Mozart: A Life by Paul Johnson. 2013. 164 pages. ISBN: 978-067002637-1 Viking
Beethoven: The Man Revealed by John Suchet. 2013. 400 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8021-2206-3 Atlantic Monthly Press
In a season of weighty biographies of composers (Paul Kildea on Benjamin Britten, John Eliot Gardiner on Bach) it is a pleasure to find these two concise ones written for the general public.
Historian Paul Johnson, noted for such thick tomes as Modern Times, has published brief lives of such diverse figures as Darwin, Socrates and Churchill, so why not Mozart? This slim volume provides just about all the important facts a lay reader might want, and spices the story with Johnson’s opinions as well. Yes, it was a tragedy that this musical genius died before he was 36. But, Johnson says, let’s keep things in perspective: “He started earlier than anyone else and was still composing on his deathbed: those thirty years were crammed with creation.”
Similarly, this book is crammed with information. Johnson itemizes Mozart’s output in every category – 17 Masses, six string quartets, seven major operas and so on. He misstates some of the quantities of Mozart’s completed works, but the list does illustrate his voluminous production. (Johnson is so fond of lists that later in the book he catalogs every piece of clothing the composer owned at the time of his death.) Overall, he contends that the composer wrote “over 5 million bars of music,” without a single “serious lapse in taste.”
In discussing Mozart’s wife Constanze, Johnson takes issue with what he believes are unfair characterizations of her as a bad household manager. “The evidence is slight,” insists Johnson. Constanze was “a competent custodian of Mozart’s estate, memory and reputation, and criticism of her is mostly ill-informed slander.” He notes that in the authoritative Grove’s Dictionary she is castigated for “slovenliness and improvidence that reputedly wrecked” Mozart’s business affairs. “Outrageous,” fumes Johnson, and proceeds to argue on her behalf.
For those who know Mozart’s life mainly through the play and movie Amadeus, only one element is missing from this biography: his alleged poisoning by Salieri. Wisely, Johnson does not even mention the fictionalized allegations.
Throughout, the author writes with wit and style, displaying remarkable erudition about the instruments, soloists, and general court life of Mozart’s era. Among his views of his favorite works is this gem about the piano concerto no. 23 (K.488): “If I were a rich man with a private orchestra, I would demand it once a week, on Sunday evening before dinner.”
One quibble: the book is padded with a 16-page appendix on Mozart in London by Daniel Johnson, Paul Johnson’s son. I’m puzzled as to why it is included.
John Suchet is a highly respected British classical radio host who previously wrote a three-volume fictionalized Beethoven biography and co-authored a Beethoven guide for listeners. He is not quite as succinct as Johnson, but he writes engagingly. He was inspired, he says, by people who love the man’s music but can’t read a note of it.
The book unapologetically concentrates on Beethoven’s life, rather than his works. A popularizer of the first rank, Suchet acknowledges that scholars won’t find anything new here. Still, he sketches a vivid portrait of the great man in all his eccentricities, his rages, his fame and his glory.
When he is about to suggest a disputed event, he telegraphs the fact: “Although I can offer no proof of this, I believe it was [the arrival of his friend Stephan von Breuning] in Vienna that unlocked Beethoven’s denial of his deafness…. I imagine the two old friends sitting up late into the night” talking, when the composer finally “pours his heart out” over his loss of hearing.
He places the man in the context of the turbulent Napoleonic age, describing how admiring Beethoven was of Napoleon, only to be disillusioned when Bonaparte proclaimed himself Emperor of France: “He stormed over to the table on which the fair copy of the ‘Eroica’ score lay, snatched up the title page, tore it in two, and threw it on the floor.”
With great economy Suchet delves into the mystery of the intended recipient of Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved” love letter. He is not persuaded by noted scholar Maynard Solomon’s theory that she was Antonie Brentano; he gives equal weight to the other leading candidate, Josephine Brunsvik. The battle Beethoven waged for custody of his nephew Karl is scripted like a family saga ripped straight from the headlines of a Viennese newspaper.
Suchet is at his best describing how Beethoven was able to compartmentalize difficulties, such as the custody fight with his sister-in-law over Karl or his frequent disregard for other people’s feelings. He let nothing interfere with his composing. “Perhaps the most we can say is that the mind of a true genius is often found to be wanting in other areas,” says Suchet.
The biography does not stint on discussion of Beethoven’s deafness. Time and again, the author refers to it without letting it overwhelm the narrative. Like previous biographers, he is amazed at the compositions produced when the disability was severe. Discussing the illness-plagued composer’s plan to start “a major new work,” the ninth symphony, Suchet writes: “’major’ is an understatement. ‘Monumental’ is better. ‘Gigantic’ is not an overstatement.”
Even Suchet’s rare commentaries on specific compositions are deft. For instance, here is one passage about the fifth movement of the Op. 130 string quartet: “When you believe Beethoven cannot increase the intensity any more, he writes pianissimo quavers for three strings, and then the first violin…weeps. I do not know any other way to describe it.”
In his postscript, Suchet makes a few recommendations on the hundreds of recordings to buy or download, with the caveat that the choices are legion. “It depends on how you like your Beethoven. Authentic or modern instruments? Chamber ensemble or full symphony orchestra? Rigid adherence or flexible approach?”
For any Beethoven lover who knows little of his life, Beethoven: The Man Revealed is a fine introduction.
– Grace Lichtenstein