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A life balanced on the master's scales

Beethoven: The Music and the Life, Lewis Lockwood, W.W. Norton: 604 pp., $39.95

March 16, 2003|Ted Libbey | Ted Libbey is director of media arts at the National Endowment for the Arts and author of "The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection."

It seems that every time you look around someone else has come out with a new book on Beethoven. Why all the fuss about dear old Ludwig? As Victor Borge used to say, he hasn't done much lately.

The short answer, of course, is that what Beethoven did a long time ago still has amazing currency. Not a day goes by that his music isn't played in hundreds of concert halls, isn't listened to in millions of homes and cars, isn't celebrated in hundreds of millions of hearts. While a case can be made for others -- Josquin, Monteverdi, Wagner, Stravinsky -- when all is said and done it is Beethoven who stands as the most important and influential musician the world has yet known, Beethoven whose life work represents the single greatest paradigm shift in musical history.

The essence of that shift undoubtedly had something to do with Beethoven's notoriously cranky and indomitable personality. In Beethoven's music, the concept of etiquette -- the idea that art should adhere to norms of fashion and taste -- was not merely challenged but openly attacked and eventually overthrown. In works like his Opus 18 string quartets and the Second Symphony, Beethoven whipped the tablecloth out from under the place settings of the "classical" style. Classical rhetoric was subverted constantly in his arguments, though never completely ignored, while the confines of 18th century form were broken wide open. The power of sound was unleashed for the first time (just think of the opening chords of the "Eroica" Symphony, or the cataclysmic beginning of the Ninth). Also, for the first time in the sphere of classical music, subjectivity and self-expression were established at the center of the artistic enterprise. From that, there has been no turning back.

The problem for anyone trying to write a book about Beethoven is that he remains a moving target. No would-be biographer can ignore the fact that throughout his life Beethoven was a man of ideas, of deep and passionately held convictions, or that there were profound connections between what Beethoven believed and what he wrote. Yet even the most conscientious writers still struggle to pin those connections down. Enter Harvard professor Lewis Lockwood, whose "Beethoven: The Music and the Life" is to be commended not only as a distinguished addition to the list of books written about Beethoven for the general reader but also, thanks to Norton's archiving of nearly 70 notated music examples on a dedicated Web site, as a felicitous demonstration of value-added publishing.

Lockwood, one of the deans of American musicology, has been contributing studies and articles to the Beethoven canon for more than 30 years. He belongs to the royal line of American scholars who have led the world in Beethoven research for well over a century, going back to Alexander Wheelock Thayer, an 1843 graduate of Harvard whose "Life of Beethoven," originally published in German between 1866 and 1879, was the first comprehensive biography of the composer. Thayer's descendants include Elliot Forbes, who produced a revised edition of Thayer's biography in 1964; Charles Rosen, author of "The Classical Style" (1971, enlarged 1997); Maynard Solomon, famous for his sweeping psychobiography of Beethoven (1977, revised 1998); Leon Plantinga, responsible for a ground-breaking study of the concertos (1999); and Joseph Kerman and Leonard Ratner, each of whom has written an outstanding book on the string quartets.

While Thayer's biography, which remains even today a valuable source of information, is strictly a chronicle of the events of Beethoven's life, Lockwood's is much more a portrait of the artist painted through his music. Lockwood's overarching concern is with the character of Beethoven's work. He focuses less on his subject's social matrix and personal habits than on the development of the musical strategies that would mark Beethoven as a composer of genius, tracing the threads that connect the young man to the mature artist, the tyro to the titan. The advantage of this approach is that Lockwood can then zoom in on particularly relevant biographical details without getting bogged down in an extended narrative of Beethoven's daily affairs.

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