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Their Friend Even If He Couldn't Dance : BEETHOVEN REMEMBERED The Biographical Notes of Franz Wegeler and Ferdinand Ries (Great Ocean Publishers: $16.95; 224 pp., illustrated)

January 10, 1988|William Meredith | Meredith is editor of "The Beethoven Newsletter" and the director of the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies (San Jose State University).

Everyone who loves music should delight in this volume. "Beethoven Remembered" is the first complete translation into English of one of the most important original sources on Beethoven by two of his intimate and most reliable acquaintances, the physician Franz Wegeler and the composer and pianist Ferdinand Ries. Beethoven's personality is resurrected with telling immediacy in Wegeler's and Ries' anecdotes, which often invoke a sense of relaxed storytelling among friends.

Here, for example, we read of Beethoven renting out four apartments at one time, of his inability to learn to dance in time to music, of the famous incident of the plate of roast thrown at a waiter's head, of Beethoven ripping up the title page of the "Eroica" Symphony because Napoleon had declared himself emperor, of Beethoven's inability to hear a shepherd playing a wooden flute in the countryside, of his extraordinary improvisations and many other anecdotes that have helped form our image of the composer.

The new title is a fanciful but appropriate rechristening of the original "Biographische Notizen ueber Ludwig van Beethoven." First published in 1838, 11 years after Beethoven's death, the book was meant to be a collection of "genuine source material" on Beethoven that would include the reminiscences of Wegeler and Ries as well as 42 letters to and from Beethoven.

Wegeler, five years older than the composer, knew Beethoven best between 1782--when Beethoven was 11--and 1796, when the composer was 25. Wegeler was also fortunate enough to marry the only daughter of the cultured and well-to-do von Breuning family, who treated Beethoven as one of their own children, providing him with a welcome escape from his often turbulent and alcoholic home. Ries began studying piano with Beethoven in 1801 and remained his friend until the composer's death. Wegeler's chronicle of the Bonn years neatly complements Ries' stories of Beethoven in Vienna, representing most of Beethoven's career.

The two men's anecdotes illuminate Beethoven's multifaceted personality from two very different angles. Wegeler described himself herein as a "poor dilettante as far as music is concerned." His relationship to Beethoven was that of confidant, as is strikingly revealed in Beethoven's famous 1801 letter to Wegeler in which he grieves over his increasing deafness: "I spend my life miserably, I must confess; for almost two years I have avoided all society, because I cannot say to people: 'I am deaf.' " Ries' friendship was of an entirely different sphere. He was Beethoven's pupil and fellow musician, but he also served for many years as an unpaid musical secretary.

If the "Biographische Notizen" are so important, why has it taken nearly 150 years to translate them into English? The answer is simple: Most of the book was translated and included piecemeal in later biographies. In fact, the musical reader will repeatedly experience a sense of deja vu , having encountered these stories in so many other places. Similarly, the letters, which make up 40% of the book, have long been available elsewhere. Nonetheless, the translation of the entire volume is much welcomed.

Frederick Noonan's translation from the German reads excellently, and he is to be heartily congratulated. Even his translations of Beethoven's letters are idiomatic, with many readings being superior to those found in the standard English translations of Emily Anderson.

A few editorial problems plague the book. The footnotes are annoying for three reasons. First, they are translated from Alfred Kalischer's 1906 edition of the "Notizen." Our knowledge of Beethoven has progressed a bit since 1906, and the book would have benefited greatly from a new set of notes prepared by a Beethoven scholar. Second, the notes are shuffled off to the back of the volume. Normally this is just an annoyance to scholars, but because Wegeler and Ries made quite a few errors of fact, the corrections should be more immediately available at the bottom of pages. Third, there is an amazingly difficult footnote problem in the sections of letters, where two sets of numbers run parallel to each other, requiring fingers in two parts of the book besides the page you are on. A clever editor should have resolved this.

Eva Badura-Skoda's "Introduction" to the volume is weak and best skipped. She devotes half of it to lambasting another of Beethoven's acquaintances (Schindler), who really has not much to do with this volume. Furthermore, I am incredulous that she relies on physiognomy and hand-writing analysis to provide keys to the personalities of Wegeler, Ries and Schindler. On the other hand, Christopher Hogwood's succinct foreword is marked with intelligence and wit. It is indecent that Noonan's name as translator is omitted from the title page.

Wegeler concludes the "Notizen" with a fascinating sentence: "Beethoven's entire soul lives on in his works, all his joys and sorrows have been consigned to his art. His music is his real biography, the true and imperishable story of what he strove for and what he accomplished, written for all people and all times." Beethoven's music may be his "real biography," but Noonan's translation of Wegeler and Ries erases nearly 200 years of intervening time and re-creates a vivid portrait of this endlessly fascinating man and incomparable composer.

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