Beethoven is everywhere. Cell phones trill ‘Fur Elise,’ parents dote as their offspring murder ‘Ode to Joy’ and the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony practically define classical music for many. For all his familiarity, though, Beethoven the man is frustratingly hard to pin down. Little written evidence survives of the composer’s formative years, and later documents have become burnished by fame over the years. Beethoven scholar and British radio host John Suchet tries to fill in some of the holes in a very user-friendly portrait in Beethoven: The Man Revealed. This biography is not meant to be a scholarly, exquisitely researched contribution to Beethoven studies, as Suchet makes clear in his preface. Intending it for an audience that appreciates the music without the occasionally heavy going of discussions of technique and form, Suchet declares instead that he wishes to get to the music through the man, rather than the other way around. There are some benefits and inevitable drawbacks of such an approach.
Little is known of Beethoven’s childhood. Suchet takes what threads of evidence exist, and weaves scenarios that could possibly have happened. The key word, however, is could: Suchet inserts much of himself into the narrative with occasional ‘it seems most probable’ or ‘we might assume.’ It does make for a lively, narratively smooth read that does give a fuller picture of Beethoven’s world, particularly that of his childhood. The often tempestuous, passionate man is portrayed as a quiet, shy child, born into a family of musicians that fluctuated in fortunes as his father Johann descended into alcoholism, and Ludwig’s extraordinary abilities were recognized. Particularly touching is Suchet’s research on Beethoven’s increasing deafness, well established by 1801—prior to the completion of all of his symphonies and many of his major piano works. The deafness, coupled with difficult family members and terrible health, made Beethoven frustrated and hard to deal with, as Suchet recounts—much of the book is really about whom was in the composer’s favor and who wasn’t at any one time. And that is the major flaw with Suchet’s treatment. While it’s helpful to know that Beethoven replaced the final movement of his B flat String Quartet—the massive and astonishing Grosse Fuge—at the request of his publisher, there is little on why he composed the piece as he did, or what influence life events had on his music. In short, Suchet makes so much of an effort to avoid inundating his readership with musical commentary that the music becomes little more than an afterthought. Is it really possible to do justice to Beethoven without giving his music prominence? As a depiction of late eigthteenth/early nineteenth century Viennese musical life, Beethoven: A Man Revealed proves insightful, but as a complete picture of the composer, there is the nagging sense that something is missing.