W.H. Auden once reviewed, in these pages, Otto Deutsch’s large Documentary Biography of Mozart. Without research I can’t be positive that it was the shortest review ever published here, but I’d bet on it. Auden found the whole enterprise redundant, even indecent. Mozart’s life was none of our business; and he would have said the same of Beethoven’s. One admires the purity of this attitude, but Auden himself was not always capable of holding it, for he was interested in great men and liked to pay them homage. And it is easier to do that to a person than to a shelf of books or scores. In celebrating Freud he spoke of a loved master, even of “an important Jew who died in exile”; he mourned a man. And the wonderful epiphonema of his poem might be applied with almost equal justice to Beethoven:
sad is Eros, builder of cities,
and weeping anarchic Aphrodite.
Once allow this more sublime style of biography and how shall we keep out the more ordinary kind, in which homage takes the form of a passion for postmarks, the journals of innkeepers, memorabilia scribbled on the back of a manuscript; in which reverence is expressed in endless explanations, which, if they fail, at least breed wonder at all there is to explain?
Since facts accumulate and explanations decay, biographies of Beethoven will presumably continue to be written. Readers who want everything will go on consulting Alexander Thayer’s Life of Beethoven in the latest edition (at present this is Elliot Forbes’s, revised 1964, re-revised 1967). Middle-aged laymen may still look back to J.W.N. Sullivan’s Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, now fifty years old. It was very rich, and we may gag a little at the remembered taste. Mr. Solomon’s book is more sober, but may prove standard for the present generation. Without being vast it has much detail; it is up to, and occasionally ahead of, the progress of research. It registers efficiently Beethoven’s Times, and records, with modest conviction, the Life and its psychopathology.
The Audenesque objection would be that all this, however serious, is gossip, and tells us nothing about the music. Knowing that love made him weep his pints, and that his father beat him, will not help us to understand how he came to write the Piano Trios, op. 1, much less the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Grosse Fuge. And that is true. All we get is a great man’s Life. And Beethoven’s, though he was recognized as a great man and often, though with some unease, behaved like one, lacks the color and variety that great men’s lives should have. Bonn, and Vienna with its environs, represent virtually the whole of his world. He threatened to go to Paris, but stayed at home; he might have gone to London, but didn’t; he even spoke of emigrating to the New World, but died in Vienna …