Saturday, December 15, 2007

Beethoven: The Universal Composer [Eminent Lives Series] by Edmund Morris

Few things cheer me, warm me, or bring tears to my eyes as does the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. I have long been searching for a biography of Beethoven that avoided the technical aspects of his music and focused on the man and his associates, his loves, and his struggles. In a brief introduction, Edmund Morris writes, “This biography is a story of the life, not a survey of the work. It is intended for general readers, who may love Beethoven’s music but do not necessarily have a knowledge of music theory” [Note before “The Prologue”].
Edmund Morris wrote a terrific biography of Theodore Roosevelt which I greatly admired, so I trusted his description of his life of, to my mind, the greatest composer of the greatest single piece of music ever written – the Ninth Symphony.
I could not have been more disappointed. From the beginning to the end, Morris constantly uses strings of technical terms to describe Beethoven’s music. He talks about keys, chords, and genres of music as if I had a PhD in music theory. Not only that, he inadequately identifies most of the music he writes about, with a few exceptions.
For example, here is a typical passage on page 102:
"Just the opening bars of the three new sonatas showed how much Beethoven’s style had changed. The first, in G major, started with a spasmodic disjunction between right hand and left, as if one (but which?) had come down too soon on the keyboard. The soft A major haze introducing the second sonata turned out to be a mirage that burned off the hard landscape in D minor. The third sonata seemed so uncertain of itself that its initial three-note phrase belonged to no key whatever."
This might be theory 101, but I never had any music theory class, so I am lost. After reading this passage, I played my recordings of the three sonatas, but I could not make any connection with the sounds I heard and the words I read.
Another thing that annoyed me was Morris injecting his right-wing politics in the first sentence. He repeats that old canard about abortion. I could (and have) constructed a similar anecdote, got the same response, and said, "You just missed a chance to abort Adolf Hitler." Fortunately, this is the only instance of this kind of nonsense. Geez.
One last thing: there is no definitive listing of the works of Beethoven with opus numbers and popular names -- something essential, to my mind, for this sort of biography.
Four stars. Mr. Morris: I am taking one star away for fibbing to me in your note, and you are darn lucky I didn’t take more! --Chiron, 12/15/07

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