Review

Beethoven: The Man Revealed

by John Suchet

He was an emotional basket case, an incorrigible misogynist, a social misfit, a shocking child abuser, a cheat, a liar, a grievance collector, a tenant from hell, a friend who would outrage even one’s sworn enemies. Those are only a few of the character traits attached to the unruly protagonist of John Suchet’s evocative new biography, BEETHOVEN: THE MAN REVEALED.

But the abrasive, even repugnant exterior enveloped an entity so musically gifted and spiritually complex that even one of the world’s most diligent Beethoven authorities acknowledges that writing the definitive, utterly complete story of the great composer’s life may be an unattainable goal. Nevertheless, Suchet comes so close it’s breathtaking.

Not content with half-a-dozen previous books aimed at serious performers, scholars and fellow musicologists, Suchet has turned his vast knowledge, imagination and passion for the Romantic-era genius to the audience that perhaps knows him best --- countless loyal music amateurs like those who tune in to his popular shows on Britain’s Classic FM radio network. That’s most of us; you and me, the friends we go to the occasional symphony concert with, the parents who really want to hear their children try and try again to play through Fur Elise, the adults who put piano lessons on their bucket-lists and actually follow through, people of all ages and walks of life who find priceless solace and pleasure in hearing a Beethoven symphony or string quartet.

"What is refreshing and novel here is the imaginative and engaging way in which a formidably tangled skein of pre-existing strands has been deftly unraveled and re-woven into a deeply moving portrait of a composer who literally gave up his life to serve the relentless demands of his art."

For them, and anyone who cares about the profound and often visceral human story that forms any great artist, Suchet has crafted a memorable life that abounds with the kind of detail often overlooked by researchers focused only on verifiable facts. Not that BEETHOVEN: THE MAN REVEALED is lacking whatsoever in dates, documents, names, places and the like. But the resounding difference between this and a multitude of biographies written over the past two centuries is that the context of familiar “truth” gleaned from the composer’s turbulent 56 years on earth has been filled in and colored as never before by an intuitive understanding of human nature, social history and psychological insight.

Rather than pepper his prose with annotated musical score fragments, highly technical theoretical language, or annoying sequences of dry references (notes at the end are just enough to engage the reader further), Suchet unwraps Beethoven’s life as a lively connected narrative, energized on every page by his subject’s crises and triumphs, gains and losses, depression and optimism. His profound lifelong admiration for the German-Austrian genius, who lived from 1770 to 1827, never masks the serious problems Beethoven continually created for himself, his family, friends, colleagues, assistants, business associates, and not least, the countless unfortunate instrumentalists berated and bullied into premiering brilliant works that were chronically finished too late for sufficient rehearsal.

In so many respects, the Bonn native, brought up in a dysfunctional and emotionally confusing family, was his own worst enemy. Without seeming to learn anything from one stressful escapade to the next, he blundered rudely and awkwardly through intimate relationships, social engagements, chaotic finances, dozens of living quarters, and failed or disastrous performance projects. Just as disturbing were his unpredictable outbursts of remorse and generosity; friends never really knew where they stood. 

But as Suchet repeatedly demonstrates, Beethoven’s art never failed him; that was the one golden thing everyone knew about him. In fact, some of his most prolific composition periods occurred when his personal life was an ongoing train wreck. That alone is enough to draw fascinated attention to the sheer doggedness of spirit that drove him to pour out the creative contents of a musical brain wired like no other of its day.

As technically complex as they are, Beethoven’s scores in any genre broke new ground and pushed out bold new boundaries on the traditional envelope of musical feeling. No one had ever encompassed such range and depth of human emotion --- so much so that masterpieces initially dismissed as “unplayable” (the Kreutzer violin sonata being a case in point) drove generations of performers, then and now, to strive far out of their artistic comfort zones to achieve the sublime. And it goes without saying how much audiences the world over have benefited.

Ironically, there isn’t anything actually new in BEETHOVEN: THE MAN REVEALED. Every fact, citation or anecdote (verifiable or not) has appeared in writing somewhere, sometime, somehow. Suchet even takes pains to emphasize the unoriginality of his material. What is refreshing and novel here is the imaginative and engaging way in which a formidably tangled skein of pre-existing strands has been deftly unraveled and re-woven into a deeply moving portrait of a composer who literally gave up his life to serve the relentless demands of his art.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on December 20, 2013

Beethoven: The Man Revealed
by John Suchet

  • Publication Date: December 10, 2013
  • Genres: Biography, History, Music, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
  • ISBN-10: 080212206X
  • ISBN-13: 9780802122063