three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
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The Universal Composer

A-BeethovenWhereas white-wigged Bach, Brahms, and Mozart (even post-Amadeus) seem stodgy at this remove, Beethoven continues to stare down at the modern world from beneath his furrowed brow and tousled coif—an idealized vision of the harried artist. Maybe our view of him is based on his burdensome life. From his birth into a dysfunctional family (in Bonn, Germany, in 1770) to the apocryphal story of his railing at the thunder from his deathbed, Ludwig van Beethoven never had it easy. It’s all here, in miniature: the deafness, the drinking, the emotional tirades, subsequent mental illness, and most of all, the music.
HarperCollins/Eminent Lives. 256 pages. $21.95. ISBN: 0060759747

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"Morris’s pocket history is an ideal place to dip into Beethoven’s life. … He strikes a lively balance between incidents in the composer’s life and brief, engaging analyses of his revolutionary techniques." Lawrence Toppman

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Morris’s version, consisting of equal parts reverence, authority, enthusiasm and literary panache, is rich reading, especially if the experience is enhanced by listening to Beethoven’s music, some of the most sublime music the world has ever known." Kathleen Johnson

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"An acute literary eye for details makes the account far livelier than the usual musical biography. Morris’s passion for his subject… provides a ring of authority." Charles Ward

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Morris has the ability to impart genuine aesthetic and technical information to his audience without devolving into jargon; he recognizes that while the effect music has on us may be mysterious, any description of its processes shouldn’t be. … At 240 pages, his Beethoven is succinct but sufficient—a deft, deeply satisfying mid-length compromise between the brilliant popular profile in Harold C. Schonberg’s The Lives of the Great Composers and the exhaustive scholarly biography by Maynard Solomon." Tim Page

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"These ‘lives’ are pithy, smart biographies, aimed at literate and cultured readers. But if literate and cultured readers won’t know classical music—and thus won’t know how Beethoven has been commonly discussed—how should a life of Beethoven be written for them? This, I fear, is a question Edmund Morris seems not to have asked. He writes as if Beethoven could rise, unmediated, straight to Mount Rushmore from the pages of his book." Greg Sandow

Critical Summary

How does Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer (Dutch; The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; Theodore Rex) Edmund Morris take a break from his duties? Not by retreating to Fiji or visiting Mount Rushmore, but by delivering this installment to HarperCollins’ Eminent Lives series of short biographies. Reviewers find Morris a sympathetic writer, adept at setting a scene and elucidating Beethoven’s music without relying heavily on technical jargon—a skill most reviews attribute to the author’s lifelong training as an amateur pianist. The one decisively negative review is an anomaly, less a criticism of the work at hand than the status of classical music in the modern world.

The Classic Introduction

The Lives of the Great Composers | Harold C. Schonberg (1981; 3rd ed. 1997): This lay-reader’s guide sketches bios of the world’s renowned composers, from Claudio Monteverdi to Philip Glass.