Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven: The Universal Composer

Beethoven: The Universal Composer
Edmund Morris

This is one of Harper Collins’ Eminent Lives biographies, which are meant to be rather brief biographies of major historical figures written by distinguished contemporary authors. Certainly in the case of Beethoven we have an iconic subject. I confess, I’d never heard of Edmund Morris, though. It turns out he’s written a few other books, including the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Apparently Morris is also a lifelong fan of music, especially Beethoven. This biography certainly makes that clear. He is able to bring Beethoven’s music to life in the printed word. He describes the feeling that each piece of music produces, so even a person with a trifling knowledge of musical terms can follow along. There’s also a glossary of musical terms in the back of the book to help you if you get lost. Of course, there’s an element of skepticism when Morris describes, say, a piano cantata. Can I take his word as authority on the sound of this music? Just because he’s a fan, does that mean I would be?  Ultimately, I let this be, because if anything it gave me an appreciation for Beethoven’s work and made me seek out some pieces to listen to.

Morris was able to show what was going on in the world at large while Beethoven was living and writing. He was working during the French Revolution, and his Austrian patrons were justifiably concerned with their positions in society. At times they had less money or inclination to support a large cadre of demanding artists. Beethoven often had trouble collecting monies owed him.

Beethoven’s personal life, including his money troubles, take up a good portion of the biography. It’s interesting that during some of his most stressful personal periods he was able to concentrate and turn out some of his most brilliant masterpieces.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the more personal side of things, Morris misses the mark a bit. His privilege starts showing something awful. First, there’s the anti-choice rhetoric. Morris retells some ridiculous story about someone asking a feminist what she’d tell a poor woman who’d lost previous children and was married to an abusive alcoholic what to do when she finds out she’s pregnant. Abort? YOU JUST KILLED BEETHOVEN!!!!eleventy!!!11!

Don’t worry, though – he’s not concerned with Beethoven as a person, but only as a music maker. Later in the book, Beethoven is experiencing a particularly tough patch with his mental health, and is fearing that he’ll be put in an asylum. Morris says:

“…[I]ncarceration might have been a merciful alternative for him. But then we would not have had the genesis of his greatest symphony, greatest set of variations, and greatest choral work, following the completion of his greatest piano sonata. All these perfections arose out of psychosis, like nebulae spun out of deep space.”

There’s some other disablist crap in here, too, but I just can’t get into it.

In short, not a bad overview of a fascinating man. However, I won’t be picking up anything else by Edmund Morris.

And I couldn’t leave you without a little music:


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