Friday, October 28, 2005

Book Review: Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

Edmund Morris, who previously wrote three presidential biographies, has traded in his Whitehouse pass for a concert ticket giving us an excellent, concise biography on the eccentric but much-revered and well-known composer, Beethoven, aptly titled, Beethoven: The Universal Composer". What is so enjoyable about this offering is that it reads more like a novel rather than a biography. Morris doesn't bore his readers with dry facts and details about the composer and his rise to fame, but tells it like a story.

We read how Beethoven was pushed into long, arduous hours of practising the piano by his taskmaster of a father who would sometimes wake him up in the middle of the night for more hours of practice. We read how although he lusted after women he was too shy to approach them. In any case he was considered unattractive by the opposite sex because of his "swarthy complexion, skin pits, and short legs". They also thought him half-crazy. He never married but wrote passionate letters to his "Immortal Beloved".

What he lacked in the looks department he more than made up for in musical talent and ambition, and at the age of 21 in Vienna, he became the first bourgeois, self-employed composer in history, feted by Princes and Dukes; they would host him in their palaces and instruct their servants to serve him before they served the Duke or his family. Never before had a composer been given this much attention.

Sadly, at the age of 30 Beethoven started to go deaf. Morris includes in the biography letters Beethoven wrote to friends, as well as notes to himself, where he talks about his fears about growing deaf; the letters are heart- renderingly sad and add a very poignant and authentic touch to the biography.

Beethoven didn't allow his hearing disability to stop him, infact, he went on to write some of his strongest harmonies (Symphones 8 and 9) after he turned deaf. Morris, being a classical pianist himself, does a wonderful job of describing some of Beethoven's best-known tunes. As I read the book, I was tempted to crank up my stereo and listen to the nine symphonies one after the other. I have to confess I have a new found appreciation for Beethoven's music after reading about his life through the pen of Edmund Morris.

The composer died in 1847 from liver problems, three years after writing his best-known composition, "Symphony No. 9". At the premier of this great Symphony, Beethoven, deaf and facing the orchestra, did not realize the audience was enthusiastically clapping until a teenage soprano took him gently by the sleeve of his coat and turned him around so he could see the tumult.

His story will stay with me a long,long time.