Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven; drawing by David Levine


Lewis Lockwood is a leading musical scholar of the postwar generation, and the leading American authority on Beethoven. He has published influential articles on the composer, some collected previously in Beethoven: Studies in the Creative Process (1992), but no full-length study until now. He has chosen to make his first major statement in the form of a life-and-works study. Beethoven: The Music and the Life is expressly not a work with a thesis, but a magisterial work of consolidation, aligning the author’s own contributions with the broader tradition that has constructed the master composer of the Western canon.

Such studies are typically, if not perhaps altogether inevitably, conservative, a term with—inevitably—both positive and negative connotations. While the book is said to be aimed at lay readers, the academy is certainly another target. W.W. Norton publishes major studies in music as well as both high- and low-level music textbooks, and this Beethoven will fill a gap in their distinguished, though aging, list.

Lockwood has produced a more balanced account of Beethoven, balanced between life and works, than any other study I know of. Although his priorities come through clearly enough in his slightly bumpy title, he has sought to treat life and works with equal responsibility and indeed to make his peace with the inherent problems of artistic biography.

As an introduction to these problems, a prologue chapter begins with three letters from Beethoven’s early, middle, and late years (mirroring the familiar division of his output into three periods). At sixteen, writing from Bonn, Beethoven twists a letter of apology into a cry of pain: he is ill, heartsick at the loss of his mother, and overwhelmed by his obligations in a rudderless family. At forty-one, he writes a humble and almost fatherly letter from Vienna to a girl in Hamburg who sent him a fan letter and an embroidered wallet. At fifty-six, he answers (a year late) a childhood friend from Bonn, Franz Wegeler, who has written to him out of the blue: how fondly, Beethoven writes, I remember those old days, and our friendship, how differently have our careers progressed. He barely mentions any present troubles; in fact he is deeply ill and will die four months later.

Lockwood is a very astute and perceptive reader. The thread he teases out of these moving letters is the extraordinary sense of artistic mission which this composer developed when he was, as far as anyone knew, no more than a talented teenager, and which drove and sustained him ever after. He must get out of Bonn to pursue the great career he foresees—this he intimates almost parenthetically, more to himself than to his correspondent Joseph von Schaden. “Miss Emilie M.” is urged to ponder the meaning of music, not just study piano technique. Art has no limits, he tells the little girl, and the true artist has always to acknowledge how much further he has to go. And in 1826 Beethoven is still hoping to create “a few large-scale works” before retiring among old friends, “like an old child”—a child driven in much the same way as the one Wegeler had known in Bonn.

If there is one theme stressed over any other in Lockwood’s book, it is this sense of artistic mission. It allows Beethoven to float above every tragedy and misfortune. Life shrinks into career; everything else becomes epiphenomenal. This is, of course, hardly a new way of looking at things—Donald Tovey, self-appointed conservator of “the main stream of music,” planned a comprehensive book on the composer that would say virtually nothing about the life, as did Theodor Adorno, to judge from the two-hundred-odd pages of his notes and prolegomena, recently published.1 Lockwood brings in support for his view from Schopenhauer (“In the composer, more than in any other artist, the man is entirely separate and distinct from the artist”) and Rilke:

[Beethoven’s] artistic involvement was so intense that it tended to reduce the rest of his life to a struggle for equilibrium in which the pressure of the work could cause the life almost to wither away, “like some organ they no longer require,” as Rilke said of Tolstoy and Rodin.

On the other hand, it is acknowledged somewhat gingerly that “certain features of [Beethoven’s] life, such as his persistent illnesses and his depression, are apparently mirrored to some extent” in “La Malinconia” from the Opus 18 quartets and the “Hymn of Thanks to God from a Convalescent” from Opus 132. Indeed,

The theory of an absolute separation is self-defeating and will not hold. Works…are created…by individuals carrying out specific imaginative purposes; they are not made by abstract processes or algorithms. Accordingly, we can acknowledge that deeply rooted elements in the creative person’s personality, angle of vision, speech habits, interactions with people, and ways of dealing with the world find resonance in many of the artist’s works.

Still, as Beethoven’s life and Bee-thoven’s works roll past us in Lockwood’s leisurely motorcade, they tend, we notice, to keep each other at a safe distance.


As I have said, this is a magisterial study without being overbearing. It is often beautifully written and it is supported by a lifetime of wide reading. Formidable musicological authority lurks mostly in the endnotes though specialists will feel it on every page. (The notes are also lightly sprinkled with Ivy League insider references and scholarly irritations.) Frequent clear headings on comfortably spaced pages make it a simple matter to locate material on the individual compositions discussed—about eighty in all—as well as incisive mini-essays over and above the chronological survey: “Life and Works,” “Entering the Publishing World,” “Deafness,” “Napoleon and Self-Made Greatness,” “Improvising and Composing at the Piano,” and “Relations with Women.” Consolidation entails saying some well-known things: Lockwood says them in his own voice and with his own, often subtle nuance.

The composition he discusses at greatest length, nearly thirty pages, is Symphony No. 9, the “Choral” Symphony. No doubt the Ninth has to count, if count we must, as Beethoven’s key work. “There are actually two ‘Ninth Symphonies’,” Lockwood points out—the so-called Joy Theme of the finale and its choral anthem, which has inspired millions, and a highly intricate four-movement cycle culminating in the finale built on that theme…and on a second theme, one that almost usurps the first before the piece is over. Topics he discusses include the current mythic status of the Ninth, its political and ideological background, its genesis in sketches and other sources, the work’s reception, and finally its character, movement by movement and section by section.

Lockwood’s major research has been concentrated on the genesis of Beethoven’s compositions, and he gives us more information than we need about preliminary drafts, altered or abandoned early plans, and the like, some of which tell us more about the music than others. With the Ninth, a chance letter of 1793 reports that the young man on whom Bonn pins such high hopes intends to tackle Schiller’s An die Freude, the “Ode to Joy,” still recent at that time and already a theme song for the idealistic and the radical. The Joy Theme begins to form itself in a curious composite song written shortly afterward, “Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe” (The Sigh of One Unloved and Requited Love). The theme is almost there in the Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra, and Chorus of 1808, and in basic outline so is the aberrant and much-debated form of the symphony finale. Sketches and notations for the symphony date from 1812, 1816, and 1818, long before serious work on it began in 1821. Genetically as well as in nearly every other way, this is the exceptional work by Beethoven.

As for the work’s reception, Lockwood wishes principally to oppose Adorno’s charge that the Ninth was written in bad faith:

Some reject…its forthright, naive, powerful assertions of ethical and political ideals…[because of] current disillusionment in the face of modern history and a twentieth century in which monumental crimes against humanity were committed, above all the Holocaust…. But if we look at the Ninth as the product of an attempted revival of these ideals, written at a time when political tyranny had returned to the European world after 1815, a symphony that originated as an effort to reinstall some hope into a world even then desperate for assurances of the survival of such ideals—then we can see that modern skepticism unwittingly tends to replicate the political despondency of the time in which it came into being…. By using Schiller’s “Ode” to directly address humanity at large, Beethoven conveys the struggle of both the individual and of the millions to work their way through experience from tragedy to idealism and to preserve the image of human brotherhood as a defense against the darkness.

This eloquent, even lofty peroration looks back to the section on “The Character of the Ninth,” the author’s credo on the matter of interpretation, placed near the end of the book as though to parallel the one on artistic biography at the beginning. Lockwood expresses little sympathy for the notion that the artwork can accommodate many different interpretations, that it transcends its maker’s mortality to engage changing subjectivities in successive generations of readers and listeners, indeed that its meaning may consist of a congeries of interpretations. (The Ninth, Maynard Solomon has said, “encompasses larger relevancies and manifold meanings that have given it unassailable status as a model of human transformation.”) Lockwood gets uncharacteristically angry with what he calls today’s ideological criticism, focused as it is upon art’s supposed political and social content:


With great éclat, a feminist critic has denounced the first movement as an example of “horrifyingly violent” masculine rage, and a feminist poet reviled the entire work as a “sexual message” written by a man “in terror of impotence or infertility, not knowing the difference.”

What is so very awful about these interpretations? They draw attention—violently, to be sure, and so what?—to a cardinal feature of the first movement’s recapitulatory passage: its unique combination of violence and frustration. The timpani blast away as never before in classical music and literally disorient the harmonies screeching and grasping at them. Tovey calls the passage “catastrophic” and “very terrible,” Leo Treitler calls it “the high point of dramatic conflict and tension” rather than “a moment of arrival and resolution,” and Lockwood, to his credit, quotes them both. The only other “political” interpretation he discusses that is at all recent, from an unpublished dissertation, gains a measure of respect if not approval.2

Critics who refuse to give in to ideology may find they can do so

only by recommitting themselves to [musical] analysis, which concerns itself exclusively with the structural, or recommitting to history, that is, to understanding the Ninth not as a disembodied art product out of time and space, but as the work of an artist living in a particular period and context…. Our job would then be not only to try to understand the work in the context of its origins but to make that understanding, as nearly as possible and with minimal distortion and loss of content, meaningful in the present.

The thinking of Hans-Georg Gadamer seems to be acknowledged here, but not that of Roland Barthes or Hans Robert Jauss or Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, an éminence grise of musicology, whose eye-opening Zur Geschichte der Beethoven-Rezeption does not figure in Lockwood’s bibliography of works cited. Back in the Beethoven bicentennial year, 1970, Eggebrecht was already urging us not to “separate—absolve—Beethoven’s music from its reception, finding the source of its greatness and beauty in ‘the music itself.'”


I am sorry Lockwood’s book does not include another sustained reflection, perhaps even a credo, in addition to the ones on biography and interpretation, referred to above. The subject I miss is how to write about music, the actual sounding notes and patterns of music, and after that how to write about it in a book of this kind.

Readers will find much to learn here about particular Beethoven pieces, much that extends beyond received wisdom.3 Again one senses the distillation of long experience with the music, derived this time from performance as well as learning. Lockwood is a cellist, and some of his most valuable observations concern music for cello and other string instruments (the Violin Concerto, the Quartet in E-flat, Opus 127).

But for me, and I think this will be true for many of Lockwood’s intended readers, the musical coverage of this book as a whole—the sum of what he calls his “short critical accounts” of Beethoven’s compositions—succeeds less well than the grand historical narrative in which he embeds it or, for that matter, less well than the biography. Too often, those well-known things about canonical works that need saying in a comprehensive study don’t get said. In the thirty-page discussion of the Ninth Symphony, for example, the bizarre Alla Marcia for solo tenor, male chorus, and “Turkish” instruments in the finale receives no mention at all. With the Fifth, Lockwood’s account of the first movement consists of a novel (to me) point about the underlying key scheme and little else. There is no reference to the crucial alternating string and woodwind chords prior to the recapitulation—“orchestral gasps,” for Berlioz, “coming and going while gradually growing weaker like the painful breathing of a dying man”—or to the time-stopping oboe cadenza, or the outsized coda, or the quite unanticipated intervention of a new strong melody in that coda. With Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, we hear, once again, about the underlying long-range key relations (twice) and scarcely anything about the musical surface.

Of course one can’t say everything one might want to say about every piece in any book, let alone a book planned to be “of moderate length,”4 but then shouldn’t one choose the most salient things? The strategy here seems better suited to fairly advanced students than to lay readers.

Lockwood’s fluent prose runs dry when he addresses the character and characteristics of Beethoven’s compositions. No dying gasps for him. This is a work of consolidation, an objective book, one that no doubt aims to be a standard text for years. Lockwood relies on technical language or language that can be reduced to the technical, seldom reaching for subjective, imaginative, or metaphorical terms to characterize music’s affect. Imaginative flashes such as “a celestial exercise piece” for the finale of the “Tempest” Sonata, Opus 31 No. 2, appear less often than bromides like “arabesque” for the solo-violin passage that tears through the beginning of the Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132. The highly exceptional fortissimo ostinato passage in the scherzo of the Quartet in F, Opus 135, is merely an “odd” element, an example of “mordant humor.”5

That the passage in Opus 135 is odd (that is, highly exceptional both in itself and in its context) can be established by technical analysis of a reasonably objective sort. But serious listeners have also experienced this and the many other such passages in Beethoven as uncanny, sinister, transgressive, horrifyingly violent, and so on, feelings that are muted by the language in this book, and also by Lockwood’s choices of what to emphasize. Famous—notorious—Beethoven moves are not reported. In the Ninth Symphony, the contrabassoon greets the cherub who “stands before God” with what is sometimes called an unmentionable noise. In the Fifth Symphony, C-major chords in the final cadence replicate themselves hyperbolically. There’s the unforgettable moment of piano–orchestra confrontation in Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), and the uncanny first-movement coda in No. 3. A sudden fireball lights up the end of the “Appassionata” Sonata. There are many such events.

The unruly in Beethoven startled and dismayed most of his contemporaries. It took a Romantic like Berlioz to love it, and this aspect of his work still engages a generation that takes Adorno for granted and cares about discontinuity and physical presence in music as well as transcendence and organic form, a generation that will be teaching Beethoven courses (assuming they—the courses, the teachers—survive) in the twenty-first century. On one particularly distracted day in his last years, Beethoven was pulled in by the police as a peeping Tom, but they let him go in embarrassment once they realized who he was—Lockwood looks the other way, too, when he sees the great man tooling down the Autobahn toward postmodernity.

The section on “Relations with Women” begins with the observation that these have become “the stuff of endless speculation, some of it poignant and some of it prurient,” and it’s clear Lockwood wants to distance himself from this strand of Beethoven biography and also, perhaps, from the tell-all fashion that seems to prevail in lives of the great as so frequently depicted today. But his account of the love affair with Antonie Brentano, the Viennese matron who with her husband entered into the composer’s circle in the years 1809–1812, when he was around forty, seems laconic, even heartless.

The affair brought to a close Beethoven’s involvements with high-born women, often his students, from whom he seems typically to have withdrawn if he was not rejected outright, as Lockwood says. He does not quite say that this relationship was of a different order, nor does he quote from the letter to a famously unnamed “Immortal Beloved,” written in 1812, in which Beethoven spills out his passions, though other letters are quoted to very good effect: Josephine Deym turning aside his overtures for “sensual love,” and Antonie Brentano describing Beethoven as “greater as a human being than as an artist.”

Who else besides Brentano, as Lockwood remarks, would have felt that? The focus, though, is not really on her feelings and how they affected Beethoven but on her identification with the letter’s recipient: for there are still Antonie deniers out there—less poignant or prurient, I think, than appalled at the thought of their Beethoven involved with a married woman who was pregnant when the affair ended.6 In any case, Beethoven was shattered, finding himself reacting in his usual way—withdrawal—in relation to a woman whom he loved and who for the first time fully accepted him. Not long afterward he went into a severe depression and a creative slump that resulted in no new compositions of any consequence in the year 1813.

Luckily for him the Congress of Vienna convened in 1814–1815, making him the musician of the hour. He went into a whirlwind of composition, producing quantities of mindless and distasteful patriotic music which was played repeatedly (it is never played today) and brought him more fame and money than ever before. There was a revival of his opera Leonore in a new version, Fidelio, somewhat tailored to the mood of the congress. It cost him more labor, he said, than a new piece started from scratch.

Distracting labor, one would guess. From 1815 to 1818 he wrote no more than four large compositions. A piano trio and a piano concerto were half-composed and aborted.

Beethoven’s slumps are not like other people’s, and the few substantial compositions of the period between 1813 and 1818 include some of his most marvelous. Life and career: two of these pieces seem to me directly and profoundly affected by events of the life in 1812, whether or not Beethoven understood that his career had reached a “critical turning point,” a “crossroad,” as Lockwood proposes. “Women could be part of his life but not part of his career…. In his relationship to women, there could now be only renunciation and stoic acceptance.” The song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte” of 1816 shows the poet-composer-lover putting the crisis behind him, figuring a past love as a distant love, affirming that only songs—a new commitment to his mission as composer—can cover the pain. And I am certainly not the first to sense an utterly unprecedented tenderness in the opening theme and the whole first movement of the Piano Sonata in A Major, Opus 101, of the same year. This is the music of caress, like Debussy’s La Fille aux cheveux de lin, only purer. Not by accident is it recalled, like a poignant memory, between later movements of the sonata that turn away to a kind of forced energy or gaiety, forced innovation.

This type of thematic recall—it also occurs in the song cycle and in the Cello Sonata in C, Opus 102 No. 1, of 1815—Charles Rosen has seen as an “essay in, or at least a movement towards, the open forms of the Romantic period.”7 Romantic indeed; there was more being recalled here than a theme, than music.

This Issue

February 27, 2003