Cover image for Beethoven : variations on a life
Beethoven : variations on a life
Physical Description:
ix, 147 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
""Vienna, March 26, 1827, late afternoon. Having scrawled his name to a legal document with the little strength he has left, the gravely ill and nearly deaf composer is now in a coma. A bolt of lightning splits the sky. A clap of thunder follows. Beethoven opens his eyes, raises a fist toward heaven, sinks back, and dies. So legend would have it. Or at least one of the legends. Accounts of Beethoven's death vary widely, and this one dates from more than thirty years after the event. There may be a grain of truth to it, for weather records confirm the early spring thunderstorm that day, even if other details remain suspect. Separating fact from fiction is a major challenge for anyone who wants to come to grips with Beethoven and his music. Yet even without the fiction, Beethoven's life is the stuff of movies. The characters and the plot are ready-made for the screen: a talented young musician, the son of an alcoholic father, leaves his provincial home and dazzles high society in the imperial capital as a pianist and composer. But tragedy strikes in the form of deafness, and our hero, rejected by the woman he loves, withdraws into a world of his own and writes music he cannot hear. He turns his isolation into an asset and wins acclaim as his generation's greatest composer of instrumental music. Commissions from abroad pour in during the final years of his life. Tens of thousands attend his funeral. It is a compelling story and true enough in its outlines. But where does the music fit into all this? Generations of critics-including Hollywood script writers-have projected Beethoven's life onto his works, treating his music as if it were the soundtrack to the life. The temptation is understandable, for his style did indeed change markedly over the course of his career. If we know anything about his life at all, it is difficult to hear the unconventional piano sonatas and string quartets of his last decade without imagining the sense of isolation his near-total deafness must have forced on him. When we listen to these late compositions against the backdrop of those earlier works from the "heroic" period-works that, like the Fifth Symphony, move from struggle to triumph-we sense that something has changed in the person who created them. The temptation to map the works onto the life is particularly strong in biographies, which by their very nature move in a more or less straight line through time, with the music often functioning as an audible diary of sorts. But this chronological approach, valuable as it may be, creates its share of blind spots. It tends to emphasize change over continuity and favor those works that move the stylistic needle toward a destination we know in advance. It struggles to account for large swaths of the composer's output and downplays those many compositions that do not fit the narrative of continuous change. Beethoven: Variations on a Life is not a biography, nor does it follow a chronological path. For all the ups and downs of his personal life and professional career, Beethoven remained remarkably consistent in his most fundamental convictions about himself and his art, and it is this inner consistency that provides the key to understanding the relationship between his life and his works. Beethoven approached music in much the same way he approached life. He liked to adopt multiple perspectives on whatever attracted his attention: a thematic idea, a musical genre, a friend, a patron, money, politics, religion. He