Beethoven gets booked

Beethoven gets booked


norman lebrecht

August 02, 2020

Welcome to the 105th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Sehnsucht, woO 134

Beethoven is a nightmare for biographers.

His life was uneventful. He was born and raised in Bonn, moved to Vienna in his early 20s and stayed there for the rest of his life. His romantic attachments were unfulfilled, his other relationships were rough and remote – except the love for his nephew, who fled when the deaf composer became too overbearing. For all that we have conversation books  where he communicated with visitors, together with reminiscences of his close acquaintances, getting inside Beethoven’s character is a near-impossible task. Vienna’s most popular biographer Stefan Zweig, a fanatical collector of Beethoven artefacts, steered clear of taking on the insuprable task. The Frenchman Romain Rolland wrote a novelised life of Beethoven in 1903 and a ten-volume cycle, Jean Christophe (1904-12), in which the hero bears many of Beethoven’s characteristics.

Personal memoirs by Ries and Wiegler appeared in 1838, a decade after Beethoven’s death, followed by Anton Schindler’s more comprehensive account two years later, a text which laid the foundations for Beethoven as Romantic hero. Inaccurate and distorted, these reminiscences are neither reliable nor revealing of its subject’s mind. Schindler was estranged from Beethoven from 1824 until the last months of his life.

The first comprehensive biography was undertaken by an American, Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817-1897), a librarian at Harvard. Annoyed by Schindler’s inconsistencies, Thayer made multiple trips to Europe to track down original documents and interview survivors. For reasons never fully apparent, Thayer had his work published in German – three volumes in his lifetime and two posthumous. ‘I fight for no theories and cherish no prejudices,’ wrote Thayer, ‘my sole point of view is the truth.’



His set was eventually produced in an English edition by the New York critic Henry Edward Krehbiel in 1921 and has stood ever since as the cornerstone biography, albeit neither a literary work nor one that kept up with the getle flow of new discoveries. Germans relied more on Ludwig Nohl, whose three-volume work (1864-77) contains detailed musical analysis.

Half a century later a New York record-label owner by name of Maynard Solomon wrote the first biography to supplant Thayer. Solomon, who founded Vanguard Records with his brother Seymour (their star performer was Joan Baez) and was the first to claim that Schubert was gay, took a Freudian analytical perspective on Beethoven’s relations with his family and loved ones. Solomon also came out as a Marxist, although this aspect of his thinking is less obvious in his empatheic, highly readable portrait of the composer and his perpetual demons.

A British academic, Martin Cooper, wrote a study of Beethoven’s last decade which, written from the hands-on view of a capable pianist, remains an indispensable guide to following the composer’s thoughts from one score to the next. In 2014 the American composer Jan Swafford took almost 1,000 pages of ‘Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph’ to describe the composer’s torments in creating a symphony out of thin air. Swafford’s personal empathy is engulfing and his tone authoritative. His biography is unlikely to be overtaken any time soon simply because there is little more to add to the biography, and the interest in Beethoven in shrinking.

That said, there are some fabulous studies of individual works. The Argentine-French scholar Esteban Buch, for instance, follows the ninth symphony  from first origins to symbolic distortions from Liszt through Hitler to the European Union. Another Oxford academic, Laura Tunbridge has written an adroit guide to Beethoven’s life ‘in nine pieces’.

But that’s enough about the books. I was meaning to write about a negelcted Beethovne song that exists in four different versions and never made it into the canon. Sehnsucht (nostalgia), from Goethe’s novel Mignon, occupied Beethoven for 15 years, from 1808 to 1823. It’s about a love that is hopeless from the moment it starts.

Was zieht mir das Herz so?
Was zieht mich hinaus
Und windet und schraubt mich
Aus Zimmer und Haus?
Wie dort sich die Wolken
Um Felsen verziehn,
Da möcht’ ich hinüber,
Da möcht’ ich wohl hin!

What tugs my heart so
What tugs me inside out?
And twists and turns me
Out of room and house?
As the clouds there
Pass over the rocks
I must go go over there
I must go there!

Beethoven had trouble with Goethe’s irregular rhythms and was troubled further by his own unfulfilled romantic longings. Each version of the song exposes more difficulties until the final revison simplifies Goethe and achieves some kind of catharsis. Goethe’s own longing in writing this poem was not for a woman, but for a return to Italy.

Perhas because the song failed to make it into the main Beethoven catalogue there are relatively few interpretations on record.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for instance, did not attempt this quadruple version of the song, and there’s not much in the Lied book that escaped his attention. Hermann Prey deputises admirably in the first version, the lightness of his tone preparing us sensitively for the death of love.

Ann Murray is captivating in all four versions, singing well within herself and letting Beethoven’s pathos flow through Goethe’s words with supportive pianism from Ian Burnside.

The only other contender is a 2020 recording by Ian Bostridge, with Antonio Pappano at the piano. Bostridge sings a poetic line in the way Peter Pears used to do, slightly didactic in manner and will syllabic precision. Pappano slightly over-dramatises. I prefer Prey and Murray but your opinion may differ.





  • sorin braun says:

    “except the love for his nephew, who fled when the deaf composer became too overbearing” – overbearing or…. ?

    • fflambeau says:

      I laughed aloud after I took a delightful tour of the Handel House in London. The guide, an elderly Brit, mentioned that the composer lived with his “butler” and left him lots in his will. No thought there, at least expressed (sex? we’re British) however, of any “relationship”. My thinking: Handel, who never married, was smart and took precautions for his day and this was the way gay men did things back then. Handel could afford it. I suspect that Beethoven, who also never married which was most unusual in those days, had the same affiliation but much less money and ability to do as he liked. It must have been very, very difficult on gays in general then.

      By the way, do take this tour in London. It’s well worth it and the house is old and stately.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    I have both Thayer and Solomon books, a must read for a comprehensive study of Beethoven’s life. But the omission by Lebrecht of another extensive biography is surprising, even if it’s in French (Norman speaks French fluently). Simply titled “Ludwig van Beethoven” the authors Jean & Brigitte Massin (brother & sister) wrote what is probably the most complete and accurate historical and factual biography of the great B. 850 pages, easy to read with lots of accompanied explanatory notes make for a very satisfactory and thorough analysis of this unique genius of 19th century musical scene. Published by Fayard (1967). I had the pleasure of interviewing Brigitte Massin about another book she wrote, that one about Mozart. A fascinating lady.

    • fflambeau says:

      Good point. There is a very extenive biographical entry for Beethoven over at Wikipedia with dozens of biographical books and articles cited. Curiously, this is not one of them; so it might be a language/not available today problem? Odd. Much better is the Beethoven Bibliography at where this book is listed.

    • fflambeau says:

      Note too that the biographical tool I used above indicated 3 works by the Massin’s on Beethoven. One from 1960, another from 1967, and the last from 1970. Oddly enough, no publisher is given.

      • Daniel Poulin says:

        The 1967 version was the third edition of the book, following the original (1955) and the second one (1960). The book is divided in three parts: the first one is called Biographie; the second one Histoire des oeuvres and the third one Essai.

    • Micaela Bonetti says:

      Excuse me, Daniel, Jean and Brigitte Massin were married.
      They wrote “Mozart” together, and Brigitte alone later wrote “Schubert”.

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      Correction: change brother & sister (line 2) to husband & wife.

  • fflambeau says:

    Great stuff, especially about the books. Loved it.

  • Nick says:

    There is something extremely significant on Beethoven also by Larissa Kirillina. I am unaware of any translations. Original is in Russian.

  • I must say I have found the year-long survey of Beethoven’s life and works on BBC Radio 3 – Donald Macleod’s ‘Composer of the Weeks’ series – very enlightening and enjoyable. Excellent as a supplement to the printed biographies, I look forward to the rest of it.

  • Augustine says:

    My only complaint about Jon Swafford’s biography is that he provides no musical index at the end of the book. It is a glaring omission given that the book is interspersed throughout with extensive musical references and analysis.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Not really relevant to the topic of this posting but the Solomon brothers and their Vanguard record label seem semi-humorously obscure to our host but they were an extremely important label in the LP era and had any number of great artists associated with them, and while Joan Baez may have made them money, their artist list (quite apart from their licensed recordings) included tenor Jan Peerce, Mischa Elman, Alfred Brendel, Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, Leopold Stokowski, Eugene List, Bruce Hungerford, Lili Kraus, Peter Serkin, Vladimir Golschmann, Paul Robeson, what Joseph Szigeti referred to as his “posthumous recordings,” all those conductors, instrumentalists and singers who participated in the Bach Guild recordings, and on the nonclassical side a host of blues, folk and country music artists, of which the Weavers and Odetta come to mind. And those are just a few of the names.

    Maynard Solomon was on the Juilliard faculty at one point and has held other academic positions.

    All this may not make his Beethoven biography any more (or less) reliable or useful but it is not accurate to suggest or imply that his credentials for writing it consisted of running Joan Baez’s record company.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Amen, David – and Vanguard Records was one of the best sounding record labels as well: their “Laboratory Series” LPs are stunningly natural and lifelike, among the finest of the analog stereo era. And those recordings transferred very well to the CD medium.
      BTW, I really like Solomon’s Beethoven biography. I also own and admire the Thayer/Krehbiel bio (in a beautifully printed 3-volume set issued by the Beethoven Society), and other LvB bios too, but Solomon’s excellent single volume is aimed more towards the general reader, and of course the research is a hundred or so years more current.

  • Donald Wright says:

    The lines “Wie dort sich die Wolken/Um Felsen verziehn” should be translated something like “As the clouds pass over the rocks there.” The verb isn’t verzeihen (to pardon), but sich verziehen (to move away, disperse). The writer wants to go far away.

  • Monty Earleman says:

    “the interst (sic) in Beethoven in shrinking.” Perhaps amongst musicologists, but not amongst musicians.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Greg, I also have well-preserved copies of Alexander Thayer’s two blue linen-bound volumes. completed and I believe annotated by Krehbiel. It was Thayer’s life-work or avocation within vocation while serving as U.S. consul in Trieste in interesting times.

    He hoped to collect reminiscences of all those then living who had known Beethoven.

    I hope others have read J.W.N. Sullivan’s 1927 “Beethoven: His Spiritual Development”, which is good on the later quartets. Robert Haven Schauffler’s old-fashioned biography is still useful, especially for its index of works with and without opus, publication dates, and dedicatees. As Will Durant said in another connexion, “it is in part sentimental but still represents me faithfully.”