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Mr. B

BEETHOVEN;\o7 By Maynard Solomon; (Schirmer Books: 554 pp., $30)\f7

BEETHOVEN'S CONCERTOS: History, Style, Performance Music Examples;\o7 By Leon Plantinga; (W.W. Norton: 404 pp., $49.95)\f7

THE CONCERTO: A Listener's Guide;\o7 By Michael Steinberg; (Oxford University Press: 506 pp., $35)\f7

PENGUIN MUSIC CLASSICS;\o7 By Various Artists; (Penguin Classics: $11.97 each)\f7

May 30, 1999|TED LIBBEY | Ted Libbey is the author of "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection" and the "NPR Encyclopedia of Classical Music." He is heard every week on National Public Radio's "Performance Today."

Just the other day, before taking one of his increasingly frequent turns as a guest conductor, Placido Domingo was asked by a member of his audience, "Who are the composers that most touch your heart?" He was about to conduct a symphony by Tchaikovsky, but his answer, quite simply, was "Beethoven and Verdi." That the music of Verdi should touch the heart of the finest Verdi tenor of our times is hardly surprising. Nor is it really so surprising that Beethoven should have been the other name on his lips, for the great tenor is first and foremost a musician.

Beethoven's powerful appeal to musicians, and to generations of music lovers, can be summed up in one word: humanity. His music is the expression not of humanity in the abstract but of a very concrete example of it--his own. For where Bach's music looks up and Mozart's looks outward, Beethoven's almost always looks inward, almost always is an expression of his personality, his outlook, his aspirations. This is part of what makes Beethoven the single greatest paradigm shift in the history of music. Because it was in his music, for the first time, that subjectivity and self-expression were established at the center of the artistic enterprise.

Other things happened in Beethoven's music as well. The notion of etiquette--the notion that art should adhere to norms of fashion and taste--was not merely challenged but openly attacked and eventually overthrown. Classical rhetoric was subverted time and again, though never completely ignored, while the confines of 18th century form were broken wide open. Most impressive of all, perhaps, especially from a composer who was deaf, the power of sound was unleashed for the first time.

Since the subject of so much of Beethoven's music was, to a certain degree, Beethoven himself, it is important that we understand the man who speaks to us through it. And no one has contributed more to that process over the last 25 years than Maynard Solomon, author of the landmark biographical study "Beethoven," which first appeared in 1977. At a time when most scholars were focusing on the minutiae of the historical record--on which page of what sketch-book did this phrase of that symphony first appear?--Solomon was not afraid to paint in broad strokes and use the tools of modern psychology in his attempt to gain insight into the personality and creative drive that produced music's most extraordinary body of work. A brilliant researcher with a code breaker's talent for reading between the lines, Solomon tackled the question "Who was the 'Immortal Beloved?' " and, as far as most of us are concerned, cracked the case wide open in a chapter that still reads like an espionage thriller: It was Antonie Brentano. His analyses of Beethoven's style periods and of the conceptual processes at work in each one were widely hailed, as was his skill at drawing plausible parallels between developments in the composer's personal life and the directions the music took, though many scholars felt and continue to feel that there are limits to what Freud can say about Beethoven or, more precisely, Beethoven's music.

Nonetheless, the appearance of the second, revised edition of Solomon's "Beethoven" is happy news for the reader interested in becoming better acquainted with the composer and his music. Among the new material here is information gleaned from the latest edition of Beethoven's correspondence as well as from the conversation books Beethoven used in his later years, when deafness prevented him from hearing even the remarks of friends and companions seated across the table. Also new to this edition is a full-color compendium of all the known portraits of the composer created during his lifetime, from the silhouette taken of him when he was 16 to the deathbed drawings of Joseph Teltscher and Joseph Danhauser. A good book has been made even better, and it remains an indispensable volume for the aficionado.

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