Book Reviews: Beethoven – his life and times, by Ateş Orga; and Eroica – The First Great Romantic Symphony, by James Hamilton-Paterson
Generally, I try to spread out books on a similar subject, but these two were both relatively short and it seemed to be a good idea to pair them.
Orga’s book was a chance discovery by my father in a charity shop. It’s a pretty conventional survey of Beethoven’s life, with plenty of background for the period and source quotes. He chooses to start with Beethoven’s death and funeral; by 1827 Beethoven was what we would now describe as a “national treasure”, even though his later music wasn’t widely liked or understood. Orga then backtracks to Bonn for the beginning of the story. Beethoven came from quite a musical family, though not a well-off one. Having discovered his son’s talent at the fortepiano and violin early on, Beethoven’s father attempted to turn him into another Mozart, leading to some confusion at times about Beethoven’s age, as his father would shave a couple of years off to make him seem a more marketable child prodigy. However, Beethoven’s father was something of a wayward alcoholic and declined during Beethoven’s later childhood, perhaps especially after the death of Beethoven’s mother. Beethoven was sponsored by the Elector of Cologne to study in Vienna, where he received tuition, somewhat ungraciously, from Haydn and others. It’s an over-simplification to say the rest is history. Overall, I felt this was a competent if sometimes stilted work that hasn’t really fared kindly at the hand of time; dating from the late 1970s, the illustrations, of which there are many, are all black-and-white.
James Hamilton-Paterson’s book came from the work book sale and is bang up-to-date, generously in full colour, apparently inspired by a BBC Music Magazine poll of conductors that identified the Eroica as the greatest symphony of all time. Although from the title one would expect the book to have a narrow focus, it covers a surprising amount of the same ground on Beethoven’s early years. However there is depth, particularly in identifying the ancestry of Beethoven’s Prometheus theme which is used for variations in the final movement of the Eroica symphony. This book doesn’t shy away from technical aspects: there’s a decent yet accessible discussion of key relationships and sonata form, and there are several fragments of musical score throughout the book, which I think are of benefit to the music reader but would not detract from the text for someone without that ability. The book also sensibly discusses the relationship of Napoleon to the symphony, and offers some alternative interpretations for the eventual dedication “to the memory of a great man”. The Eroica‘s legacy is also discussed – for Beethoven, for his contemporaries and successors, right through to the present day. Informative, concise, and occasionally laconic (though clearly not from the hand of Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerald Samper), I would certainly recommend this book.