Don’t let the title “Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary” throw you off. This is not one of those Marxian screeds that evaluate the work of an artist by perceived progressive leanings: There is nothing of Trotsky and very little of Adorno in this volume. Rather, John Clubbe has written a thoughtful cultural history that takes into account the times in which Beethoven lived and worked – and they were times of revolution.

Clubbe calls the two decades from 1790 to 1810 “the beginning of a new stage in the history of mankind.” “New and strange ideas, cheering to many but highly upsetting to others, infiltrated Europe. This creative spirit, as later historians have observed, produced a tremendous flowering in science, technology, literature, art and music, and reforms of all kind. Poets and musicians differentiated and refined the language of the inner life.”

Cover courtesy of W. W. Norton & Co.

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in the western German city of Bonn. Clubbe calls the composer’s father, Johann, a court tenor, his “first and worst” teacher: “His pedagogy was unremarkable, his method cruel, his behavior – influenced by a growing addiction to alcohol – abominable. He often beat his son.” Beethoven’s hostility toward authority may be traced in part to such unfair treatment. In any event, the young man was often dismissed as ill-mannered and intemperate, and he burned bridges with many who would gladly have helped him. Still, his genius prevailed – a strong pianist, an inspired improviser, a violinist, a conductor, Beethoven also wrote hours upon hours of marvelous music, bursting with energy and invention, and was famous before he was 30.

There is a long-standing tendency to treat the early works as though they had somehow been composed by Beethoven before he became the titanic Beethoven of legend. In fact, the steady and radiantly good-humored early piano sonatas and string quartets are no less worthy for having been written in a classical mien than, say, “The Firebird” is minor Stravinsky because it predates the savage ferocities of “The Rite of Spring.” Indeed, Glenn Gould found Beethoven’s early music his most satisfying. “Almost all of those early piano works are immaculately balanced – top to bottom, register to register,” he said in a 1980 interview. “Beethoven’s senses of structure, fantasy, variety, thematic continuity, harmonic propulsion and contrapuntal discipline were absolutely – miraculously – in alignment.”

But Beethoven the revolutionary would soon be in ascendance. Take the abrupt – and, for its time, deeply shocking – opening of the Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), written in 1803: There is no formal introduction whatsoever, only two bluntly explosive chords and then the great first theme. Even five years earlier, in one of his finest piano sonatas, Op. 10, No. 3, Beethoven followed a joyful opening movement with a long Adagio of such unprecedented tragic intensity that we can only imagine the effect it must have had on its first audience. Thereafter, Beethoven would leave the rules behind – content would dictate form, rather than the other way around.

Clubbe knows his 19th-century history – he has edited the letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle and written full-length studies of Byron and Thomas Hood. He traces Beethoven’s love for the work of Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and his profound early admiration for Napoleon (to whom the “Eroica” was originally dedicated). A chapter on the creation of “Fidelio,” Beethoven’s only opera and an ode to human freedom, is especially comprehensive. Clubbe also makes note that Vienna, for all of its undoubted musical greatness – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert spent most of their careers there, with Brahms, Mahler and Schoenberg, among many others, to follow later in the century – was in most ways a hidebound, purse-proud and restrictive city.

As W. Jackson Bate observed of Samuel Johnson in his magnificent biography, whatever we experience, we find Beethoven has been there before us and is meeting and returning home with us. It was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 that was led by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler to reopen the Bayreuth Festival at the end of World War II. And, when the Berlin Wall fell in the glorious autumn of 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted an ensemble made up of residents of both sides of the city, long divided by the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Instead of the cry of “Freude!” (“Joy!”), Bernstein asked the chorus to shout “Freiheit!” (“Freedom!”). Somehow, one suspects Beethoven would have approved.

Tim Page, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning classical-music critic for The Washington Post, is a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California and the author or editor of more than 20 books.

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