Beethoven : A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge Viking 2020
I have steered away from musical biography – often impenetrable, for insiders who know the language, the history and the details of the music. These 230 pages are quite different from the pen of the Oxford University Professor of Music.
It is refreshing, readable, clever and delightful. After reading two chapters I decided (thanks to Spotify) to listen to the composer. Nine pieces of music provide the basis upon which the life and character of the genius is narrated. There is much to choose from ! Septet, one of the first successes in Vienna chapter one. The Grosse Fuge ends the book via Symphony No 3 “Eroica”, the opera Fidelio, and the Missa Solemnis. Unlike many theologians (or other academics) the technical terms are explained with a deftness of touch offering insight and clarity. Reading these chapters alongside the music was sheer delight. It opened up new vistas of the soul.
Particularly fascinating were the details of this musicians life. A strapped for cash Beethoven wrote to make a living. The composer bore the organisational challenges of finding a venue, dealing with the ticket costs, securing the sponsorship of patrons and self promotion. These intense activities absorbed the hours and put food on the table. The life of a musicians continue to be challenging to this day ! The issues have not much changed.
The public and private, the political and domestic all belong together here. It is a feat of biographical skill to interweave the complexities and nuances. Beethoven lived in some 60 different apartments in Vienna – they are described as dirty, stuffy and messy.
So was Beethoven curmudgeonly, friendless, loveless as we are sometimes led to understand? Tunbridge argues not – eccentric – perhaps but skilled at getting the best deals for his work. He is also full of empathy and kindness frustrated by his ever-growing deafness.
By the time I had absorbed the music through my headphone I needed no convincing of this mans extraordinary genius and Tunbridge has captivated a deep desire to listen differently and more attentively. I felt it and understood it at a much deeper level.
This is a genius that is rooted in hard work, a struggle amidst the uncertainties of his life and political world. Human, brilliant, enlarging and generative is this mans creativity – all written out of a kind of chaos….. we all share in the process to a greater or lesser degree !
Tunbridge captures this and much more – I promise you this book will enlarge your ear and heart for music – play on and let the music do the talking !