Beethoven The Man Revealed is John Suchet’s unconventional biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, that does indeed reveal the flawed, tragic man behind the iconic artist. Suchet acknowledges that much of this is well-trod material, from sources long out of print and has never been organized and told in a single modern volume. Suchet, a BBC classical radio host and Beethoven scholar, explains in his afterward to the book that his is not a bio for musicologists, but for the interested lay reader. Indeed, the composer‘s messy life is as dark, enigmatic and majestic as some of this music.
Beethoven was a tortured artist, egotistical, sometimes maniacal genius in very distilled terms. Almost all of Beethoven’s triumphs were accompanied by calamity or near disaster. Few people realize that he started to have trouble with his hearing while still in his 20s, was plagued with several health problems in his life and that he was a lonely man unlucky in love. The author gives a fascinating, if incomplete account, vis-à-vis the musical universe Beethoven created. Suchet deftly condenses the musicological aspects and makes it vital to the narrative of the composer’s life. Not a small feat.
Suchet’s is confident in reconstructing dialogues between Beethoven and some of his family members and musical contemporaries that fill in narrative gaps, sometimes with his own fertile imagination. Some of which, however authentic, can be read with caution, even skepticism.
In contrast, Suchet’s authority is in little doubt as he recounts, for instance, the raucous premiere of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Beethoven, by then was almost completely deaf, conducting the musicians and singers some of whom almost stormed out of the performance because of the unprecedented musical demands of the work. There even had to be a shadow conductor behind Beethoven, as insurance that it would come off, since Beethoven couldn’t reliably hear the musicians.
Beethoven volatile personality is front and center throughout the book, puncturing more romantic perceptions. Ludwig often acted out with vengeance when crossed. Beethoven was head of his blood family at a young age. He hated his father, a minor composer and musician, who became raging alcoholic to the extreme embarrassment of his son. His often toxic relations with his brothers continued through his life. After his brother Carl died, he tried cruelly took legal action to separate his wife Johanna from their son Karl. Beethoven used his clout to lay legal claim to his nephew as his own. Even though he cared for him financially, his tyrannical ways drove his nephew away..
Beethoven’s problems though, rarely interfered with his composing and as his fame grew through Europe, he was becoming a more and more isolated and eccentric celebrity. He became an object of ridicule for his unkempt appearance and erratic public behavior in Vienna. Adding to the tumult the fact that the city was repeated in the path of the Napoleonic wars and under repeated siege. Still Beethoven was visited by royals and connected patrons; as well as his musical contemporaries from Schubert to Haydn to Rossini. It is an amazing tale of a singularly brilliant career. Touching, incisive and in the end chapters, even symphonic, Suchet’s biography of Beethoven is engrossing and disquieting portrait of an elusive, brilliant and troubled artist.