Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Suchet on Beethoven

Along with about a quarter of the population, we had flu over Christmas. So I was very grateful to have been given John Suchet's new book  Beethoven, the Man Revealed published by Elliott and Thompson Ltd, London 2012.  I almost read it in one sitting. Suchet himself insists that the biography is primarily about Beethoven the man - this is not a study of his music but rather a book that gives us insight into his life (and especially his early formation) which then helps us to listen to his music with greater understanding.

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler 1819

Beethoven had a singularly chaotic early life, born to parents who were simply not capable of giving him any stability or modelling for him a disciplined approach to everyday living, let alone giving him the personal skills needed to organise the life of a practising musician. The picture I had had of Beethoven's early life was that his later problems stemmed from the ill health, poverty and neglect of his parents. Suchet paints a picture that is a bit more complex - a well connected grandfather whom he hardly knew but of whom he could be proud and a somewhat sporadic relationship of affection with his mother and siblings, for whom he had to assume responsibility in his teenage years as his father's alchoholism took a grip. The memories of contemporaries who knew him as an unkempt and unsociable child tug at the heart strings.

Things started to go rather better for him in his late teenage years and early adulthood. Suchet takes great pains to describe for us a formative trip along the Rhine with fellow musicians showing Beethoven as a young man on a spree with friends who had similar interests. You can imagine the gesting and ribbing that took place though music was never far away and the trip ended with Beethoven giving an 'unparalleled display of virtuosity' at an inprovisation contest with the pianist Sterkel. By the time he was 26 he had moved to Vienna and was demonstrably the city's most accomplished all-round musician, mixing with aristocracy and royalty and making a fair income. His fame was spreading across central Europe and, as well as being outstanding (but often reluctant) at the contemporary fashion for improvisation, he had a good number of compositions to his name - though not yet a symphony. He had not been lucky in love but, in most other respects, it looked as though he had a great future ahead and was well positioned to devote himself to a life of perfomance, conducting and composition. Then disaster struck. He found he was going deaf. He began to lose his hearing shortly after a 'frightful attack of typhus' (it may not have been typhus but it was described as such by contemporaries.) We cannot be sure that the two occurrences were related, but gradually, over the next three years, Beethoven was forced to face the fact that the worst possible fate for a musician had befallen him.

Throughout this time, as at every other period of his life, he continued to pour out a constant stream of compositions, working on ever more demanding and complex works. -At this time he produced his first symphony and the Pathetique Sonata which represented a huge stride forward in the genre. But his increasing deafness was a disaster for him and, as denial gave way to realisation and acceptance that he could no longer hold a normal conversation or hear his own music well enough to conduct without embarrassment, he became depressed.  He sought solitude in the country and considered suicide. His heroic spirit won through. This was the man who, in his early life, admired Napoleon. We can only imagine what superhuman effort it took, but he decided that, for as long as he could compose, he would not end his own life. Although it was his musical genius that made his deafness such a very cruel blow, perhaps it was also this genius, expressing itself in an unstoppable urge to creativity, that saved his life.

The most striking thing about Beethoven is that whatever was going on in his personal life, whether he was in a happy phase, hoping for success in his latest flirtation or tormented by illness, loneliness or business problems, he just went on and on composing. Music, and music such as had never before been conceived of, flowed from him. Chaos, repeated disappointment in love, constant moving around from apartment to apartment, the success or failure of his music - none of these prevented him from composing, advancing all the while in the scope of his creative imagination. In many ways you get the impression that Beethoven did find comfort and fulfilment in his art. Yet he struggled so much in so many areas of his life. A deeply affectionate man, he never found the longed for wife to settle down with and he had to battle with the increasing social isolation that deafness inevitably brought in an age where there were no aids and there was little understanding of the difficulties. 

Beethoven showed his worst side in the way in which he relentlessly pursued the guardianship of his nephew in flagrant disregard for the wishes of both the boy himself and his mother. Why did he do this? Was it a mixture of loneliness, fear, hurt family pride and the obsessiveness which also drove him towards the family weakness - alchohol abuse? Gradually the paradox of a life that was falling apart and music that was reaching sublime heights deepened. At the time he was composing the Missa Solemnis, he was mistaken for a tramp and arrested. The constable who arrested him described him as wearing a moth-eaten old coat and no hat, having a suspicious manner and yelling at the top of his voice, 'I am Beethoven'. Clearly a madman. At the height of his arguments with his remaining brother, sister-in-law and nephew he was composing the sublime late quartets including the String Quartet in F, opus 135 with its almost light-hearted sections.

John Suchet's book achieves its end. He succeeds in telling the story of Beethoven's life in a way that gives some new emphases. He offers some personal theories where there are gaps or mysteries in the available data. But, above all, he presents us with the very moving and human story of a man called to live with an absolute imperative to produce music such as the world had never dreamt of while also bearing the burden of deafness. That he transcended this potent cocktail of potential and limitation is the miracle of Beethoven's life and legacy.   


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