Beethoven the Unruly

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…

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