An outstanding new survey of the great composer’s life and works, marred slightly by gimmickry.
Lockwood (Music Emeritus/Harvard) does a superb job synthesizing the painful details of Beethoven’s tortured existence (1770–1827) with the genius of his compositions. His loving mother died while he was a teenager, and his alcoholic father was only interested in promoting his son as the “second Mozart.” Fortunately, this did not preclude Beethoven’s obtaining a first-class musical education. He was also fortunate to grow up in late-18th-century Bonn, which possessed a rich and varied musical culture from which he absorbed much. Thus, when the young man arrived in Vienna to study with Haydn and seek his fortune, he was fully formed as a musician and quickly rose to fame. While there are no startling new revelations here, Lockwood benefits from and integrates well the increasingly available information from Beethoven’s voluminous diaries, sketchbooks, and conversation books, which vividly place the reader at the scene. (See, for example, the deeply moving description of the celebrated “Heiligenstadt Testament” and the composer’s agony over his increasing deafness.) At the same time, Lockwood is skeptical of and careful to avoid contemporary biographers’ readiness to offer up inane circumstantial explanations of compositional idioms. The one disappointment here is the omission of music examples in the text in favor of posting them on a dedicated Web site (not in operation at the time of this writing). This seems a cumbersome substitute for having the notes on the same page as the analysis. It will make no difference to those who don’t read music, of course, but to those who can, it is the equivalent of reading a book about physics with all the math left out. Strongly compensating, however, is Lockwood’s remarkable ability to describe music in words.
The only book on Beethoven most music lovers will need.