Even more immortal

Paul Driver

In a well-known anecdote, recounted years after the event by Gottfried Fischer, the boy Beethoven is looking out of his window in Bonn

with his head in both hands and staring fixedly at one spot. Cäcilie Fischer came over the yard and said to him, ‘How does it look, Ludwig?’ but got no answer. Afterwards she asked him what he meant by it: ‘No answer is an answer too.’ He said: ‘O no, not that: excuse me; I was just occupied with such a lovely, deep thought. I couldn’t bear to be disturbed.’

Genius and eccentricity often seem to go hand in hand – and rarely with so tight a clasp as in Beethoven’s case; yet eccentricity, considered sympathetically, is simply the outward form of concentration. If Beethoven comes across as persistently irregular in behaviour, it is because he wanted to prolong that ‘lovely, deep thought’ over a creative lifetime. One could define genius as the strategic ability to withstand, deflect and even positively exploit the plethora of distractions and impediments which the world flings at anyone who would concentrate. As an extreme exemplar of genius, Beethoven resorted to the extreme strategy for a composer of going deaf (there is evidence, adduced by Maynard Solomon, of Beethoven’s partial assent to his misfortune). His lovely thought was duly prolonged in a late flowering of the most profound inwardness; but for all that the world admires the canny success of Beethoven’s creative journey – that is to say, his works themselves – it can never have enough of laughing at his follies and mishaps on the way.

One of these books is a chief biographical source for material on Beethoven’s eccentricity and the other is a remarkable pursuit of the precise workings of his genius – a successful invasion, by means of palaeographic analysis, of the mental privacy in which he made his smallest and often most consequential creative decisions. Breuning’s memoir paints an intimate portrait of Beethoven’s domesticity: Lewis Lockwood to a striking extent domesticates Beethoven’s genius, which is now revealed as less an unknowably sublime phenomenon than a matter of hard practicality, of a last-minute deletion on the autograph or a superadded bit of scrawl. Reading about the composer’s personal troubles can be comic, and the tough demands of musicology can make for a tragedy of prose (though Lock-wood writes as well as any ‘sketch-scholar’ can hope to); but the effect of passing from the first of these books to the second was, I found, to be taken out of the gloomy enclave of well-worn anecdote in which Beethoven is pre-eminently a figure of pathos, into a laser-lit realm in which Beethoven’s mind truly is heroic.

The books touch at two points. A note in Lockwood refers to Breuning’s ‘doubtless exaggerated’ estimate of the thirty years’ service that Wenzel Schlemmer gave to Beethoven as his best copyist, able to decipher those famously over-burdened manuscripts better even than Lockwood; and the latter elsewhere alludes to Breuning’s testimony that Beethoven incessantly (and at all hours of the day and night) jotted down ideas for fear of forgetting them. The young Breuning is intrigued by the appearance of a Beethoven sketch-book, which he finds on a piece of furniture in Beethoven’s apartment (‘it was completely full of notes, written in fits and starts, and even additional staves drawn freehand right across the margins, with all kinds of musical thoughts entered on them; it was a remarkable sight’), as he is by all the appurtenances and outward signs of Beethoven’s creativity. But Lockwood actually tells us what those musical thoughts seem to be, which is to achieve the greater intimacy.

Both books are difficult to read in their different ways. Lockwood’s finely wrought but resolutely unmetaphorical prose is necessarily stuffed with dry fact, and the layman will be considerably taxed by the exhaustive stretches of analytic and bibliographic detail. Solomon’s edition of Breuning’s memoir requires a readerly equivalent of turning Rubik’s cube: one has to be forever diving into the author’s often lengthy footnotes and, more important, switching to the editor’s copious annotations at the back to learn if Breuning’s information is correct. Somewhere in this three-dimensional literary space the Beethovenian truth is trapped. For all Breuning’s intimate contact with his subject, as Solomon explains, he not infrequently gives a distorted or false version of the way, according to modern research, things probably were. This is mainly a consequence of his reliance on what have proved to be biographical forgeries by Anton Schindler and J.F. Rochlitz. When Breuning was compiling his volume in the 1870s, ‘Schindler’s authority was at its very peak.’ What Breuning mostly takes from him, and thus perpetuates, are a number of malicious fabrications to do with, for instance, the ill-treatment of Beethoven by his brother Johann, the incorrigible nature of his nephew Karl, or the fatal incompetence of his doctor Andreas Wawruch. One might have supposed Breuning to be in possession of the facts, but he was writing as an elderly doctor in Bonn looking back on his Viennese childhood as the son of one of Beethoven’s closest friends, Stephan von Breuning. It is the remembered wealth of vivid detail that is the surprising feature of the book, not the intermittent succumbing to misty confusion and second-hand opinion.

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