Review: Beethoven: The Man Revealed, by John Suchet

12 December 2013 by 9 Comments

beethoven cover

Book: Beethoven: The Man Revealed

Author: John Suchet

Published: American edition, December 2013 by Grove/Atlantic; UK edition October 2012 by Elliot & Thompson

First Line: “Thousands of people flocked towards the Altes Schwarzspanierhaus, as word spread across Vienna that Beethoven had died.”

Genre/Rating: Biography, 5/5 Dunt dunt dunt DAAAAAAAAAS

Recommended if you like: Biography, classical music, Beethoven, Vienna, music in general… especially recommended if you loved, loved, loved the film Immortal Beloved

Review:

BBC classical music television presenter John Suchet has written six books (to date) about Beethoven, including a three-volume novel about the composer’s life and times, which strongly suggests that he has spent almost as much time researching and writing about Ludwig Van* and his life. This dude really, really, really likes Beethoven, you guys.

Drawing on diverse material (some of which hasn’t seen print for a century) that includes the conversation books the man relied on to communicate with others after his hearing was gone, Beethoven: The Man Revealed could also be called something like Beethoven: History’s Favorite Asshole because, in one way or another, that’s who the man was. He is responsible for some of the most amazing, beautiful, sweeping, dramatic and even charming music ever to grace humanity, yes, but I would not want to have hung out with him, not even for a night. Unless I could just be a fly on the wall who was still capable of appreciating genius. Beethoven, notoriously slovenly in addition to all of his other unattractive personality traits, wouldn’t even notice one more nosy fly on his walls!

He sure is fun to read about, though, and Suchet has a refreshing and carefree approach to the job of telling Beethoven’s story, with an emphasis on the carefree: you can tell he enjoyed writing his fictionalized life of Ludwig, in which he was perfectly free to make up what he didn’t have documentation to absolutely prove as well as to invent dialogue and dramatize scenes famous and obscure. Which means he really couldn’t resist the urge to share some of that stuff in this non-fiction work, but is very careful to label the apocryphal, and the speculative, and the frankly made-up material as such. This means phrases like “That is shameless fictionalizing, I readily admit” and “I confess the conversation and that last quote are drawn from my imagination” are continually popping up in the text, which should be annoying, but weirdly is not; they add to the book’s charm, to the impression that one is touring Beethoven’s life with the ultimate Beethoven fanboy.

And charm is what’s needed, as Suchet tells the story of the man who, though he gave us the Moonlight Sonata and the Ninth Symphony and Für Elise and Fidelio, did a lot of despicable things and behaved abominably to friends, family and admirers. For instance, he waged a completely unfair custody battle with his late brother’s wife, Johanna, over his nephew Karl, whom he then proceeded to raise almost as abusively as he himself had been raised by his alcoholic father. He held amazing grudges, freezing out for life even very important people who wished to further his career on the basis of trifling errors that most people would not have seen as errors. He macked on his piano students up to the point of having to be forbidden to enter their homes again because he couldn’t take the hint that his attentions weren’t really welcome.** He rewarded ensembles of musicians and impresarios who had gone through hell to bring his insanely challenging compositions to audiences’ ears by accusing them all of trying to cheat him. Et cetera.

Oh, and then there was the fact that this guy, with musical treasures that would enrich his entire species forever percolating through his head, was going deaf, and this in an age that was not blessed with a developed sign language, meaning people had to jot down questions and brace themselves for crankily shouted answers. No big whoop.

But, Suchet says, and pretty much everyone through history has agreed — including the citizens of Bonn (Beethoven’s hometown) and Vienna (where he settled down) to whom he behaved most horribly — the music was worth the madness. And even the madness, when viewed from a distance and with an amusing and enthusiastic companion like John Suchet along for the tour, is pretty entertaining. If nothing else, this book will convince you that the one would not have been possible without the other. Everyone will have a favorite anecdote. I think mine is the “Egyptian Hieroglyphs.” I’m going to make you read the book to find out what that means. You’ll be very glad you did.

And lest you be put off because you don’t know a sonata from a cantata from a gelato, never fear. Suchet makes the music as accessible as the man, eschewing, for the most part, technical musicological terms in favor of good old fashioned descriptive prose. And that prose is glorious, as here when he takes on one of Beethoven’s later works, the String Quartet in B Flat Major (Opus 130):

“It is a unique passage in all Beethoven. The first violin climbs, in quavers and semiquavers, off the beat, almost every note an accidental, interspersed with rests, sighs, then falls an octave, exactly as you do when you sob, catch your breath, then weep. The first violin climbs again, with demi-semiquavers, before another fall, more sobs.”

See? While technical terms do appear, there is enough ordinary (and evocative!) English to make them comprehensible in context.

Oh, and I recommend having your favorite music streaming service on standby as you read, unless you happen to be one of those who has the complete works of Beethoven on vinyl or CD or whatever. My collection is fairly comprehensive, but I still don’t have all the symphonies, for instance. You’ll want to listen as you go. Suchet does not get into the musicological nitty gritty of key choices and chords, preferring the anecdotes and social interactions behind the music, but he still gets into what makes pieces special a bit, so yeah, trust me and fire up Spotify or Pandora or Grooveshark or whatever and treat yourself to a multimedia extravaganza! Or, if you’re too lazy, you can just have a listen to this playlist

which is neither comprehensive nor authoritative, just my favorite recordings of my favorite bits that I could find on Spotify.

Whether or not you choose to read Beethoven: The Man Revealed with a soundtrack, though, you’re in for a real treat. I’m going to be hunting up a dead-tree copy of this one for my permanent library for sure!

*I can’t resist calling him that because of A Clockwork Orange, but he really didn’t deserve the “Van” because he was a commoner. Herewith is a sterling example of the kind of let-down truth you’re in for when you start poking around in biographies. Le sigh. But also, le truth!

**And yes, Suchet takes on the whole “Immortal Beloved” question, though he does not ship Ludwig/Johanna as the film does. Despite his willingness to fictionalize, Suchet is going for truth, or at least plausibility, here, and has a less dramatic but more likely identity for the only woman ever to return Beethoven’s passion, and it’s someone who does not even appear in the film. Unlike the film, though, Suchet has evidence and solid reasoning to back up his choice, which is that of many other scholars.

9 thoughts on “Review: Beethoven: The Man Revealed, by John Suchet

  1. So, wait, I’m confused… is it fiction or nonfiction? Mostly nonfiction with a bit of clearly marked fiction? Which I guess is preferable to fiction trying to pass itself as nonfiction, but still confusing.

    Beethoven is one of my favorites, though.

      • That’s what I’m thinking… that it’s mainly non-fiction, but with some stuff filled in here and there where the actual facts are lost to time. John Suchet is on Twitter and RT’d the post, we should ask him! haha :D

  2. I am not usually a huge fan of biography, but this sounds pretty interesting, especially about the famous composer who lost his hearing. It doesn’t terribly surprise me that he was a jerk. My music education professor in college (who was also my loveable, eccentric ensemble director) made it a point to dispel the myths that these composers were anything but normal, messed up people. Maybe some of them were bonkers.

  3. Wow. That description of the String Quartet in B Flat Major actually made me want to cry… And I will always have a soft spot for Moonlight Sonata because it was one of my grandfather’s favorite pieces of music :)

    But yeah, it’s weird finding out how awful some of these beloved artists (be they musical, visual, literary, etc.) actually were. Just yesterday a friend was telling me about the new movie Saving Mr. Banks, and what a jerk P.L. Travers apparently was to the Disney company when they were making Mary Poppins. Like, she was pretty much against every idea they suggested — no to the animated sequences! no to Dick Van Dyke! (can you imagine anyone but Dick Van Dyke as Bert?!)

  4. All of you are out of your minds. This is one of the worst books I have ever read. The level of conjecture is outrageous. Mr. Suchet has problems with simple math. He writing would be a failure even for a sophomore- in high school. EGAD!

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