Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Book Review: Beethoven – A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge

Benjamin Poore finds plenty of shared love for an iconic composer


Beethoven – A Life in Nine Pieces builds the life of Ludwig Van from nine works, grounding his achievements in their historical context without losing sight and sound of the music’s magic. Beethoven was among the first composers to (partly) break free of the patronage system, and accordingly cast himself as a fiercely independent Romantic outsider. But this vaulting ambition for autonomy, Tunbridge points out discussing the Op. 20 Septet, was only possible because of changes in the legal status of composers, affording them new intellectual property rights and control over their work. 

Tunbridge does a lot with these material concerns. She turns up surprising collisions between music and social circumstances, breaking with traditionally autobiographical approaches to Beethoven’s work that lapse into Romantic hagiography. Take one example. The expansion of the publishing business in Vienna meant for plentiful and cheap notebooks. These let Beethoven work in a “more studious” way, sketching ideas in a more complex and sustained way before committing them to manuscript, generating the expansive part-writing and sophisticated treatment of motifs in his music. 

There are plentiful insights into a life we may think we know a bit too well. Beethoven, we read in a chapter on his ‘Kreutzer’ sonata for violin and piano, was an inveterate coffee snob counting out precisely sixty beans per cup in the morning. His fondness for coffee – a stimulant he was loath to do without – and its sophisticated paraphernalia may parallel, Tunbridge suggests, the dynamic technical innovations of his music. Viennese coffeehouse culture let Beethoven cultivate lively social discourse with like-minded friends and colleagues, freed from the taut formality of aristocratic spaces. 

These connections yield up intriguing musical insights. Discussion of Beethoven’s social circle pairs with the Kreutzer sonata. The piece was written for Beethoven’s friend, black violinist George Bridgetower, who performed it to great acclaim before their acrimonious falling out. Tunbridge sees Beethoven’s rambunctious, knockabout relationships with his friends reflected in the shape of the sonata, which begins in teasing imitation and dialogue between the instruments, eventually reconciling these partners in a final movement that suggests mutual purpose and equality. 

“There are plentiful insights into a life we may think we know a bit too well”

We often imagine Beethoven as a misunderstood loner, isolated because of his deafness and genius, but Tunbridge is keen to remind us not just that Beethoven had (long-suffering) friends, but also dedicated himself to navigating the hierarchies and cliques of the Viennese social whirl. This gregarious character surfaces in the Kreutzer sonata, a piece whose showmanship and virtuosity – Beethoven subtitled it ‘in the style of a concerto’ – defies the controlled intimacy of the traditional sonata, Beethoven making it into an “extrovert” form. 

Most of Tunbridge’s selections are to be expected, including a straightforward enough account of heroism and the Eroica symphony. Not that these well worn insights are strictly unwelcome. Discussions of Beethoven’s artistically bracing late style in his Hammerklavier sonata and Op. 130 quartet are engaging enough, Tunbridge noting this late music makes demands on the audience almost equal to those faced by its players. Here music’s impenetrability demands a kind of aural virtuosity from its listeners, and difficulty itself becomes a dignified aesthetic impulse of its own. Such a modernist assessment is familiar enough, but Tunbridge makes the point that Beethoven perhaps wasn’t as intractable or insular as we might like to think. The rebarbative Grosse Fugue that originally closed out Op. 130 was published in an innovative four hand piano arrangement, helping clarify its opaque counterpoint. Perhaps Beethoven did want to be understood.   

There are some surprise musical substitutions and cameos which stymie received Beethoven wisdom. The Missa Solemnis stands in for the expected Ninth symphony, and entails a discussion of the recruitment of Beethoven’s status and music in a nationalist backlash against burgeoning Rossini’s musical dominance by Viennese musical culture. The scarcely known lied ‘An die Geliebte’ (WoO, 1812) provides Tunbridge a path into the deathless debates about his ‘Immortal Beloved’. Beethoven’s ‘Battle Symphony’ Wellington’s Victory even makes an appearance in a chapter on Fidelio.

Tunbridge is keen to remind us that Beethoven’s legacy is a living tradition, touching on playful reappraisals of his work: composer Johannes Kreidler’s compression of the ninth symphony into a single second; David Lang’s reimagining of Fidelio as prisoner of the state; Walter Murphy’s funk arrangement A Fifth of Beethoven; or Matthew Herbert’s Requiem, where stringed instruments are sawed apart and set alight as Op. 135 plays. Beethoven’s masterpieces, Tunbridge says, can “withstand whatever is thrown at them”. 

After all, Beethoven is “not one man but many”. The book closes with reference to artist Ottmar Hörl’s Ode to Joy, a public sculpture installation of seven hundred cheerful statues of the composer, brightly coloured and endowed with smile rather than the usual scowl, scattered across the city by subscribers keen to celebrate Beethoven: a figure who contains mercurial, joyful multitudes. 

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