Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Composing a Life

Newsday, 22 December 2002

Book Review
Beethoven: The Music and the Life, by Lewis Lockwood
Norton, 604 pages

Beethoven: The Music and the LifeDo we really need another biography of Ludwig van Beethoven? Lewis Lockwood’s “Beethoven: The Music and the Life” is part of a wave of Beethoven biographies to appear in the last few years. Lockwood himself compares the situation to “several painters making portraits of the same subject.” What makes his portrait of Beethoven distinctive, he explains, is that “the music looms larger than the life, and the composer dominates the man.”

There’s no mystery as to why Beethoven has become such a popular subject for biographers. Beethoven’s life, like his music, only seems to grow in significance the more we know of it. Most of our modern notions of creative genius are embodied in his life: the defiant artistic independence, the courageous transcendence of physical infirmity and — perhaps most important of all — the tragic romantic entanglements. Artists today still aspire to such a life.

But then, Beethoven had one more thing — his music. And no one has equaled that since. Beethoven continues to dominate concert halls around the world, and even those who know little else about classical music will be able to identify many of his best-known works. No public occasion would be complete without Beethoven – the Olympics, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the commemoration of the victims of 9/11.

Lockwood has spent most of his life studying the mystery of Beethoven’s genius. Now retired from his professorial duties at Harvard, he has written many valuable scholarly essays and books illuminating the life and works of the Western world’s most famous composer.

So it’s disappointing to report how poorly this book communicates this vast knowledge. Most readers will already know that Beethoven began losing his hearing in his late 20s and composed many of his greatest works when he was almost completely deaf. But it is fatal for a biographer to assume this and not attempt to convey the devastating shock of Beethoven’s discovery.

Yet almost all the dramatic events of Beethoven’s life are drained of vitality by being treated as academic puzzles. When Beethoven anguishes over his deafness in his famous Heiligenstadt testament, Lockwood introduces the subject by saying that the document “has had many interpreters, from Schindler to our time, and will have many more, because no serious study of Beethoven can pass over it without comment.” Beethoven’s romantic life is introduced with an exhausted observation that it has “become the stuff of endless speculation.” Lockwood proceeds to summarize what he calls the “subliterature on this subject” and promises to “make a long and complex story short.” Please, many readers will be begging — keep it long and complex.

But biography is really just an excuse to get into the music itself, and here we get some rare insights. Lockwood is particularly good at tracing the roots of Beethoven’s “heroic” style, not to his personal struggle with deafness but to much broader aesthetic and political currents emphasizing the classical virtues of Greece and Rome. He draws a convincing parallel between the musical language of Beethoven’s middle symphonies and the political anthems of post-Revolutionary France. (Think “La Marseillaise.”) This is not a new insight, but it assumes an importance lacking in many earlier studies, including Maynard Solomon’s still unsurpassed biography.

Lockwood has little patience for the latest fashions in Beethoven studies, some of which have argued that his music is merely the expression of a) the tastes of his wealthy patrons, b) male sexual rage, c) proto-Nazism or d) all of the above.

In his sensitive treatment of the Ninth Symphony, Lockwood advises listeners to “[cover] our ears as best we can to the howls from outside telling us that we are simply different kinds of ideologues.” This is not quite a fair assessment of the new musicology, the best examples of which have helped breathe new life and relevance into an often esoteric discipline. But Lockwood’s careful assessment of the Ninth as a “valiant effort to reinstill some hope into a world” seems true to the experience of most listeners.

Elsewhere, Lockwood’s discussion of the music rarely rises above the level of concert program notes. Part of the problem lies in the peculiar nature of music itself, which seems resistant to popular critical treatment. A biography of Robert Frost or Pablo Picasso can easily illustrate an argument with a poem or a picture. Most biographies of composers have to rely on inadequate verbal paraphrases or cryptic notations of a musical score. Perhaps a companion CD or a Web site with audible musical examples could remedy the problem, but it’s unlikely that many cash-strapped publishers would be willing to invest in such an innovation.

W.W. Norton, for instance, was undoubtedly attempting to save money by purging Lockwood’s book of all but a few notated musical examples. In a “publishing first,” it consigned the illustrations to a page on its Web site. This means that, in spite of shelling out $39.95 for the right to curl up with a good book, you’ll still have to sit in front of computer screen to appreciate it properly. Given the ephemeral character of Internet content, it’s hard to believe that the same Web page will be posted at the same Web address five years from now. (On the other hand, five years from now, perhaps computer screens large enough to display orchestral scores without the need for scrolling will become more common. On my 17-inch screen they are essentially unreadable.)

Despite this book’s many faults, it remains enjoyable and often enlightening. This might say something about the greatness of Beethoven himself, whose genius shines through even the most flawed of musical (and biographical) performances. Beethoven once wrote to a young admirer that “only art and science can raise men to the level of gods.” It is this spirit that continues to enthrall audiences – and entice biographers into capturing such a monumental life.