Knock, Knock. Who’s There?

The Interior Beethoven: A Biography of the Music

by Irving Kolodin
Knopf, 357 pp., $15.00

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven; drawing by David Levine

“An ounce of historical accuracy is worth a pound of rhetorical flourish.” These are the words, and they go some way to defining the work, of Alexander Wheelock Thayer, the classic biographer of Beethoven. Few other writers on the composer appear to have formed so austere a view of their duties. The earliest accounts of Beethoven were scarcely more than strings of anecdotes compiled by people who had known him (Seyfried, Wegeler, Ries); they soon gave place to more ambitious attempts to characterize the man and to ruminate philosophically on the music (Lenz, A. B. Marx, Nohl). And somewhere between those two groups came the egregious Anton Schindler. He had not only known Beethoven but had served as his factotum for a time in the 1820s, a fact we are never allowed to forget. But he also had innumerable axes to grind, so that what might have been a peculiarly intimate portrait became distorted through self-importance, malice, and a desire to save “our master” (Schindler’s habitual term) from criticism of any kind, with the result that his production is only of limited value to us today.

Schindler’s inadequacies had at least one good effect: they drove Thayer to undertake what became his life’s work. This American scholar, born in Massachusetts in the year that Beethoven started to work on the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, and subsequently educated in law at Harvard, first came to Europe in 1846, and was soon involved in a vast series of biographical investigations. His was, as we would say today, the first “fully researched” biography of Beethoven—indeed, of any composer. In a sense it was also the last. From the publication of its first volume (in a German translation) in 1866 its quality was instantly recognized, and although Thayer died in 1897 with only three volumes in print, so that the biography had to be completed by others, its stature was such that it came to be regarded as a classic. Like Roget’s Thesaurus, or Grove’s Dictionary of Music & Musicians, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven was simply updated, most recently (1964) in an elegant manner by Professor Elliot Forbes of Harvard. No one since Thayer has attempted an account of Beethoven’s life that is anything like as comprehensive.

But Thayer made it easy for himself by a simple device: he omitted the music. He did not indeed omit all mention of music: the composition of the symphonies and sonatas is accurately dated, the concerts are carefully itemized, the publications of works are accurately recorded. But there is no attempt by Thayer to “evaluate” the music or to link it in any way with the life; individual works, or the general nature of the musical achievement, are simply not discussed. This was a decision of principle, and a self-conscious one. As he wrote to his German translator, Deiters, in 1865:

I have resisted the temptation to discuss…

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