Music & Drama » Music » Opera & Classical Music

The best books on Beethoven

recommended by Jessica Duchen

Immortal by Jessica Duchen

by Jessica Duchen


He was a much misunderstood man and one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Music critic and novelist Jessica Duchen talks us through the best books about the German composer and pianist, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Interview by Benedict King

Immortal by Jessica Duchen

by Jessica Duchen

Buy all books

Before we discuss your selection of books on Beethoven, a couple of questions. First, 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of his birth. What sort of commemorations are going on to mark that (though I assume most have been cancelled or moved online due to coronavirus)? Second, could you talk about your forthcoming novel about Beethoven, Immortal?

The commemorations were pretty much global in the music industry. It’s one of the biggest anniversary celebrations that I can remember. Everyone adores Beethoven as far as I can tell. He’s just universally admired and loved and remains relevant through thick and thin.

In England the Oxford Philharmonic is hosting a year-long festival, or was supposed to be, which is perhaps the broadest and most thorough in the whole country. They’re doing as much of the orchestral music as they humanly can. The piano festival in the summer was also going to cover a lot of the sonatas and various associated pieces of piano music, but I just don’t know if that’s going to go ahead or not. There are lots and lots of recordings coming out. Hopefully, many have already been made and will be on track. Just about every record company worth its salt is putting out recordings of Beethoven this year.

There were going to be numerous stagings of the opera Fidelio. I’ve already been lucky enough to see a fabulous staging at the Royal Opera House. I hope that maybe the opera festivals that were going to perform this year may still be able to perform it next year.

Are there big festivals in Vienna and Bonn?

Beethoven’s house in Bonn is the global centre for research on Beethoven. They had a big symposium in February which covered Beethoven from every conceivable angle. They are very much a focal point for it all. There’s an annual Beethoven festival in Bonn, too. I imagine they were planning to have a jamboree this year. We’ll see whether that is going to happen or not.

“The late string quartets are, to many people, his ultimate masterpieces. Dusinberre has spent his whole career delving into these pieces and he writes very clearly and beautifully about them”

There is something strange about Vienna: when you go to Vienna, normally every church, cathedral, shop and tourist destination is pumping out Mozart for all it’s worth, but you actually have to be quite clever to find any Beethoven. It’s as if he’s a permanent foreigner. One thing I discovered when I was writing my book is that although he spent probably 30 years of his life living in Vienna, he never really fitted in and he never really liked the Viennese. I think this widespread image we have of his character, as rather negative, brusque and unpleasant is probably him just being a Rhinelander in Vienna, being a very straight-talking north German and seeing straight through the social niceties and hypocrisies that he found himself surrounded by.

It’s a different culture. Having said that, you can see a lot of Beethoven in Vienna. There are wonderful Beethoven museums and Beethoven walks and Beethoven statues. But to actually hear Beethoven’s music, you probably need to go to the Musikverein, the biggest concert hall.

Tell us a bit about your book on Beethoven. What does it deal with? It’s about a love affair he had, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s called Immortal after the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letter, which was found in Beethoven’s flat after he died. They discovered it in a hidden drawer which held several documents including the Heiligenstadt Testament, the very anguished long letter that he wrote to his brothers when he realised he was going deaf. With it, they found a love letter, the recipient of which is not named. It’s not clear whether he ever sent the letter or not. It took musicologists about 200 years to get to the bottom of it, because the identity of this woman was so well protected. There’s a date of the 6th July, but there’s no year mentioned on the letter and he addresses her only as his ‘Immortal Beloved’. He doesn’t name her at any point, and I think that was probably because he was protecting her.

Over the ensuing centuries, some work on the watermarks managed to prove that this was written in 1812 and the possibilities were gradually narrowed down. I think the most likely candidate is someone whose family was not happy about the way she behaved and I think they were trying to put people off the scent. There’s an illegitimate child involved; photographs of her survive, and she is the spitting image of Beethoven.

“He was a genius and he recognized the strength of his own genius as well. There’s no false modesty about him”

This woman’s name is Josephine von Brunsvik. She’s a Hungarian countess who became Beethoven’s pupil in 1799 along with her elder sister, Therese. Therese is a fascinating figure in her own right. She was a pioneering feminist of the 19th century, which is quite incredible, and she founded the Hungarian system of kindergartens. She was passionately devoted to education, especially education for girls. She was a very eccentric but very forward-looking figure and she was really the person who had to come in after Josephine and mop everything up and clean up all the mess.

I’ve written the book from Therese’s point of view, so she can be a rather lively and very personal observer. And since what we rely on with the story is circumstantial evidence rather than 100 per cent certain proof, there is the chance for her potentially to be an unreliable narrator. The book starts somewhat before 1799, the main part of the story begins in 1799 and goes right through to the end of Beethoven’s life and just beyond. It covers about 30 years, and it’s an absolute rollercoaster of a story, both in terms of the position of women in society, and the way that Josephine and Beethoven actually loved each other for many years, yet were kept apart by society. One was an aristocrat and the other was a commoner and there were two different sets of laws. Josephine would have lost custody of her children from her first marriage had she married a commoner.

This all plays out against a background of the Napoleonic Wars, various economic collapses and the redrawing of boundaries. It was an incredibly seismic time for shifting priorities and the beginnings of Romanticism. It’s been a pretty exciting thing to write, I have to say, and I hope it will be exciting to read as well.

I look forward to it. Did they stay in touch until he died?

Josephine died in 1821, so Beethoven outlived her by six years, but there are all sorts of traces of her in his music, including in his late piano sonatas. There’s a Josephine motif. You can find it in piano sonatas associated with her, but also all sorts of other pieces of music that seemed extremely relevant. People say only the music matters. Yes, maybe that’s true, but his life helps us to understand it better.

Let’s get on to the books about Beethoven, because that last point will emerge in quite a lot of them. Let’s start with Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries. This book is a collection of portraits of Beethoven by people who met him and wrote letters about him, or recollections of meeting him or knowing him. Is that right?

It’s mainly accounts by people who met him who are remembering him, some shortly after they met him, some looking back after many years, having met him when they were children. It’s the most wonderfully vivid, evocative collection of personal accounts. It brings him to life and shows him in many facets—actually many more facets than we would find depicted in any other media.

What picture emerges of Beethoven in the book? Is there a clear difference between how he’s perceived by his servants or people who met him casually during his life, and the portraits of him by his musical and artistic contemporaries—Rossini, Liszt and Goethe—who also feature in the book?

There’s quite a consistent picture. Together the accounts build up an impression and he’s someone you really feel you know by the end of it. I think he had a great deal of integrity; I get the impression that he showed that integrity to most of the people he met in one way or another. He had some spectacular fall-outs and yet, at the same time, he could also be very, very kind and generous.

He didn’t really know the meaning of money. He was pretty bad at keeping track of it. He’s also definitely very eccentric. There’s a wonderful account of him taking a bath in his flat in Vienna and then just jumping out of the bath to go and open the window and wondering why everyone outside was pointing and laughing. Everyone says his apartments were total tips. He was not a tidy housekeeper at all, although he did like his baths. There are all sorts of wonderful stories. He got through servants at quite a rate because he was bad-tempered and he was deaf. At one point, he fired a rather long-standing housekeeper and decided he was going to do all the cooking himself and he invited some friends to dinner and they all sat around the table trying to be terribly polite when he served up a completely inedible fish soup. You don’t think of Beethoven as someone about whom there are funny stories, but there really are.

The clichéd picture of Beethoven is as the classic romantic genius, completely abstracted from the world, with his deafness enhancing that by tragically imprisoning him and cutting him off from the source of this joy that he gave to the rest of the world. Is that an accurate picture? Was he a mad eccentric dedicated to his art?

He was totally dedicated to his art, but I don’t actually think he was mad at all. I think he’s one of the saner individuals that you’ll find in musical history. He was very aware of the world around him, even if he had some difficulties engaging with it because of his deafness. He read avidly, he enjoyed political discussions and he was very on the ball, really—more so than he’s sometimes been given credit for.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

He recognized the strength of his own genius as well. There’s no false modesty about him. He thoroughly disliked the divisions of society that he was faced with. In a way I feel that he weaponized positivity: even when he was at his lowest ebb in his personal life and his despair at his deafness, he would still embrace the joy of living. There’s as much joie de vivre and as much love for life in him as there is despair. The two things really offset each other.

And does the book suggest Beethoven was a lovable character? He was obviously difficult for his servants, but did he engender a lot of personal loyalty and affection among his peers and his family and his friends?

Well, his family was very difficult. So that was a continual battle for him. But among his friends and his musician colleagues, people absolutely did love him and were incredibly loyal and devoted to him. Later in his life—people say Beethoven did this or said that in ‘old age’, but he died when he was 56—young people absolutely adored him. The young musicians who came into his life in his last few years were very devoted to him and very concerned about him. He was kind to them and they were devoted in return. They were really good friends to him.

So, yes, I think he did inspire a great deal of love and there were even young girls with crushes on him. He’s not this kind of ogre that posterity has made out of him.

He did seem to fall in love with a succession of women above his social station, who he was prevented in one way or another from getting together with, often due to social class. He never married. Did he have any successful and enduring love affairs?

I have the impression—and this will come out in Immortal—that he only really had one totally devoted love affair, which was probably only consummated once, the ‘Immortal Beloved’ incident. Basically, he had been pretty much in love with Josephine from the time he first met her in 1799 right through to the end of his life. She was the big one.

“These are absolutely gorgeous poems, very beautifully’s an absolute masterpiece. I love it to pieces”

In the interim, he did at one point court her first cousin, Julie Guicciardi. Julie was a terrible flirt. He dedicated the Moonlight Sonata to her, but that might be more because her piano was one of the best in Vienna and he wanted to try some special effects on it.

At various points he wanted to settle down. He needed stability and he wanted to get married. He courted Therese Malfatti, the daughter of a merchant—Beethoven became friendly with her uncle, who was a doctor and who later treated Beethoven himself—but she turned him down as well. He was 42 and she was 18, so you can’t really blame her. He did court a lot of women without much success, but also without a great deal of conviction, I think, because really his heart belonged to Josephine.

Was his doctor’s daughter, Therese, the Therese of ‘Für Elise’?

There are a couple of different theories about this. She may have been. There’s also a theory that the dedicatee of ‘Für Elise’ was actually Elisabeth Röckel, who married the composer, Johann Hummel, and she was someone he liked very much and was very drawn to, but she married another composer instead. No one is absolutely sure.

One of the incredible things about Beethoven is that although he’s probably the most famous composer in history, there’s still so much we don’t really know.

Let’s move on to your next book choice, Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life by Ruth Padel. She’s not just writing about his music, is she—the poems reflect on his life as well?

Yes, they do. These are absolutely gorgeous poems, beautifully written, individually written, full of the most wonderful imagery. This book of poems really delves into Beethoven’s imagination and his whole world in many ways.

It’s come out very recently and it has certainly made me want to go and read all her other work as well because it’s so sensitive and so closely attuned to all sides of Beethoven, which she can just nail in a phrase or capture in a nutshell. When I read it I thought, ‘Oh God, why do I bother trying?’

“He wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers, saying he was in such despair about losing his hearing that he’d even thought of taking his own life”

She doesn’t restrict herself just to Beethoven and his life. She also relates it to her own experience of his music and of Vienna. So, there are poems where she’ll be describing something in Vienna or a journey to Vienna where she suddenly realizes that from such and such a house, the Nazis abducted and deported somebody. She has a marvellous way of surprising you with hindsight and atmospheres and context. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece. I love it to pieces.

It is very hard to write well about music, isn’t it?

Yes. I’ve spent 32 years trying to do exactly that. I don’t know who said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but it’s totally true.

Padel is writing not so much about Beethoven’s music but about him and his world. There’s a poem on page 71 called ‘India Dreams’ and it’s about Beethoven’s interest in Indian culture and music, which is quite underrated. It’s something I’ve been very interested to discover about him. And she just describes it so exquisitely, it’s absolutely perfect.

Let’s move on to Beethoven for a Later Life: the Journey of a String Quartet, a book by Edward Dusinberre.

He’s the first violin of the Takács Quartet. This ensemble was originally all Hungarian, but it’s now multinational. I think they’ve only got one or two of the original members left, but it’s one of the world’s great string quartets. Its leader happens to be English, and he happens to write very well.

In part it’s his journey with the quartet because he joined very young. They deliberately wanted to take in a young, but extremely gifted and sensitive violinist so they could kind of mould him to their own vision.

Beethoven’s string quartets are some of the most demanding ever written and definitely the most rewarding. The late string quartets are, to many people, his ultimate masterpieces. They’re full of mystery and extraordinary sound worlds. Dusinberre has spent his whole career delving into these pieces, and writes very clearly and beautifully about them. I write programme notes and I find that writing about late Beethoven is one of the most difficult things you can possibly do, but he makes it sound effortless. He conveys the wonder of playing these pieces, of the absolute ecstasy of mastering them and of being at one with them. So, it is a book that anyone who loves music can read and enjoy. There’s a little technical terminology, but you can still share this beautiful journey that he’s experiencing.

I think Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets. How many count as the late ones widely regarded as his supreme achievement? And were they the last things he ever wrote?

It’s not as easy to answer as all that. He was commissioned to write five quartets by, I think, the Tsar of Russia, and they were premiered in Saint Petersburg. So, the last five string quartets are the ones that are usually classified as the late works, but then there’s an extra bit because he wrote this incredible thing called the Grosse Fuge, the great fugue, which was going to be the finale of Op. 130. His publisher got back to him and said something like, ‘You know what? No one’s going to be able to play this. For goodness sake replace it with something a bit more manageable.’ And Beethoven very uncharacteristically agreed. He wrote a new finale and then they published the Grosse Fuge separately as Op. 133. So, it’s a question of whether you count that as a work in its own right, or whether it belongs to Quartet No. 13. That’s why numbering them is a little bit difficult.

And is the book about the working life of the string quartet as well, or is it very much focused on the playing the music?

It’s very much about life in a string quartet. The two things complement each other beautifully, I think.

The next book is John Suchet’s biography, Beethoven. John Suchet is not a professional musicologist and I think this is a book very much written for the general reader interested in Beethoven who’s perhaps not technically particularly informed. Would that be fair?

I think that’s right. It’s a very good book and a very readable introduction to Beethoven’s life and work. It’s compulsively readable, which the lot of the bigger books are not.

He really makes it jump off the page in a very immediate way. When people ask me to recommend a good, solid non-technical introductory book to Beethoven and his world, I always recommend that one. I think he really nails it.

We’ve talked a bit about his personal life and its influence on his music, but what about the broader political context? He is this sort of transitional figure from the Classical period to the Romantic period. You could see Mozart as this sort of archetypical product of Enlightenment culture in some ways, and Beethoven similarly embodying the romantic character. He’s a Byronic hero in a way, isn’t he? Was he conscious of his art serving some broader political or cultural purpose?

I think there was one major occasion when this was true, but possibly only one. I think it was the case when, at the turn of the century, he decided he was going to put away his old methods in order to find a new way of composing. The big, ground-breaking work in this part of his life, which is now usually known as the ‘heroic’ period, is the ‘Eroica Symphony’ and that was really the turning point.

It started off as what we would now call a tone poem and it was going to be entitled ‘Bonaparte’! It was actually a direct picture of Napoleon, his life and his motivating forces. Beethoven was a huge admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte until Napoleon decided to declare himself Emperor, at which point Beethoven realized he was just a fallible and probably a not very good human being, like everyone else. He scrubbed out the dedication on the symphony so hard that he left a hole in the page.

That definitely started off as a political statement. But after that I don’t think he ever tried to be quite so overtly political again. I can’t say I blame him.

In fact, pretty much all his life he had to serve aristocratic patrons of one kind or another. In that sense, it was quite an old-fashioned musical existence, wasn’t it?

Well, this is the wonderful paradox at the heart of Beethoven’s working life. He didn’t want to be like his grandfather, a kapellmeister, in the employ of one princely patron and basically a servant. Beethoven wanted to be a freelancer. He wanted to be an independent artist, but that meant that to achieve independence, he had to be dependent on a lot of different people, instead of just one. Of course, they were all princes and aristocrats of one sort or another and this was a situation that had its many ups and downs over the years. When he had a fallout with one, like his massive fallout with Prince Lichnowsky, he immediately lost a quarter of his annual income, because Lichnowsky had been extraordinarily supportive to him and had given him 600 florins per annum. The fallout was never really mended.

After that, there was a consortium of three princes and archdukes who were trying to give him an annual stipend so that he didn’t have to leave Vienna and get a job elsewhere. Then along came the Napoleonic wars, the currency collapsed, and the princes were all ruined. So after that he had to live a hand-to-mouth existence, trying to find commissions that would pay him. That’s why, around the time of the Congress of Vienna, you find him composing some fairly bad pieces of music because these things, like ‘Wellington’s Victory’, were being trotted out to try and please people. And he was never really at his best when he was doing that.

I hadn’t appreciated that. So actually, the fact that he had all these aristocratic patrons was actually a bid for his own freedom.

Yes. He had to earn a living if he wasn’t going to have a job as a kapellmeister—and he couldn’t have had a job as a kapellmeister in any case because he couldn’t hear. He had to find a way to eat and that was how the system worked at that time. He was very exposed to the buffets of fate, and when there were financial problems in society generally, they hit him quite hard.

How long was he deaf for? How old was he when that really became socially and musically difficult for him?

He was about 30, possibly even younger, because he had problems with his hearing for a few years before he actually faced up to it, which is what happened in 1802. He wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament to his brothers, saying he was in such despair about losing his hearing that he’d even thought of taking his own life. It was all downhill from thereon.

He actually did rally after the Heiligenstadt Testament. He didn’t get his hearing back, but it didn’t disappear at quite the rate he thought it would. He tried all sorts of strange things to combat it. There were ear trumpets, and a sort of hood that stood on top of his piano; he could put his head under it and it would amplify sounds. And there was a piece of wood that he could put against the frame of piano, with another end against his jaw bone or the bone behind the ear, which would convey the vibrations to his inner ear.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

He was always trying to battle it. He used conversation books, getting visitors to write down what they wanted to say to him, so he could actually interact with them. But he was pretty young when it began, and he battled with this for nearly half his life.

Half his life, meaning most of his adult life.

And it was a terrible problem for him socially. Deaf people have trouble at parties and can’t interact with people in noisy situations; he was quite a sociable person and found himself forced into solitude. It probably made him a much less attractive prospect to the women he tried to persuade to marry him. It’s very sad.

Then, when he adopted his nephew, he couldn’t have conversations with this little boy. It’s a very extraordinary episode in his life, which I think hastened his death. Part of the problem with the adoption was: how could you have a child if you couldn’t talk to them, and they can’t talk to you?

The next book we have is Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford. This is a more scholarly work, I think. What does is add to, or how does it differ from, the John Suchet book on Beethoven?

Well, firstly, it is massive. You could use it as a draft excluder. It’s more than 1,000 pages. It’s huge. He writes about the life, but he also writes about the music. I love this book because he writes so interestingly on the music. You will need a bit of technical know-how to get around it, but he writes very engagingly as well. It’s not difficult reading—it’s just that you sometimes need to chew it over to really appreciate what he’s saying.

“They young musicians who came into his life in his last few years were very devoted to him and very concerned about him. He was kind to them and they were devoted in return. They were really good friends to him”

There’s a huge chapter, for instance, on the ‘Eroica Symphony’ and the way that Beethoven’s whole approach to how he writes the music is transforming, and how this ties in with the development of Romanticism and the figure of Napoleon as a self-made hero who is continually remaking himself, how Beethoven is continually re-making the music in the same way. It’s full of things like that and I find it very vivid and very fresh.

Swafford is a professor and writes professorially, but very well. This is very, very good writing.

So, it’s highly readable?

Yes, it is, but you you’ll need a bit of technical knowledge to get through it. If you want something that is going to keep you busy for a very long time and that is more detailed and musicological than the John Suchet book, I would say this is a good one.

The book also talks quite a lot about the intellectual background of the Enlightenment in Bonn when Beethoven was growing up, doesn’t it?

Yes, very much so. It gives you a real depth of context for the whole thing.

Interview by Benedict King

April 20, 2020

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen writes words for, with and about music. She was a correspondent and critic for The Independent from 2004 to 2016, and her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Sunday Times and BBC Music Magazine, among others. Her output to date includes six novels and two biographies (Fauré and Korngold) and a quantity of stage works and librettos for musical setting.

Among her recent novels is Ghost Variations (Unbound, 2016), based on the true story of the Schumann Violin Concerto’s rediscovery in the 1930s. Her novel about Beethoven, Immortal, will be published in the autumn of 2020. Jessica was born within the sound of Bow Bells, studied music at Cambridge and lives in London with her husband and two cats.

Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen writes words for, with and about music. She was a correspondent and critic for The Independent from 2004 to 2016, and her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Sunday Times and BBC Music Magazine, among others. Her output to date includes six novels and two biographies (Fauré and Korngold) and a quantity of stage works and librettos for musical setting.

Among her recent novels is Ghost Variations (Unbound, 2016), based on the true story of the Schumann Violin Concerto’s rediscovery in the 1930s. Her novel about Beethoven, Immortal, will be published in the autumn of 2020. Jessica was born within the sound of Bow Bells, studied music at Cambridge and lives in London with her husband and two cats.