Beethoven: The Man Revealed

Beethoven: The Man Revealed

by John Suchet

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Overview

“An ideal ‘first book’ on Beethoven” from one of the world’s most eminent classical music aficionados (Booklist).
 
Beethoven scholar and classical radio host John Suchet has had a lifelong, ardent interest in the man and his music. Here, in his first full-length biography, Suchet illuminates the composer’s difficult childhood, his struggle to maintain friendships and romances, his ungovernable temper, his obsessive efforts to control his nephew’s life, and the excruciating decline of his hearing. This absorbing narrative provides a comprehensive account of a momentous life, as it takes the reader on a journey from the composer’s birth in Bonn to his death in Vienna.
 
Chronicling the landmark events in Beethoven’s career—from his competitive encounters with Mozart to the circumstances surrounding the creation of the well-known “Für Elise” and Moonlight Sonata—this book enhances understanding of the composer’s character, inspiring a deeper appreciation for his work. Beethoven scholarship is constantly evolving, and Suchet draws on the latest research, using rare source material (some of which has never before been published in English) to paint a complete and vivid portrait of the legendary prodigy.
 
“A gripping and thought-provoking read.” —Howard Shelley, pianist and conductor
 
“By exercising a genuine authority in identifying how Beethoven, the man, manifests himself in our appreciation of the music, Suchet brings an incisive freshness to an extraordinary life.” —Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802192912
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/02/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 370,307
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

John Suchet is recognized as a leading authority on the life and works of Ludwig van Beethoven. This is his first full-length biography of the composer. He presents the morning program on Britain’s Classic FM, and lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

THE SPANIARD

IN WHICH A MOMENTOUS LIFE BEGINS

IT WAS AN INAUSPICIOUS START. WE CANNOT BE certain of the day on which Beethoven was born, since his birth certificate has not survived, and in the baptismal register his mother is given the wrong first name, Helena rather than Magdalena (possibly because both names share the diminutive Lenchen). The date given in the register for the baptism of the Beethoven infant Ludovicus is 17 December 1770, and the place St. Remigius's Church in Bonn. It was customary for baptism to be carried out within twenty-four hours of birth; therefore it is likely that Beethoven was born on 16 December, with the lesser possibilities of the 15th in the late evening or 17th in the early hours. Given that there is a strong likelihood that the birth certificate was wilfully destroyed (as I will recount later), it is probable that we shall never know for sure the date of his birth.

More auspiciously, there is a legend that Beethoven was born with a caul, that is with part of the amniotic sac covering the face. Traditionally this carries beneficial supernatural qualities, such as protecting the individual from drowning, giving healing powers, or endowing clairvoyance. He himself lent weight to the legend (or possibly created it) by writing to a publisher that he was born 'with an obbligato accompaniment'. The passage in the letter, which refers to his Septet, Op. 20, is clearly written in jest: 'I cannot compose anything that is not obbligato, seeing that, as a matter of fact, I came into the world with an obbligato accompaniment.' I have not found any other reference to it in any source.

Beethoven was the eldest, but not the firstborn, and to say that his arrival brought unbridled joy to his parents, or even to say that he was born into a normal and loving family, would be a considerable overstatement. For a start, both sides opposed the marriage of his parents, Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Leym née Keverich. It seems the reason was the same for both families: that both were thought to be marrying beneath themselves.

To take the Beethoven family first. Ludwig van Beethoven the elder, the future composer's grandfather, had established himself as the most senior, and therefore the most respected, musician in Bonn. He had left his hometown of Malines in Flanders (today Mechelen in Belgium) at the age of twenty-one and settled in Bonn, where he was given a position as bass soloist and singer in the court choir. At the age of forty-nine he was appointed Kapellmeister, which put him in charge of music at court — in the chapel, concert hall, theatre, and court ballroom. This earned him a substantial salary and enormous prestige. In addition he ran a wholesale wine business on the side. It was probably not on any grand scale, but his income from the court, together with proceeds from the sale of wine, allowed him to rent two apartments, as well as cellars for storage. He was also wealthy enough to lend money to a number of people.

Ludwig's son Johann gained a position as tenor in the court choir. This brought him in a modest salary, which he supplemented by giving clavier and singing lessons to sons and daughters of well-off English and French families attached to the embassies, as well as to members of the nobility.

Father and son lived together in a large and well-furnished apartment at Rheingasse 934 (where, later, Ludwig van Beethoven was to spend many childhood years). In a later memoir, the child of the owner of the house, who remembered the Beethoven family living there, described the Kapellmeister's apartment as being

beautiful and proper and well arranged, with valuables, all six rooms provided with beautiful furniture, many paintings and cupboards, a cupboard of silver service, a cupboard with fine gilded porcelain and glass, an assortment of the most beautiful linen which could be drawn through a ring, and everything from the smallest article sparkled like silver.

But there was a cloud hanging over the Beethoven family. The Kapellmeister's wife, Maria Josepha Poll, became an alcoholic and had to be moved out of the family apartment to be cared for in a special home. It is not known when this action was taken, but it was almost certainly before Johann's marriage, because at the wedding Ludwig senior was reported to have tears streaming from his eyes, and when asked about it he replied that he was thinking about his own wedding and marriage. It is known that Maria Josepha stayed in seclusion until her death in 1775.

There is no evidence that any member of the Beethoven family ever visited Maria Josepha in the home, and although Ludwig van Beethoven was nearly five when his grandmother died, he is not reported to have spoken about her a single time in his life, nor did he ever refer to her in correspondence. This is all the more remarkable since the elder Ludwig predeceased his wife by nearly two years and yet Beethoven spoke about his beloved grandfather and wrote about him time after time, and treasured his portrait (which stayed with him almost all his adult life and was in his apartment when he died).

Of course he took pride in his grandfather's accomplishments as a musician, and presumably felt shame at his grandmother's descent into alcoholism, but it seems as if he erased his grandmother's existence from his mind. This is more than likely due to the fact that he watched his own father descend into alcoholism, thus making the whole question of alcohol something that was not for discussion. But that did not stop Beethoven himself in later years consuming enormous quantities, as will become clear as the story progresses, to the extent that it brought about the cirrhosis of the liver that was the probable cause of his death.

Clearly the Beethoven family had a liking for alcohol — Beethoven's grandmother and father were both alcoholics, and he himself was probably a victim of it. It is tempting to suggest that ready quantities of wine in the household from the elder Ludwig's business sideline meant it was easily accessible for the family, and certainly early biographers attribute the family tendency to this. It is indeed likely that there was a generous supply of wine on the table, although the Kapellmeister kept his wine in storage in rented cellars, and there are no reports that he himself ever over-imbibed.

But alcohol and its effects aside, the Beethoven family was highly respected, thanks to the accomplishments of Ludwig senior, and lived in a certain amount of comfort. So when Johann announced to his father, as a fait accompli, that he intended marrying Maria Magdalena Leym, of Ehrenbreitstein, the Kapellmeister was appalled. He made enquiries and established not only that she was a widow, but had been a housemaid. The Fischers at Rheingasse 934 heard him explode to his son, 'I never believed or expected that you would so degrade yourself!'

In fact his misgivings were largely misplaced. Maria Magdalena's family included a number of wealthy merchants, as well as court councillors and senators. Her late father, Heinrich Keverich, had been chief overseer of the kitchen at the palace of the Elector of Trier at Ehrenbreitstein. True, he was 'in service,' but it was a senior position, and he was in the employ of the most powerful and prestigious local dignitary, the Prince-Elector. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Maria Magdalena was ever a housemaid.

Where Ludwig senior was correct was that Maria Magdalena was already widowed. More than that, she had experienced more sadness than a teenage woman should have had to bear. At sixteen she married a certain Johann Leym, and bore him a son. The child died in infancy, and her husband died not long after. She was thus a widow who had lost a child before she was nineteen.

Ludwig senior might have been influenced by the fact that Maria Magdalena's father had died many years before, leaving her mother as the family breadwinner, working as a cook at the court. Her mother was clearly already in fragile mental health, because she suffered a psychological breakdown soon after the marriage. She had one other surviving child, a son (four other children having died in infancy), and there was patently no prospect of a substantial dowry coming with the intended bride.

It seems an accumulation of unfortunate circumstances, combined with his own prejudices, turned Ludwig senior against the marriage, to such an extent that he refused to attend the ceremony 'unless the thing were quickly over with'.

The Keverich family was apparently no more enthusiastic about the union; this, if nothing else, cemented the absence of any dowry. The evidence for this is that the wedding took place in Bonn, rather than the bride's hometown, which would have been normal, and there is no evidence that any member of Maria Magdalena's family attended. One can imagine that any pride they might have had that she was marrying into the family of the Kapellmeister was undone by Johann's documented lack of charm (admittedly more evident in later years), and his clear obsession with money.

This latter attribute is evidenced by the fact that four months after the marriage a petition was sent to the Elector of Trier on Johann's mother-in-law's behalf, reporting that 'through an ill-turned marriage of her only daughter up to 300 Thalers disappeared'. This is a barely concealed accusation that Johann relieved his mother-in-law of the bulk of her savings, although it is likely the petition was deliberately written in an exaggerated way to increase Frau Keverich's plight. It is quite possible that this transfer of money, however it took place, occurred before the marriage, or at least that the process started then, which would be another reason for the Keverich family to be against the union.

Exactly what took Johann van Beethoven up the Rhine to the fortress town of Ehrenbreitstein in the first place is not known, but one can imagine his father's frustration at the frequent absences as he pursued a young woman with an unenviable history before she was out of her teens from another town a good thirty-five miles away. With both families set against the marriage, we can assume that the wedding of the couple who were to be the parents of Ludwig van Beethoven was a small and one-sided affair, attended reluctantly by Ludwig senior, whose tears at his own memories might have hardened his heart still further.

The marriage took place in Bonn on 12 November 1767, and it would not be long before more heartache ensued, first for Maria Magdalena and then for both her and her husband. After the marriage Johann moved out of the large well-appointed apartment he had shared with his father, and rented a small apartment at the back of a building in the Bonngasse for himself and his wife. At the same time his mother-in-law's already precarious mental health went into sharp decline. The same petition that cited the loss of her savings stated that she had begun to live a life of such penitence that she stopped eating and could not be expected to live long. Sometimes, it reported, she lay outside the church all night in the bitterest cold, wind, and rain. She died less than a year after her daughter's marriage, and it must be the case that Maria Magdalena felt considerable guilt that her choice of husband, not to mention her departure from her hometown, had caused her mother so much distress.

In the weeks before her mother's death, Maria Magdalena would have realised that she was pregnant. One can only imagine what the knowledge that her mother would never see her grandchild would have done to Maria Magdalena's already damaged emotions.

Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven's first child was baptised Ludwig Maria on 2 April 1769. One can envision Kapellmeister Beethoven's joy at the arrival of his first grandchild, augmented by the couple's decision to choose him as godfather, meaning that the child carried his name. For the couple, too, the arrival of a son after almost a year and a half of marriage must have been a cause of enormous family celebration, and one can imagine the stern grandfather melting towards the daughter-in-law he had not wanted to see become a member of the Beethoven family.

The infant Ludwig Maria van Beethoven died within a week of baptism. Even in an era when infant death was common, the loss of a child who carried so much hope for reconciliation must have been a catastrophe for the family. For Maria Magdalena it meant that she had been widowed and had lost two infants before she was twenty-three years of age.

Approximately a year later she fell pregnant again. As the months passed she must have been overwhelmed with trepidation about the child's survival. As on the previous two occasions she safely gave birth, and on 17 December 1770, the infant was baptised Ludwig after his grandfather, who was once again godfather. Like his grandfather, he was given the sole Christian name of Ludwig.

There were now two Ludwig van Beethovens in the family, and as each day passed the child grew stronger. Correspondingly there occurred a remarkable change in the demeanour of the elder Ludwig. He began to be drawn towards his daughter-in-law and soon the two had established a close and loving relationship. Unfortunately this was due at least partly to a shared disappointment in Johann.

As a boy Johann van Beethoven had shown considerable musical talent, to the extent that his father removed him from school and undertook his musical training himself (a pattern that was to be repeated when Johann, in turn, removed his son Ludwig from school to concentrate on music). He sang in the court chapel both as boy treble and after his voice had broken, and at the age of twenty-four, being proficient in singing as well as on the clavier and violin, he obtained salaried employment.

Three years later Johann was married, and things started to go downhill almost immediately. It is evident that he developed a taste for alcohol. He had no shortage of drinking companions. The fish dealer Klein lived across the street, and the two men would lounge in the window making faces at each other, prior to a night's drinking. The Fischers reported that Johann van Beethoven would spend many an evening in the tavern, often not arriving home until the middle of the night.

It cannot have helped that soon after Johann moved into his first marital home his father followed, taking an apartment just a few doors away in the same street. Ludwig van Beethoven senior was clearly a dominant, even domineering, figure, and was intolerant of his son's behaviour. He mocked him continuously. 'Johann der Läufer,' he called him. 'Johann the sprinter. Keep running, keep running. You will some day run to your final destination.'

It can't have been easy living up to his father's expectations, but whether his own inadequacies preceded his father's intolerance, or the other way around, it's impossible to say. Similarly, whether his penchant for alcohol was a cause of his father's disappointment in him, or a form of escapism from it, must also remain a matter for conjecture.

What is beyond doubt is that an event that shook the Beethoven family to its foundations offered Johann the opportunity to turn his life round. On Christmas Eve 1773 Kapellmeister Beethoven, who had suffered a stroke earlier in the year, died at the age of sixty-one. Johann saw himself as the natural successor and the next holder of the highest musical position in Bonn.

Unfortunately for him, he was unsuited for it in every respect. His dissolute habits were well known and unfitting to such a high office at court. There had also been a noticeable deterioration in his vocal skills, no doubt caused by alcohol, tobacco, and late nights. His skills on clavier and violin were not exceptional, and he had no compositions to his name, unlike other candidates for the office.

It is dangerous to apply modern-day sensibilities to events of more than two centuries ago, but certainly a reading of Johann's petition for the job as Kapellmeister suggests a confused, even negative, attitude:

Will your Electoral Grace be pleased to hear that my father has passed away from this world, to whom it was granted to serve His Electoral Grace(s) for 42 years, as Kapellmeister with great honour, whose position I have been found capable of filling, but nevertheless I would not venture to offer my capacity to Your Electoral Grace, but since the death of my father has left me in needy circumstances, my salary not sufficing, I am compelled to draw on the savings of my father ... Your Electoral Grace is therefore humbly implored to make an allowance from the 400 rth now saved for an increase of my salary ... [my emphasis]

It hardly reads like an appropriate job application, seeming on the one hand to take it for granted that the job is his, and on the other pleading for a salary increase. In any event he did not get the job. There was only one Kapellmeister Beethoven.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Beethoven"
by .
Copyright © 2012 John Suchet.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Prologue xiii

Chapter 1 The Spaniard: In which a momentous life begins 1

Chapter 2 The Right Teacher: This boy could become 'a second Mozart' 23

Chapter 3 Meeting Mozart: Watch out for that boy 43

Chapter 4 Word Spreads: Young Beethoven as kitchen scullion 63

Chapter 5 Impressing the Viennese: But Haydn feels the wrath of an angry young man 89

Chapter 6 My Poor Hearing Haunts: ME But there is 'a dear charming girl who loves me' 107

Chapter 7 Only My Art Held Me Back: In which Beethoven considers suicide 123

Chapter 8 Egyptian Hieroglyphics: Napoleon is no more than 'a common tyrant' 137

Chapter 9 O, Beloved J!: Musical failure, but will Beethoven succeed in love? 155

Chapter 10 A Deeply Immoral Woman: Beethoven holds the most important concert of his life, and is offered a job 173

Chapter 11 Under Cannon Fire: In which Beethoven once again tries his luck at love 193

Chapter 12 Immortal Beloved: 'My angel, my all, my very self 207

Chapter 13 An Utterly Untamed Personality: Beethoven turns again to his 'poor shipwrecked opera' 223

Chapter 14 Into the Witness Box: How the single letter 'o' ruined Beethoven's life 243

Chapter 15 A Musical Gift from London: How Rossini found Beethoven 'disorderly and dirty' 261

Chapter 16 'I Want to be a Soldier': In which Beethoven gets drunk with friends 283

Chapter 17 Two Pistols and Gunpowder: An invitation to get away from it all 303

Chapter 18 Frightening the Oxen: 'The greatest composer of the century, and you treated him like a servant!' 321

Chapter 19 Terminally Ill: 'His face was damp, he spat blood' 337

Chapter 20 The Last Master: 'He was an artist, but a man as well' 353

Postscript 361

Acknowledgments 367

Notes 369

Index 379

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Beethoven: The Man Revealed 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I read this book for my research project. Beethoven The Man Revealed by John Suchet provided a diversity of Beethoven’s life. Through this book, Ludwig van Beethoven appears as a living being, facing sorrow and hardship just as any other person. Suchet’s biography portrays Beethoven as a real living person, not just another heroic tale. His writing style allows Beethoven’s life to appear lively and describes Beethoven’s music beautifully. But it can be bothering sometimes, especially when the readers are not used to this style. His writing style can become too novel-like and counteract when it is overused, for instance, “... as with the hens’ eggs and the cockerel, I cannot help but be bewitched by the thought that, as titanic artist as he was, Beethoven still got cold feet” Beethoven’s music appears alluringly through Suchet’s words. Suchet’s writing makes it possible for Beethoven’s music to be heard through the words. Overall, the book is very enjoyable with the exceptions of a few early chapters and where Suchet fictionalizes things.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I read this book for my research project. Beethoven The Man Revealed by John Suchet provided a diversity of Beethoven’s life. Through this book, Ludwig van Beethoven appears as a living being, facing sorrow and hardship just as any other person. Suchet’s biography portrays Beethoven as a real living person, not just another heroic tale. His writing style allows Beethoven’s life to appear lively and describes Beethoven’s music beautifully. But it can be bothering sometimes, especially when the readers are not used to this style. His writing style can become too novel-like and counteract when it is overused, for instance, “... as with the hens’ eggs and the cockerel, I cannot help but be bewitched by the thought that, as titanic artist as he was, Beethoven still got cold feet” Beethoven’s music appears alluringly through Suchet’s words. Suchet’s writing makes it possible for Beethoven’s music to be heard through the words. Overall, the book is very enjoyable with the exceptions of a few early chapters and where Suchet fictionalizes things.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I read this book for my research project. Beethoven The Man Revealed by John Suchet provided a diversity of Beethoven’s life. Through this book, Ludwig van Beethoven appears as a living being, facing sorrow and hardship just as any other person. Suchet’s biography portrays Beethoven as a real living person, not just another heroic tale. His writing style allows Beethoven’s life to appear lively and describes Beethoven’s music beautifully. But it can be bothering sometimes, especially when the readers are not used to this style. His writing style can become too novel-like and counteract when it is overused, for instance, “... as with the hens’ eggs and the cockerel, I cannot help but be bewitched by the thought that, as titanic artist as he was, Beethoven still got cold feet” Beethoven’s music appears alluringly through Suchet’s words. Suchet’s writing makes it possible for Beethoven’s music to be heard through the words. Overall, the book is very enjoyable with the exceptions of a few early chapters and where Suchet fictionalizes things.