Behind The Classical Music

George B. Stauffer runs down a few of the more dramatic episodes in John Suchet’s Beethoven: The Man Revealed, a biography that eschews the development of the composer’s music to focus on his “erratic behavior and fiery temperament”:

Beethoven thrived as a strong-willed but socially adept virtuoso pianist and composer for hisBeethoven first 25 years or so. As he developed hearing problems in his late 20s, however, and moved toward the realization that the malady was irreversible, he began to turn inward. As he descended into deafness in his 30s and 40s, he grew increasingly mercurial, irritable, and paranoid. At times, he appeared to be fully irrational. He wrote emotional confessionals and fought with members of his family. He flirted with numerous women but was unable to sustain a lasting relationship. He moved restlessly from dwelling to dwelling, changing residences in Vienna more than 30 times in 35 years. A smart dresser in his youth, he appeared increasingly unkempt and disheveled. In his final decade, he became so dissipated that he was once mistaken for a vagabond and thrown into jail. By any measure, Beethoven’s personal life was bizarre. …

The Beethovenian paradox of “crisis and creativity”—to use the phrase coined by [Maynard] Solomon—has been well described in the past. But no one before Suchet has focused quite so intensely, and so eagerly, on the crisis part—and the composer’s melodramatic highs and lows: stopping the orchestra during an already overly long performance and insisting that the players start again from the beginning; refusing to bow before passing royalty when walking in the park with Goethe; receiving a distinguished visitor with an unemptied chamber pot under the piano. Such stories, well known to historians, are too good to make up.

(Image: Joseph Karl Stieler’s portrait of Beethoven, 1820, via Wikimedia Commons)