Beethoven biographer, RIP

Beethoven biographer, RIP


norman lebrecht

October 09, 2020

The ever-fascinating Maynard Solomon, author of the first psychoanalytical study of Beethoven and the first biography to suggest that Schubert was an active homosexual, died on September 28 at the age of 90.

Together with his brother Seymour, Maynard founded the Vanguard record label in 1950, launching the folk revolution with Joan Baez, Odetta, Phil Ochs and the Weavers are their early stars.



  • Darrell says:

    His biographies are a mix of fiction, speculation, opinion, historical novel, and more. We better leave the facts for another day.

    If I remember correctly, Schubert wrote the occasional love letter to the occasional lady (Josepha Pöcklhofer), but since that is a fact, we better ignore it.

    • There is no love letter from Schubert to Pepi Pöcklhofer. This alleged love letter to an anonymous lady (allegedly in private possession in Switzerland) was nothing but a hoax concocted by the late Schubert scholar Ernst Hilmar to tease colleagues such as Rita Steblin who duly fell for this fabrication. There is no fact at all in your statement.

    • david moran says:

      You have actually read the Beethoven and Mozart books?

      • Darrell says:

        Sort of. Years ago I bought a copy of his Beethoven in a Spanish edition (published by Javier Vergara Editor, in Buenos Aires, Argentina), and I still have it somewhere (some box). Years later at the local library I stumbled across his Mozart and borrowed it for the statutory period of 15 days.

        I’m afraid I couldn’t handle either of them beyond half the pages. I remember, for example, certain Freudian and psychoanalytic tones on a recurring basis, which surely has its audience, although it is not my case, and in general I think that they lead to subjective conclusions.

        Perhaps the problem is that the biographical genre is flawed in itself, even more so when it comes to historical figures.

        Otto Erich Deutsch published ‘documentary biographies’ of Handel and Mozart, which are surely not free from errors here and there. Sometimes a document has to be interpreted, even more so after two or three centuries, which can lead to subjectivities or simply errors.

        Maynard Solomon’s method and style do not convince me. Which is not intended to be a judgment on the person.

        How to write an error-free biography? What is the foolproof method? Does anyone have an example?

        • John Borstlap says:

          There is one: the only existing biography of Joachim Alzheimer by Dr Arnold Hofstädter (1964) should be entirely foolproof, since there is nothing known about the 18C composer.

        • Doc Martin says:

          Must be evidenced based. One must avoid repeating the errors of others, which often repeat mere hearsay.

          A careful analysis of his medical history and examination of his remains on exhumation. This has been discussed in BMJ and Lancet and other medical journals.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Maynard Solomon was a superb author. His unsurpassed biographies of Beethoven and Schubert are must-reads.
    And on this very blog I’ve just recently praised Maurice Abravanel’s set of Sibelius symphonies on the Solomons’ wonderful label, Vanguard.
    A long life, well lived. Rest in Peace, Mr. Solomon. You have provided me with many stimulating hours of reading and listening.

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Vanguard was a wonderful and important label for classical music as well as folk, blues and jazz. And it must have given the Solomon brothers as adults an enormous thrill to be the label of three aged musicians they surely enjoyed in their youth: Mischa Elman, Jan Peerce, and Leopold Stokowski, and to rescue and revive crucial live performances by Joseph Szigeti (the unaccompanied Bach that slumbered unissued in Columbia’s vaults, the live Beethoven sonata series with Arrau, and just about all the Mozart sonatas), including Szigeti’s glorious Library of Congress recital with Béla Bartók at the piano in his own music and that of Beethoven and Debussy. For that release alone the Solomons would deserve our lasting gratitude.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        Absolutely, David.
        The Solomons, bless them, certainly made sure Szigeti’s genius, in those (then) rare recordings, stayed before the public.
        The Bartok/Szigeti recital is also extremely valuable for giving us a picture of Bartok’s pianism (in a live concert setting), which Klemperer described as having an “unearthly beauty” (Klemperer having conducted Bartok as soloist in his 2nd piano concerto in 1933).
        Vanguard also released Abravanel’s Mahler symphony cycle, completed before Bernstein’s, making it the first Mahler cycle by an American orchestra, the Utah Symphony.
        Bravo, Solomons!

    • Solomon never wrote a biography of Schubert.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        You’re right, Dr. Lorenz.
        Solomon did write a widely-read essay about Schubert, but no full-length biography.
        I stand corrected.

  • Ken says:

    Er, how “active”? What a terrible usage. “Was you dere, Chorley?”

  • Doc Martin says:

    Alfred Brendel during his early career, made some records with Vox and Vanguard but left them for Phillips as he was not satisfied with their quality and distribution, according to his book The Veil of Order.

    His contemporary, Paul Badura Skoda recorded on the the more prestigious Westminster label.

    Maynard Solomon’s main contribution is as co-translator of Dr Gerhard von Breuning’s memoirs, Aus dem Schwarzspanierhaus (From the House of the Black robed Spaniards). The memories are published in translation as: Memories of Beethoven, Gerhard von Breuning, trans Henry Mims and Maynard Solomon, Cambridge University Press.

    Gerhard von Breuning, the son of Stephan von Breuning records his observations as a boy from his first meeting Beethoven in August 1825 to his death in March 1827.

    After his father’s death in 1827, he went to live with his uncle Josef Ritter von Vering, where he attended the Gymnasium in Vienna. He then enrolled as a medical student at the Josephinian Military Academy, graduating as doctor of medicine, 13 April 1837.

    He first worked as an Army doctor and later in 1852 devoted himself to private practice.

    The Schwarzspanierhaus was located at Schwarzspaniergasse – 200 (New number 5). It was subsequently demolished between 1903-04.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Solomon’s ‘Late Beethoven’ is a must for every music professional and music lover. He was the first pointing towards B’s neoclassical tendencies and related them to a romantic sensitivity: classicism not as a contemporary, lived aesthetic, but as a romantic projection into an idealized past. This becomes especially apparant in the late works.

  • Henry Cohen says:

    Did Maynard Solomon actually write a biography of Schubert, as opposed to his article, “Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini”?

  • Mark says:

    Solomon never wrote a “biography” of Schubert; only a couple of articles. Steblin famously exploded his theories for anyone of open mind.

  • David Wilkes says:

    As one of the remaining ex.employees of Vanguard Recording Society, working with both Maynard and Seymour as VP of A&R in the Folk side, I just want to express my gratitude to both of the Solomons for the wonderful years of making music for And with the most important independent label in the business.
    I’ll miss both Maynard and Seymour

  • Edgar Self says:

    The rich Beethoven literature includes Alexander Thayer, U.S. consul in Trieste, who wrote the first sull-scale biography in English, completed and annotated after his death in 1897 by Henry Krehbiel. Thayer worked on it all his life, seeking to gather first-hand accoounts of all living persons who knew Beethoven.. Others include Wagner, Von Breuning, Donald Frencis Tovey, Robert Haven Schauffler, J.W.N. Sullivan, George Marek Solomon, and Jan Swafford.

    One of the best comments on Beethoven is attributed to the Austrian poet Grillparzer, who gave his funeral obloquy: “Fortunate the man who through his love can make another’s greatness his own, for it is given few men to be great of themselves.”

    • Doc Martin says:

      Actually it was Heinrich Anschuetz who gave the funeral oration. He was not allowed into the cemetery in Wahring being an actor. One of the odd rules of the Catholic clergy.

      Later Beethoven was “resurrected” in 1863 for medical examination and again in 1888, to be finally interred at the Zentralfriedhof amongst the great and the good. Old Bruckner was present and his specs fell into the coffin.

    • John Borstlap says:

      What a silly line that is, as if Beethoven needed the greatness of someone else to be great himself.

      • Doc Martin says:

        My point was Bruckner always appeared when Beethoven was dug up, he was obsessed by the dead. During the exhumation in 1888 he got in the way and his specs fell into the coffin!

        I did not suggest Beethoven needed help from an inferior composer like Bruckner! Wise up man.

  • Doc Martin says:

    I found this letter from Beethoven to George Smart in London written just before he died. I tried to translate it unfortunately, google translate made a complete pig’s ear of it !

    I thought he wrote to Smart in French, clearly he was not well enough at the time.

    From my medical background, I gather he mentions his latest operations, (to drain Ascites fluid from his abdomen),if some of you could make sense of it. It seems from my source, to have a connection to his earlier letter to the Philharmonic society about an Academy (Benefit concert).

    Beethoven an George Smart in London
    Wien den 6. März. 1827.

    Euer Wohlgeborn !

    Ich zweifle nicht, daß E.W. mein Schreiben vom 22. Febr. d.J.1 durch Hrn Moscheles schon werden erhalten haben. Jedoch da ich zufälligerweise unter meinen Papieren Ihre Adresse gefunden habe, so nehme ich auch keinen Anstand, Direkte an E.W. zu schreiben, und Ihnen nochmahls meine Bitte recht dringend an’s Herz zu legen.
    Leider sehe ich, bis zu dem heutigen Tage noch, dem Ende meiner schrecklichen Krankheit noch nicht entgegen; im Gegentheil haben sich nur meine Leiden, und damit auch meine Sorgen noch vermehrt. – Am 27. Febr. wurde ich zum 4ten Mahl operirt , und vielleicht will es das Schicksal, daß ich dieß zum 5ten Mahl, oder noch öfter, zu erwarten habe. Wenn dieß nun so fortgeht, so dauert meine Krankheit gewiß bis im halben Sommer. Und was soll dann aus mir werden? – Von was soll ich dann leben, bis ich meine schon ganz verlohrenen Kräfte wieder zusammenraffe, um mir wieder mit der Feder meinen Unterhalt zu verdienen. – Kurz, ich will E.W. nicht mit neuen Klagen lästig werden, und mich nur hier auf mein Schreiben vom 22. Febr. beziehen, und Sie bitten, allen Ihren Einfluß anzuwenden, die philharmon ische Gesellschaft dahin zu vermögen, ihren früheren Entschluß rücksichtlich der Akademie zu meinem Beßten, jetzt in Ausführung zu bringen. – Mehr darüber zu sagen gestatten mir meine Kräfte nicht, auch bin ich von Ihren edlen und freundschaftlichen Gesinnungen gegen mich zu sehr überzeugt, als daß ich fürchten sollte, übel verstanden zu werden.
    Nehmen Sie die Versicherung meiner höchsten Verehrung, mit der ich sehnsuchtsvoll einer baldigen Antwort entgegenharrend, stets bin

    Euer Wohlgeborn ergebenster
    Ludwig van Beethoven m.p.
    de Vienne.
    À Sir George Smart London No 91. Great Portland street

    L. v. Beethoven Alstervorstadt No 200.

  • Doc Martin says:

    Apparently Beethoven’s letter resulted in the Philharmonic society sending him immediately £100 to assist in his distress, sadly the poor man died soon afterwards.

    Apparently, £100 in 1827 is equivalent in purchasing power to about £10,637.79 in 2020!

  • justsaying says:

    Just in case the hysterical reactions in this thread confuse people who are not close followers of musical biography: In the fact-based community, nobody considers Solomon’s work to have been debunked or disproved. Solomon was and still is recognized by all as having unearthed and organized important primary source material relating to Schubert’s life and to certain important episodes in Beethoven’s, and to have given soundly supported interpretations of both. Some scholars have advanced alternative interpretations of some of the evidence. This happens all the time, and it is not “debunking.” Debunking is what happens when fraud or distortion is uncovered, and that has indeed been the case with several now-disregarded accounts of both composers’ lives.

    • Doc Martin says:

      I would only rely on clinical evidence from his autopsy report and subsequent analysis of hair and bone samples. Several papers in Lancet and BMJ have covered this.

      In the case of Schubert we have evidence of his illnesses and his later exhumation confirmed Syphilis, not so Beethoven.