The search for clear notes on Beethoven

Barry Cooper's thoughtful, unusually even-handed, and compelling "Beethoven" abandons Oxford's usual format of dividing a composer's life from his music. Instead, he takes an "integrated approach" to Beethoven's life, stressing those aspects that relate most closely to his musical output. Cooper believes the "mundane activities of Beethoven's daily life were, to the composer, of marginal concern, while his composing life was his real life, the embodiment of his spiritual development."

What most complicates the task of a biographer of Beethoven is the lack of certainty about so many aspects of both his inner life and his complex, often enigmatic relationships.

Certainly, one of the most impressive aspects of Cooper's book is his use of Beethoven's sketch books and conversation books, which he deploys to settle an array of controversial matters.

Cooper's attitude towards his fellow Beethoven biographers is as fair and forgiving as it is to Beethoven himself. He does, however, dole out well-deserved criticism toward two famed earlier biographers, primarily the "chief scoundrel" Anton Schindler, an associate of the composer during the l820s. Apparently, even Beethoven found him unreliable and deceitful, "qualities that Schindler showed so spectacularly in later years when he wrote a deliberately misleading biography of Beethoven."

Alexander Thayer's classic "Life of Beethoven" (first published in English in l92l and edited by Eliot Forbes in 1964) also seems to have contained much unreliable material, having been based on recollections and memoirs by people "of greatly varying degrees of trustworthiness." Many of the errors in Thayer-Forbes, Cooper writes, were identified as fabrications only in the 1970s.

Cooper reveals the truth behind several of the apocryphal stories about the composer. For example, he is convinced that, contrary to popular belief, Beethoven was never completely deaf. And he goes to great lengths to defend Beethoven from the long-accepted charge of having been a terrible uncle to his brother's tormented son Karl.

Cooper writes lucidly about the progression of Beethoven's style from his early to middle periods, particularly in the piano sonatas. He describes Beethoven's use of daring modulations and changes in key signatures, as well as a vast widening of color changes and registration.

He illustrates how early Beethoven is already different from and more original than late Haydn, and then shows how Beethoven had gone so far off in his own direction that later composers looked back to Haydn and Mozart as examples.

Beethoven, who strove for the highest ideals in life as in music, is served splendidly by this sensitive and authoritative biography.

Susan Miron is a freelance writer and harpist in Newton, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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