by Michael Bowen & r & & r & Beethoven by Edmund Morris & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & essons learned from reading Edmund Morris on Beethoven: Keep it short. HarperCollins' Eminent Lives series presents thorough but brief biographies; Morris, for example, takes up only 229 short pages. Nobody plunges willingly into Maynard Solomon's biography of Beethoven, with its endless pages of Freudian analysis.
Match the writer to the subject. Not only has Morris completed two acclaimed volumes (of a projected three) on Teddy Roosevelt, he also spent years as a music critic for the Washington Post. That qualifies him to compare unresolved themes in the Eroica Symphony to coitus interruptus, or to interpret the psychological significance of Fidelio for its deaf composer: The man in the dungeon, Morris suggests, is "a man walled off from the sounds of the outside world." Weird passages in the Op. 31 piano sonatas prompt Morris to ask, "Was he conveying, from his own auditory cavern, what deafness sounded like?"
Inspiration still requires craft. Beethoven had a lifelong habit of walking compulsively, scowling and leaning forward while humming along eccentrically with melodies heard only inside his own head. "Music was like magma in him," says Morris. "He was in danger of exploding unless he learned harmonic and thematic discipline." Like so many great creative artists, Beethoven "had a compulsion to nail every thought before it escaped him," scribbling musical phrases on scraps of paper, tree trunks, even walls and window shutters.
We crave what we can't have. Straining after the infinite in the late string quartets (and even earlier), Beethoven tormented himself with love affairs: "Throughout his life," says Morris, "he was attracted to women who were well-bred, musical and sexually unavailable."
Creative artists who fail to control the infinite try to control people. In later years, despite his disappointment over his Immortal Beloved, his paranoid ways, his obsessive legal battle with his sister in law and his decline into total deafness, Beethoven still created the incredible beauty of the Archduke Trio and Ninth Symphony. Morris speaks of the composer's "obliterative possessiveness": In his sadly unsatisfied later years, Beethoven displayed narcissistic and control-freak tendencies, deceiving his friends by fraudulently selling multiple versions of the same new scores.
Make the ineffable comprehensible. Morris exemplifies his book's subtitle ("The Universal Composer") with beginning and ending anecdotes that illustrate how folks who say they hate classical music nonetheless know and appreciate Beethoven, the composer for all of us.