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

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces [2020] – ★★★★★

Did you know that a music piece (a Septet) that made Beethoven’s name in the nineteenth century is hardly ever played today? Or that later pieces by Beethoven that are now known to everyone were considered in the composer’s time too complex and brazen to merit any attention? Beethoven’s elusive “Immortal Beloved” is still without identity, and his attempts at self-promotion were not always successful. Through just nine musical pieces, Laura Tunbridge places Beethoven in a particular time and place in her well-researched book, presenting an intimate and detailed image of the great composer. Rather than Beethoven being an isolated genius making music masterpieces on his own, the author talks of Beethoven as a gifted person that was depended on others (such as on his friends and patrons), as well as on the particular time, norms and politics, as well as on the musical tradition in which he lived. Tunbridge demonstrates how Vienna and Beethoven’s own personal life affected his music, and how changing perceptions, as well as tastes of nobility, ultimately dictated and shaped the man and his music that is now admired by millions.

I. Septet, op. 20 [1800]

Laura Tunbridge, Professor of Music at the University of Oxford, begins her debut book with this piece by Beethoven emphasising its popularity in early nineteenth century Vienna, which had already become the musical centre of the world. Although the piece helped to make Beethoven’s name famous, it is now considered merely “a historical curiosity” and is hardly ever played [Tunbridge, 2020: 13]. In this chapter, the author also talks about the initial struggles of Beethoven in gaining success and recognition: “Musical genius was not enough…even Beethoven had to rely on connections to eventually gain the opportunity to present a concert” [Tunbridge, 2020: 27].

II. Violin Sonata no. 9 op. 47 [1803]

This chapter focuses on “the importance of Beethoven’s network of friends and patrons” in the composer’s attempts to establish a name for himself that can be compared to that of Mozart or Haydn.

III. Symphony no. 3 op. 55 [1804]

Vienna’s economic situation at that time and the war are “reflected” in this piece by Beethoven.

IV. Choral Fantasy op. 80 [1808]

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven [1803] by Danish painter Christian Horneman 

The elusive, difficult nature of Beethoven’s music can be glimpsed in Choral Fantasy, which also showcases Beethoven’s superior improvisational abilities. His skill in that regard even surprised Mozart himself during their alleged (but not proven) single brief meeting in 1787 (for more information on this supposed meeting see my review of this book on Mozart).

V. An die Geliebte [1812]

Beethoven never married and speculations about his personal and romantic life were rife. An die Geliebte, based on poetry by Alois Jeitteles, represents Beethoven’s foray into writing music for songs and could be said to signal Beethoven’s own “romantic isolation”. The chapter also highlights extracts from some of his most “sentimental” letters.

VI. Fidelio op. 72 [1814]

The most interesting element of Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces is that it positions Beethoven at the very centre of one fluctuating music scene, demonstrating clearly how the strict social hierarchy, political climate and changing perceptions and norms affected the composer’s music. For example, during the time of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, “the serious, Germanic tradition of symphonies and chamber music” began to conflict with the increasingly popular “frivolous, tuneful operas of Italy” [Tunbridge, 2020: 160].

VII. Piano Sonata no. 29 op. 106 [1818]

Tunbridge explains how class, politics and the changing music culture all had influence on Beethoven and his music. Moreover, this chapter talks about the composer’s familial circumstances, and, in particular, highlights his battle over custody of his nephew Karl, whom Beethoven wanted to become a virtuoso pianist.

 “Beethoven’s status as a great composer who dominates music histories, concert programmes and recording catalogues came about through hard work and industry networks, through making mistakes and having occasional good luck, as well as through his music”

[Laura Tunbridge, 2020: 226]

VIII. Missa Solemnis op. 123 [1823]

The book talks at length about the creative process behind some of Beethoven’s musical creations, and goes deeply into the stages of planning and executing the Missa Solemnis or Solemn Mass, which Beethoven composed from 1819 and 1823 and which first premiered in Russia in 1824. This section also talks of the composer’s increasing isolation and seclusion, which was exacerbated by his progressive hearing loss.

IX. String Quartet op. 130 [1826]

While talking about the final years of Beethoven, this chapter also discusses numerous attempts made “to preserve” the man for posterity while he was still alive.

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces delves deep into Beethoven’s talent and music, discarding the stereotype that the man was an elusive and isolated genius who achieved his success overnight and demonstrating him as a person whose path to success was not always smooth and who was pretty much inter-dependent on others, wanting to be recognised publicly and earn a living like everyone else. The book also places Beethoven in a strict social hierarchy, in times of changing norms and politics, while commenting on Beethoven’s romantic and familial aspirations, as well on how his ill-health and hearing loss also contributed to shaping his music.

9 thoughts on “Review: Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge

  1. I love this concept of the biography through music pieces 🙂 I’m not very familiar with his work, although I recognise some of the famous pieces. Do you think it would be a good read for someone interested in music and the historical context, even if they don’t know his music well?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also love biographies that explore lives from curious, interesting or unusual angles and I think that’s why I picked up this book in the first place! And, absolutely, I think you would enjoy the book even if you don’t have deep knowledge of Beethoven’s music. It talks much about Beethoven as a man, historical context and explains and comments on his music, of course. A very engaging book, overall!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An extraordinarily versatile composer, as they had to be in those days and as Beethoven particularly had to be when musicians like him moved from the status of paid servant in a household to being freelance but still reliant on patrons. An interesting individual though not my favourite of the 19th century; I especially love his lyrical slow movements, however, less his virtuosic pieces (like the piano sonata you quote).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the book talks precisely about that, it puts Beethoven in the context of his time. Most people think of a genius as a person working alone and coming up with all kinds of things on their own, while influencing others, and this book talks about how much Beethoven was really a man of his time with many factors and people influencing him in turn.

      And, yes, I agree, some of his pieces can’t be said to be popular choices at all, but what I also find is that some (if not most) of them do grow on you and over the years I realised that I started to appreciate some of them a lot when initially I honestly wasn’t a fan at all. I guess that’s part of the “magic” of Beethoven.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love books that combine biography, social history and art so will definitely check this out. I really appreciate having the life and work put in context, which opens up whole worlds and eras, as well as illuminating the sources and innovations of particular artworks.

    Liked by 1 person

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