Ludwig van Beethoven, for some listeners perhaps the greatest of all composers, is an enduringly fascinating subject for biographers. A new biography of the composer, Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary by 19th Century cultural historian John Clubbe adds to the pile.
His study departs from the musicological approach of Maynard Solomon, whose Beethoven (Schirmer 1977) remains a classic from the musicological perspective. Clubbe’s approach instead views Beethoven as not just a composer but a prophet of the revolutionary age still in its infancy upon the composer’s death in 1827. As a heroic and revolutionary figure, Clubbe sees Beethoven as equivalent in his own sphere to his contemporaries Napoleon and Byron.
Beethoven kept on his desk through much of his life a bust of the Roman hero and founder of the Republic Lucius Junius Brutus. Clubbe states in his introduction that his “. . . book interprets Beethoven as a revolutionary not only in his music but also, and not least, in his social and political thinking. I place the composer within a larger European context.” (Clubbe at xvii). True to his word, he discusses only a few of Beethoven’s works and largely passes over the composer’s personal life.
Although Beethoven spent almost all of his creative life in Vienna, he always considered himself a Rhinelander, having been born in Bonn. Hapsburg Vienna was perhaps the most repressive police state in Europe, so Beethoven rarely expressed his political views openly verbally or in writing. But Clubbe argues that Beethoven’s republican convictions come through in his music. The point is pressed sometimes beyond what the evidence will bear, but Clubbe’s argument is persuasively presented in clear, non-academic prose.
For those interested in a more extensive discussion of Beethoven’s personal life and works, Jan Swafford, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014) would be a preferred choice. For an engaging and original study, with an insightful discussion of the main cultural currents of the early 19th Century, however, Clubbe’s new study is a good choice.
The volume is available at the Jefferson Madison Regional Library.
John Clubbe: Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary
W.W. Norton and Co.
512 pages, hardcover
512 pages, hardcover