Life & Culture

Why Beethoven: A Phenomenon in 100 Pieces Book review: The musical genius explored

A dizzying dive into the world of this terrifyingly talented composer


Sculpture by Ludwig van Beethoven in Vienna.

Why Beethoven: A Phenomenon in 100 Pieces
By Norman Lebrecht
Oneworld, £20

Most biographies take a chronological view of the subject’s life. Norman Lebrecht, however, in this glorious study of Beethoven, has adopted a different approach, taking 100 different pieces by the composer, and spinning around them a heady mixture of facts, comedy and tragedy. The result is a deep dive into the politics and cafe society of Beethoven’s day, and his effect on contemporary composers.

Outside the music, most people know Beethoven only for one thing: that he went almost completely deaf, aged just 31.

Lebrecht, however, arguing persuasively that no modern music, from Wagner to Nina Simone via Michael Jackson, would exist without him, brings this towering musician deliciously to life.

Why Beethoven begs to be dipped into, rather than read as traditional narrative. And this is how I learn that Ludwig van Beethoven had two younger brothers, Carl Caspar and Johann.

In a famous 1802 document not published until after his death, Ludwig wrote to his brothers about the despair he felt over his deafness, and how he felt suicidal.

On the cause of this deafness, Lebrecht concludes that the most likely reason “is a direct infection from a dirty finger inserted in his ear”.

The dirt, as Lebrecht makes clear elsewhere, could have come from Beethoven himself, whose personal hygiene left a lot to be desired.

Lebrecht also gives us an almost complete catalogue of Beethoven’s many (many, many) hopeless attempts at love affairs, and tell us that he very likely never had sex, although he does slyly indicate that one woman suspected to be the “Immortal Beloved” in an unsent love letter discovered after Beethoven’s death, did in fact give birth to a child who could possibly have been Ludwig’s.

What’s more, Lebrecht introduces us to Beethoven’s unexpected Jewish friend, a medical student called Alois Isidor Jeitteles, the founder of a Jewish newspaper in Brno, Czechoslovakia, but also the trigger for Beethoven’s accidental invention of the new musical form, the song cycle.

Pleasingly, Lebrecht traces Jeitteles’ post-Beethoven family, right down to a descendant “who compiles a 50-volume concordance to the Talmud.

Most of the Jeitteles line perishes in Hitler’s Holocaust, although the Talmudist is removed from a train bound for Auschwitz when a German officer decides that the day’s quota has been exceeded by ten”.

He also steer us to a connection between Beethoven and Yom Kippur, telling us that “in 1898, a Berlin synagogue choirmaster, Emil Breslauer, recognises that the sixth movement of [the String Quartet No 14] begins with the Kol Nidrei melody of the Jewish Day of Atonement”.

What is it doing here, Breslauer wonders? Lebrecht knows: “Beethoven had been approached in 1824 to write music for the first synagogue permitted to be built in Vienna’s inner city… Beethoven…requests Jewish scores as source material but does not fulfil the commission. While rifling through Jewish tunes his eye may have been caught by Kol Nidrei.”

Even more likely, Lebrecht believes, is that Beethoven lived, as a boy, close to a tiny synagogue in Bonn, whose windows would have been wide open in the hot weather of early autumn. Then, suggests Lebrecht, was when Beethoven first heard Kol Nidrei.
I finished this book regarding the master musician of the 18th and 19th centuries in an entirely different light.

Lebrecht insists that Why Beethoven is not a question, but a statement. On this evidence, I think he’s right.

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