BEETHOVEN: A LIFE IN NINE PIECES: excellent new biography


A biography by Laura Tunbridge

News by Norman Warwick

Beethoven – A Life in Nine Pieces is a cleverly titled new book that builds the life of the composer and musician from nine works. This sets his achievements in their historical context without losing sight and sound of the music’s magic, and how and why that endures.

Beethoven was among the first composers to at least challenge, although not break free of, the patronage system. He carried himself as a fiercely independent Romantic outsider. but this high ambition for autonomy, the author points out, when discussing the Op. 20 Septet, was only possible because of changes taking place in the legal status of composers, affording them new intellectual property rights and control over their work.

Laura Tunbridge (right) makes much of these material concerns, moving away from conventional biography to show us surprising altercations between music and social circumstances. In so doing she neatly avoids writing yet another Beethoven life-story falling into a hagiography of the composer and The Romantic movement as a whole. By detailing how the expansion of the publishing business in Vienna created high stock levels of inexpensive notebooks, she suggests this perhaps allowed Beethoven to work in a ´more studious´ way.

He was able, it seems, to sketch his ideas in a more complex and sustained way before committing them to manuscript. This developed into his typically expansive part-writing and sophisticated treatment of motifs in his music. 

The book offers intriguing insights into a life many classical fans might think they know ´off by heart´.

For instance Beethoven, we learn from a chapter on his ‘Kreutzer’ sonata for violin and piano, might have been much at home in today´s coffee house society. He was, apparently, an inveterate coffee snob counting out precisely sixty beans per cup in the morning. His fondness for coffee – a stimulant he was loath to do without – and its sophisticated paraphernalia may parallel, Tunbridge suggests, the dynamic technical innovations of his music.

Viennese coffeehouse culture let Beethoven cultivate lively social discourse with like-minded friends and colleagues, freed from the taut formality of aristocratic spaces. Today he might have been writing incidental background music for Starbucks !

These connections yield up intriguing musical insights. Discussion of Beethoven’s social circle pairs with the Kreutzer sonata. The piece was written for Beethoven’s friend, black violinist George Bridgetower, who performed it to great acclaim before their acrimonious falling out. Tunbridge sees Beethoven’s rambunctious, knockabout relationships with his friends reflected in the shape of the sonata. She notes how it begins in teasing imitation and dialogue between the instruments, eventually reconciling these partners in a final movement that suggests mutual purpose and equality. 

Often portrayed as a misunderstood loner, isolated because of his deafness and genius, Beethoven is shown by Tunbridge to not only have had (admittedly long-suffering) friends, but to have also dedicated himself to navigating the hierarchies and cliques of the Viennese social whirl. His gregarious character surfaces, Tunbridge suggests, in the Kreutzer sonata, a piece of showmanship and virtuosity that Beethoven subtitled as ‘in the style of a concerto’, that defied the prevailing traditions, at the time of its writing. Beethoven turned into an “extrovert” form the controlled intimacy of the traditional sonata,

Whilst some of the author´s musical selections are to be expected, including a straightforward enough account of heroism and the Eroica symphony, her discussions of, for example. Beethoven’s artistically bracing late style in his Hammerklavier sonata and Op. 130 quartet are highly engaging. Tunbridge notes how this late music makes demands on the audience almost equal to those faced by its players. Here music’s impenetrability demands a kind of aural virtuosity from its listeners, and difficulty itself becomes a dignified aesthetic impulse of its own.

That certainly aligns to most contemporary assessments but Tunbridge makes the point that Beethoven perhaps wasn’t as intractable or insular as has previously been thought. The rebarbative Grosse Fugue that originally closed out Op. 130 was published in an innovative four hand piano arrangement, helping clarify its opaque counterpoint. Perhaps that was Beethoven crying out ´Lord, Please Don´t let Me Be Misunderstood´.

The writer signals some surprising musical references which challenge some of the current thinking about Beethoven.

Hugh Moffatt
American singer writer

Tunbridge is keen to remind us that Beethoven’s legacy is a living tradition, touching on playful re-appraisals of his work: composer Johannes Kreidler’s compression of the ninth symphony into a single second; David Lang’s reimagining of Fidelio as prisoner of the state; Walter Murphy’s funk arrangement A Fifth of Beethoven; or Matthew Herbert’s Requiem, where stringed instruments are sawed apart and set alight as Op. 135 plays.

Beethoven’s masterpieces, Tunbridge says, can ´withstand whatever is thrown at them´, in a faint echo of a quote I have believed in since first hearing it from American songwriter Hugh Moffatt that ´we must intend what we write for light years of travel´! 

After all, Beethoven is ´not one man but many´.

The book closes with reference to artist Ottmar Hörl’s Ode to Joy, a public sculpture installation of seven hundred cheerful statues of Beethoven, brightly coloured and wearing a smile rather than the usual scowl, scattered across Bonn by subscribers keen to celebrate Beethoven: a figure who contains mercurial, joyful multitudes.

Revising received notions of Beethoven as the scowling genius, 700 sculptures of the composer will be installed in his birth city of Bonn – all with smiles on their faces. 

Ottmar Horl and Beethoven all smiles

Entitled, ‘Ludwig van Beethoven – an ode to joy’, this, like the Tunbridge biography, is a project to mark this year´s 250th anniversary of the composers birthday. The collection of statues is a conception of the German artist and sculptor, Ottmar Hörl, whose other work includes statues of Richard Wagner and Martin Luther.

The green and gold Beethoven sculptures, all about one metre high were placed in front of the Beethoven Monument in Bonn’s Münsterplatz square this spring as part of an art installation lasting several days.

‘To musicians, [Beethoven] is a god. His compositions are of grandiose sensitivity and revolutionary power. But all the world knows him only as a grumpy character. High time for a paradigm shift in collective visual perception,’ says Hörl on his website.

Two associations, city-marketing bonn and Bürger für Beethoven, have launched the ‘OUR LUDWIG’ citizens’ campaign to promote the project. They enlisted up to 500 Beethoven patrons to purchase a Beethoven sculpture, and then, when the installation closed, to take them home.

The city’s Lord Mayor, Ashok Sridharan, agreed to act as patron for the project. Beethoven Year 2020 started on 12 December 2019 and will continue until the composer’s 250th Baptism Day on 17th December 2020.

Covid 19 will no doubt have affected these celebrations but no doubt 2020, with its 250th anniversary biography, arts installations and adaptations of their archives of his work by the UK  Proms, will prove to be an Ode To Joy of a man who might have been portrayed as a brooding rock musician.

Happy Birthday Beethoven. 

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