For the JC books pages January 30 2023
Most of us, I suppose, are used to biographies which take a chronological view of the subject’s life, perhaps beginning with the central thing which brought them to fame.
Norman Lebrecht, however, in this glorious study of Beethoven, has taken a different approach. Almost unrivalled in the non-specialist media as the most knowledgeable of music writers, Lebrecht has taken 100 different pieces by the composer, and spun a heady mixture of facts, comedy, and tragedy around them.
It is a nearly impossible trick to pull off and yet I think — from the perspective of someone almost entirely ignorant about Beethoven — Lebrecht has done an amazing job, with a deep dive into the politics and cafe society of Beethoven’s day, and his effect on contemporary composers.
All I previously knew about Beethoven was that he was stricken by the worst thing to befall a musician when he went almost completely deaf, aged just 31. Lebrecht, however, arguing persuasively that no modern music — from Wagner to Nina Simone and a side venture to Michael Jackson — would exist without Beethoven, brings the towering musicians’ musician deliciously to life.
Why Beethoven almost begs to be dipped into, rather than read as traditional narrative. And this is how I learn that Ludwig van Beethoven had two younger brothers, Carl Caspar and Johann. In a famous 1802 document not published until after his death, known as the Heiligenstadt Testament, Ludwig wrote to his brothers about the despair he felt over his deafness, and how he felt suicidal.
Lebrecht doesn’t leave it there. Not only does he speculate interestingly about precisely what led to Beethoven’s deafness — concluding that for all the known theories, such as a typhus variant contracted in his mid-20s, or the fact that “his deafness worsens in 1805 after he is soaked in a storm” — the probable answer is that “a likelier agent is a direct infection from a dirty finger inserted in his ear”. The dirt, as Lebrecht makes clear elsewhere, could have come from Beethoven himself, whose personal hygiene left a lot to be desired, or any of the apparently numerous doctors he consulted throughout his life.
Down the rabbit hole of exploration, Lebrecht finds a present-day composer from Vienna, Albin Fries, who has also gone deaf. The conversation between Lebrecht and Fries is fascinating in the light of what happened to Beethoven — as Fries gave up composing music, but Beethoven did not, continuing to write for nearly 20 years after accepting his deafness.
Only Lebrecht could have given us an almost complete catalogue of Beethoven’s many (many, many) hopeless attempts at love affairs, and tell us that he very likely never had sex, except slyly to indicate that one of the suspects to have been Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” did in fact give birth to what could have been Ludwig’s child. Let us say politely that “could have” is, as the voguish expression has it, doing some heavy lifting here.
And only Lebrecht could introduce us to Beethoven’s unexpected Jewish friend, a medical student called Alois Isidor Jeitteles, who, it turns out, is not only the founder of a Jewish newspaper in his native town of Brno, Czechoslovakia, but also the unwitting trigger for Beethoven’s accidental invention of the new musical form, the song cycle.
Pleasingly, Lebrecht traces Jeitteles’ post-Beethoven family, right down to a descendant “who compiles a 50-volume concordance to the Talmud. Most of the Jeitteles line perishes in Hitler’s Holocaust, although the Talmudist is removed from a train bound for Auschwitz when a German officer decides that the day’s quota has been exceeded by ten”.
Who else but Lebrecht could steer us to a connection between Beethoven and Yom Kippur? He tells us that “in 1898, a Berlin synagogue choirmaster, Emil Breslauer, recognises that the sixth movement of [the String Quartet No 14] begins with the Kol Nidrei melody of the Jewish Day of Atonement”. What is it doing here, Breslauer wonders?
Lebrecht knows: “Beethoven had been approached in 1824 to write music for the first synagogue permitted to be built in Vienna’s inner city… Beethoven… requests Jewish scores as source material but does not fulfil the commission. While rifling through Jewish tunes his eye may have been caught by Kol Nidrei.” Even more likely, Lebrecht believes, is that Beethoven lived, as a boy, close to a tiny synagogue in Bonn, whose windows would have been wide open in the hot weather of early autumn. Then, suggests Lebrecht, was when Beethoven first heard Kol Nidrei.
I finished this book regarding the master musician of the 18 and 19th century in an entirely different light. Norman Lebrecht’s answer to “Why Beethoven” might be “Why not Beethoven?” But he insists that Why Beethoven is not a question, but a statement. On this evidence, I think he’s right.
Why Beethoven, A Phenomenon in 100 pieces by Norman Lebrecht, is published by Oneworld at £20.