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Hardcover Beethoven: The Universal Composer Book

ISBN: 0060759747

ISBN13: 9780060759742

Beethoven: The Universal Composer

(Part of the Eminent Lives Series)

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Format: Hardcover

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Book Overview

"Brilliant....This book is a perfect marriage--or should one say, duet--of subject and author, every word as masterly as the notes of the artist it illuminates." -- Christopher Buckley, Forbes "This is not just criticism but poetry in itself, with the additional--and inestimable--merit of being true." -- Washington Post Book World Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edmund Morris ( The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, Dutch ) is one of America's...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

Well written short biography of Beethoven

Edmund Morris' biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, part of the "Eminent Lives" series, is delightful. Edmund Morris has written biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He also plays piano, studies music, and has been examining Beethoven for decades and decades. The combination works very well here. The front dust jacket comments place this 200 page volume in perspective. "Edmund Morris, the author of three bestselling presidential biographies and a lifelong devotee of Beethoven, brings the great composer to life as a man of astonishing complexity and overpowering intelligence." This book is well worth looking at, if one wishes an accessible biography of Beethoven coupled with an insightful reading of his music (at least I think that it is insightful). Morris begins by noting that (Page 2): "Of all the great composers, Beethoven is the most enduring in his appeal to dilettantes and intellectuals alike." Agree or disagree, that is a common view of the composer. Morris points out that Beethoven's early compositions were pretty radical for the day--only to become even more so in his late works (e.g., the Grosse Fugue). This book covers the personal life of Beethoven, much of it rather tortured. His family life was not especially great. His father in essence exploited him as a "child prodigy," even lying about Ludwig's age to make him seem more incredible as a young artist. We see his pain as deafness sets in and his personal life remains unfulfilled, with his "Heiligenstadt Testament." Then, the "Immortal Beloved" letter of 1812 (Morris, by the way, provides an answer as to who this person was--different from whom I had concluded played this role when I took the question seriously 20 or so years ago). There is also the strained relationship with his brother and his nephew Karl. Was he an ogre with Karl? An inept "father figure"? What? This is a most literate biography, covering his early years, his interactions with Mozart and Haydn, his development of relationships with nobles who would provide financial support for his work. But what makes it special for me is that Morris appears to know Beethoven's music well, and he folds his musical observations into the text in a way that I find enchanting. He notes how some early notes later became the Third Symphony and how some written comments later became the heart of the 9th Symphony. Those who have seen the movie "Eroica" can appreciate Morris' description of the first rehearsal. The chapter labeled "Valedictory" lays out Beethoven's last months. The final chapter, "Epilogue," attempts to give some closure the book (how successful I leave to the individual reader). This is a relatively brief biography, but literate, properly critical, and appreciative of Beethoven's contributions to our heritage. I do believe that this would be a welcome volume for someone who wants entrée to Beethoven the person and Beethoven the artist.

The Universal Composer

For most listeners, myself included Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 -- 1827) remains the greatest of composers. Edmund Morris's highly readable brief biography, "Beethoven: The Universal Composer" tries, in a straighforward way, to explain the sources of the inspiration that listeners have found and continue to find in Beethoven's music. Morris's book is part of a series. titled "Eminent Lives" of short biographies of famous people written for nonspecialist readers. Morris has written biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, but he is, enviably, also a pianist and an amateur music scholar. What is the source of Beethoven's appeal? An answer that Morris offers at the outset is that Beethoven, in many of his works, did not compose only for people with great musical knowledge or sophistication. He wrote, for the most part, as Morris says, "for the human community he embraced as 'Freunde' [friends] in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony." Referring to the people from all over the world who make pilgrimmages to see Beethoven's residences in Vienna, Morris observes further: "[w]hat draws them is Beethoven's universality, his ability to embrace the whole range of human emotion, from dread of death to love of life -- and to the metaphysics beyond -- reconciling all doubts and conflicts in a catharsis of sound." (p.3) Later, in his book, Morris discusses the tension and contrasts that pervade Beethoven's music: "he fought for a balance -- often precarious yet always managed -- between the rush of ideas and the constraints of intellect, between hyperactivity and ill health, gregariousness and misanthropy, ethics and mendacity, humor and depression, and other absolutes of character or fate. His very music ... consisted of a clash of opposites ... all was tension, everything had to be resolved." (pp 80-81) Even Bach and Mozart, the composers most often considered on the same level as Beethoven, lack Beethoven's stylistic variety, and emotional depth and range. Morris's book focuses on Beethoven's life rather than on a detailed discussion of the music. He does not consider all Beethoven's important works, but what he says is frequently fresh and insightful. Even those who know Beethoven's music well may read this book with pleasure. Morris gives considerable discussion to Beethoven's youthful "Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II". He names a chapter after Beethoven's infrequently-heard ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus", and he offers short but good insights on the song-cycle "An die Ferne Geliebte", the Razomovsky quartets, the "Les Adieux" piano sonata and many other works. He also considers Beethoven's failures -- including "Wellington's Victory" and the cantata "The Glorious Moment." The musical discussion rekindled my desire to rehear Beethoven. In considering the life, Morris finds that "Beethoven struggled against epic odds and prevailed with enormous courage." (p.5) The two chief obstacles Beethoven faced, for Morris,

Beethoven's life and times and works

I thought I knew everything about Beethoven (After all, I had just finished reading the Lockwood biography, a tome five times as long as Morris' "The Universal Composer.") But to my surprise and delight, the Morris biography is full of new information (at least to me) and tidbits that are delightful to digest and to discover. This biography also balances his works and personal-public life so well--and in such a literate style--that it is indeed a pleasure to read this one, a few pages at a time as it has mainly been my coffee-table book on Beethoven. I have read many technically and musically detailed books on B before but this one is different, lighter but more readable and more fun to read. I recommend it to all Beethoven lovers. Jon Huer

One of the best short biographies

There are a number of different series of short biographies that are curretly being published. For example, there is a series of short presidential biographies published by Times Books. Penguin has issued a number of short biographies and now, Harper Collins has joined in with the Eminent Lives series. Edmund Morris's contribution, "Beethoven: The Universal Composer" is one of the best of the many short biographies I have ever read. The author, famous for longer biographies of both Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (the Reagan biography "Dutch" was very controversial) has shown that he is an expert in music and is extraordinarily knowledgable about his subject. I bought this book at an author's signing at a bookstore. Mr. Morris stated that he was approached by the editors of this series to write a biography of a subject of his choosing. Morris proposed Beethoven. The editors were skeptical, thinking there might not be a wide audience for that subject. Mr. Morris, howver, prevailed and I'm glad he did as this is superb contribution to the series. At the booksigning, Mr. Morris spoke and he provided extraordinary insights. It is well known that Beethoven became hard of hearing and, ultimately, stone deaf. Although it is not stated in the book, in speaking, Mr. Morris demonstrated that there are certain instances in Beethoven's music in which he is reproducing the odd sounds he was hearing in his head due to his deafness. For example, the opening strains of the 9th Symphony, according to an expert Morris spoke to, sounds like the "sounds" caused by a certain type of deafness. Beethoven was raised by a father who was somewhat abusive. His father forced him to practice his music and physically chastised the young child when he did not perform properly. Beethoven became something of a prodigy, not like Mozart as a composer (althopugh he certaily was a very fine one) but more as a performer. He became famous early on and he was certainly the preeminent composer of his day. He became the great composer he was despite numerous demons. Remarkably, he composed much of his greatest work while stone deaf. He suffered from ill health and Mr, Morris speculates that he may have had a case of typhus which led to his loss of hearing, or, perhaps he suffered from lupus. Beethoven had other demons. At times he was almost psychotic. He was paranoid. He was a tragic failure in his love life and his "immortal beloved" letters are heart rending. He never had children and after his brother Caspar died, by way of protracted litigation, he got custody of his nephew Karl. Beethoven consiodered Karl his son, not his nephew, perhaps to the point of being delusional. He did everything he could to prevent Karl from seeing and communicating with his mother. Certainly, taking a child away from his mother is hardly meritorious conduct. Quite frankly, Beethoven was not someone who we would consider to be a "nice guy." Nonetheless, despite all that he went through, mentally,

Succinct and complete

Trimmming away all the conjecture and speculation that is found in too many biographies, Morris has written a wonderfully straightforward and lucid biography of one of music's most important figures. Given the relatively short length for a biography (barely 250 pages), I was concerned that completeness might be lacking. However, Morris manages to cover all the major points - Beethoven's problems with alcohol, his deafness, the methods behind his genius, his problems with women - without giving the impression that he's rushing us through the book. There are more comprehensive bios of Beethoven out there, but this is a great starting point, and a terrific addition to the study of an important figure.
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