You don’t have to be a music scholar to enjoy this brilliant, and pleasingly concise, book. But, if you don’t love Beethoven, both the man and his music, when you start, you should by the time you finish.
It’s not a conventional biography: Laura Tunbridge, an eminent professor of music at Oxford, has taken nine pieces of music and uses each one to illustrate a key theme of his life — from Heroism (the No 3 Eroica symphony of course), to Liberty (the opera Fidelio), and Spirit (the mighty Missa Solemnis).
Tunbridge’s attitude is as brisk as her prose. She has no truck with romance or the ‘Beethoven syndrome’ of reading biography into every bar of music, and the book is at its best when it examines the ledgers and sketchbooks of a life. She makes the potentially dull interesting — but at the cost of sometimes making the interesting rather dull. Topics such as the identity of the composer’s mysterious ‘immortal beloved’ may be speculative, gossipy and impossible to anchor in fact, but there’s a reason they’ve held the imagination for so long.
Tunbridge’s pithy A Life in Nine Pieces is different and welcome: a biography presented through the focus of nine different compositions, each casting light on aspects of Beethoven’s life, character and, given equal and readily comprehensible attention, the music. Her choices span early to late repertoire: from one of his first successes in Vienna, the Septet, to the Grosse Fuge, via Symphony No 3 “Eroica”, the opera Fidelio, and the Missa Solemnis. Tunbridge, an Oxford professor here publishing her first non-academic book, writes clearly, explaining technical terms on the go and with ease: never an easy combination.
In truth, we knew much of this already, and if Tunbridge struggles at the outset to convince us that her approach is genuinely original and not a little contrived, it soon settles into a slicker groove, where brevity (just over 200 pages) and clarity are its key selling points. Beethoven remains one of history’s most complex and fascinating enigmas. To tackle it from such an oblique angle is refreshingly helpful.
This is a book which has to be read with loud music playing: the opening chapter on his early Septet (popular then, less performed now) only makes sense if you hear it. But Tunbridge’s writing has a richness which makes this book much more than an extended programme note. We see Beethoven the frustrated idealist, scratching out Napoleon’s name from the dedication of his third symphony. We hear how those great symphonies, and his late, genre-changing works, hid the complexities of his early life.
Tunbridge doesn’t offer yet another chronological trawl through Beethoven’s life, or indeed much detailed analysis of his music. Instead she chooses nine of his compositions on which to hang different aspects of his private and professional affairs. Why nine? Because, she claims, it’s “a magic number for Beethoven”, although it seems unlikely that he arranged to die before writing his Tenth Symphony. After this slightly spurious start, however, her scheme works well, opening up areas of Beethoven’s life and times that are probably known to scholars, but may well give ordinary music lovers some shocks.