is following the strain in his own soul through its dying gradations, the instrument is actually as dumb as the musician is deaf.

In later years, he would attend rehearsals of his newest works, would watch the performers, watch their hands, how the violinists were bowing, which keys the oboists were touching, and would know, by sight alone, who was misreading his manuscript.

§     §     §

Morris doesn't seem to miss much, in Beethoven's character, or in his life story, or in the social and political upheavals of the time. But what Morris is best at seems to be most difficult for the rest of us: writing about music, what Beethoven accomplished --- what he did that was new in (say) --- his Opus 18 Quartets; how he broke new ground with the Opus 131; how he created a musical revolution that would in later years touch the likes of Schubert, Schumann, Wagner, and Webern.

And then there's the story of the Ninth Symphony. It was put together, in bits and pieces, over fifteen years. As its text, it used Schiller's "Ode to Joy:"

    Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
    Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
    Brüder, überm Sternenzelt
    Muß ein lieber Vater wohnen!

    (Be embraced, you millions!
    This kiss for the entire world!
    Brothers, above the starry canopy
    Must a loving Father reside.)

Later, Schiller himself considered the poem to be somewhat overcooked but when time came to sell it to patrons, Beethoven was able to drum up more than a few guilders, despite the lurid if not starry lyrics.

§     §     §

John McDonough is a fine reader, and Morris knows how to compose a good sentence. Even better, he knows how to turn the evanescence of music into words, so that one is longing to rehear, for example, the conclusion of the "Emperor Concerto:"

    Even as Beethoven composed the final climax, he allowed it to collapse, as if exhaustion and something very like fear was setting in: a gradual slowing of tempo down to near stasis, over drum taps that grow weaker beat by beat.

Morris may overdo it from time to time, saying, for instance, that the Missa Solemnis is "greater, even, than the B-minor Mass." If we can fault his occasional overstatements, we cannot but admire his care and affection for his subject.

--- A. W. Allworthy
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