Book review: Beethoven - A Life In Nine Pieces, by Laura Tunbridge

This Beethoven playlist is a fitting tribute to the great composer, particularly against a backdrop of muted anniversary celebrations, writes Ken Walton

Laura Tunbridge
Laura Tunbridge

This year was to have been one of worldwide celebrations of the life and music of Ludwig van Beethoven, on the 250th anniversary of his birth. Yet here we are facing the grim reality that a global pandemic has silenced live performance in our concert halls. Like Beethoven, hearing his works, certainly in the visceral sense and for the foreseeable future, is diminished.

But at least we have fresh insights via the written word, and Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life In Nine Pieces is a neat and helpfully concise example. Its wisdom lies in the realisation there is no current need for a new full-scale biography, not while the likes of Jan Swafford’s exhaustive 2014 study – is there a minute of Beethoven’s life, a bar of his music, he overlooks in its 1,000 pages? – remains to be fully absorbed.

Tunbridge’s ploy is to create a selected biographical playlist – nine works commencing with his earliest commercial success, the Septet, Op 20, of 1800, and ending with the bewildering internalised complexity of the Grosse Fuge, the original finale to his late String Quartet of 1826 – and use these as hooks to successive chapters that each elaborate on single aspects of the composer’s life and persona.

So against the backdrop of the “Kreuzer” Violin Sonata, we learn, contrary to the popularised image of Beethoven the antisocial ruffian, something of his adept social manoeuvring within hierarchical Viennese society, including his supportive friendship with the celebrated black violinist George Bridgetower.

And for all he lived his life in a state of physical and mental turmoil, Tunbridge reminds us of Beethoven’s sharp practice in dealing with publishers: in the case of the Missa solemnis, simultaneously selling it to multiple publishers, while flogging handwritten copies to heads of state and prominent artists, meantime pocketing a commission fee from Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde for an oratorio he was never to deliver.

It’s useful to be reminded, too, of the political and universal dimensions affecting the evolution of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, the grubby backdrop to the “Hammerklavier” Sonata as the composer played dirty tricks in wresting his nephew Karl from his widowed sister-in-law, and of course the wretchedness of his love life and the ongoing mystery behind the identity of “The Immortal Beloved”.

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In truth, we knew much of this already, and if Tunbridge struggles at the outset to convince us that her approach is genuinely original and not a little contrived, it soon settles into a slicker groove, where brevity (just over 200 pages) and clarity are its key selling points. Beethoven remains one of history’s most complex and fascinating enigmas. To tackle it from such an oblique angle is refreshingly helpful.

Beethoven - A Life In Nine Pieces, by Laura Tunbridge, Viking, hardback, £16.99

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