A life balanced on the master’s scales

Ted Libbey is director of media arts at the National Endowment for the Arts and author of "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection."

It seems that every time you look around someone else has come out with a new book on Beethoven. Why all the fuss about dear old Ludwig? As Victor Borge used to say, he hasn’t done much lately.

The short answer, of course, is that what Beethoven did a long time ago still has amazing currency. Not a day goes by that his music isn’t played in hundreds of concert halls, isn’t listened to in millions of homes and cars, isn’t celebrated in hundreds of millions of hearts. While a case can be made for others -- Josquin, Monteverdi, Wagner, Stravinsky -- when all is said and done it is Beethoven who stands as the most important and influential musician the world has yet known, Beethoven whose life work represents the single greatest paradigm shift in musical history.

The essence of that shift undoubtedly had something to do with Beethoven’s notoriously cranky and indomitable personality. In Beethoven’s music, the concept of etiquette -- the idea that art should adhere to norms of fashion and taste -- was not merely challenged but openly attacked and eventually overthrown. In works like his Opus 18 string quartets and the Second Symphony, Beethoven whipped the tablecloth out from under the place settings of the “classical” style. Classical rhetoric was subverted constantly in his arguments, though never completely ignored, while the confines of 18th century form were broken wide open. The power of sound was unleashed for the first time (just think of the opening chords of the “Eroica” Symphony, or the cataclysmic beginning of the Ninth). Also, for the first time in the sphere of classical music, subjectivity and self-expression were established at the center of the artistic enterprise. From that, there has been no turning back.

The problem for anyone trying to write a book about Beethoven is that he remains a moving target. No would-be biographer can ignore the fact that throughout his life Beethoven was a man of ideas, of deep and passionately held convictions, or that there were profound connections between what Beethoven believed and what he wrote. Yet even the most conscientious writers still struggle to pin those connections down. Enter Harvard professor Lewis Lockwood, whose “Beethoven: The Music and the Life” is to be commended not only as a distinguished addition to the list of books written about Beethoven for the general reader but also, thanks to Norton’s archiving of nearly 70 notated music examples on a dedicated Web site, as a felicitous demonstration of value-added publishing.


Lockwood, one of the deans of American musicology, has been contributing studies and articles to the Beethoven canon for more than 30 years. He belongs to the royal line of American scholars who have led the world in Beethoven research for well over a century, going back to Alexander Wheelock Thayer, an 1843 graduate of Harvard whose “Life of Beethoven,” originally published in German between 1866 and 1879, was the first comprehensive biography of the composer. Thayer’s descendants include Elliot Forbes, who produced a revised edition of Thayer’s biography in 1964; Charles Rosen, author of “The Classical Style” (1971, enlarged 1997); Maynard Solomon, famous for his sweeping psychobiography of Beethoven (1977, revised 1998); Leon Plantinga, responsible for a ground-breaking study of the concertos (1999); and Joseph Kerman and Leonard Ratner, each of whom has written an outstanding book on the string quartets.

While Thayer’s biography, which remains even today a valuable source of information, is strictly a chronicle of the events of Beethoven’s life, Lockwood’s is much more a portrait of the artist painted through his music. Lockwood’s overarching concern is with the character of Beethoven’s work. He focuses less on his subject’s social matrix and personal habits than on the development of the musical strategies that would mark Beethoven as a composer of genius, tracing the threads that connect the young man to the mature artist, the tyro to the titan. The advantage of this approach is that Lockwood can then zoom in on particularly relevant biographical details without getting bogged down in an extended narrative of Beethoven’s daily affairs.

He does this right at the beginning of the book, focusing on three letters written by Beethoven at the beginning, middle and end of his adult life, which serve not only to illuminate the essential nature of Beethoven’s personality but, in Lockwood’s treatment, as first-person testimony to the high aspirations and powerful, inwardly directed thought that shaped Beethoven’s growth as an artist. Following a discussion of the early years of his life -- up to 1792, when Beethoven left his native Bonn for Vienna, the city that would be his home for the rest of his life -- Lockwood observes the customary division of the composer’s work into three periods, which he calls “maturities.” His treatment of the works is useful, and includes harmonic and structural analysis (at a level that will not go over the head of the layperson) along with thoughtful explication of the music’s expressive aims.

Along the way, Lockwood mines Solomon for a good bit of material (he would be a fool not to), puts Theodor W. Adorno, the myopic darling of the Darmstadt school, in his place, and takes a welcome shot at recent feminist pronouncements belittling Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as an example of masculine rage. He does a good job of painting the background for his subject, providing the historical context, for example, to Beethoven’s more “public” gestures such as the “Eroica” Symphony, the opera “Fidelio,” the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth. He examines the Napoleonic idea of “self-made greatness” and the role it played in Beethoven’s personal and creative life, and his insightful assessment of the climate following the Congress of Vienna shows how the ideals of the Revolution were undone there, forcing Beethoven to mount a counteroffensive in his Ninth Symphony.

The Beethoven that emerges in Lockwood’s portrait is beyond question a figure of the Enlightenment, a disappointed idealist perhaps, but an idealist nevertheless. As he grapples with the achievements of Mozart, Haydn, Bach and Handel -- seeking first to emulate, then to surpass them -- he finds himself creating music that seems ever more surprising, personal and forward-looking. We see him reinventing himself as an artist, striving to reach more deeply into the truth of things as he saw and felt it.

Lockwood knows that “truth” is a dirty word in a large part of the academic community today, and makes it clear that he detests those who say there can be no such thing as a claim to the truth. He argues convincingly that the best way for Beethoven’s work to be meaningful “in the present” is for us first to perceive what Beethoven “wanted us to understand, as an engaged artist caught up in the conflicts of his own time.... " In the case of the Ninth, Lockwood comes right out and says what he believes the truth to be: that the symphony was written “to revive a lost idealism,” specifically the notion of universal brotherhood hailed in Schiller’s ode “To Joy” and proclaimed briefly by the French Revolution.

Though he doesn’t say so, I imagine Lockwood takes comfort in the fact that the music-loving public has never had a problem with this message, or with the way Beethoven delivers it. After all, it is Beethoven’s truthfulness here and in almost all his work -- not his modernity, not his inventiveness, not his complexity -- that has always appealed to people. It is a broad appeal, as I learned one snowy afternoon a few weeks ago, riding a crowded train on the Washington, D.C. metro. The young man sitting next to me saw that I was reading a book about Beethoven, and he asked me if the author mentioned the theory that Beethoven died from the effects of lead poisoning. We got into a conversation, and before long a woman sitting across from us was inquiring whether the Choral Fantasy preceded the Ninth Symphony....

This in a city where people supposedly talk of nothing but politics.