First of all, I should say a word about Folio Books.  This is the kind of thing that if you have an absolute fortune to blow on books, you might consider investing in these.  They’re designed to be the ultimate in books.  They’re all clothbound, with ultra-high-quality paper.  There’s no chance these books are going to fall apart or get damaged in any way. (Though that said, I did stupidly once put an apple in a bag with this book, and the apple was a bit soft – but that’s just making me cringe talking about it, so I’ll leave off there.)  Anyway, with this kind of luxury comes a hefty price tag.

But I inherited this one off my folks’ bookshelf, and they inherited it from the book library of a music school they used to run in Brisbane, so I didn’t actually have to play anything.  But it does indeed look exactly like the photo you see here, and has a red slipcase for it to go into.

It is the first and probably the last Folio Books edition I will ever read.

But enough about that.  I’ll tell you about the book.

Alexander Thayer was an Englishman back in the 1800s who lived some thirty or forty years after Beethoven died, but obviously was fairly interested in his life.  But he noticed that a problem with all the biographies that were put out about the great composer at the time was that they all tended to talk him up.  Beethoven was great because of this.  Beethoven was a noble man.  Blah, blah, blah.  They’d leave things out, they’d make things up.  All kinds of unhistorical stuff.

So Thayer set about clearing the air on Beethoven, and he did this by undertaking a massive research project.  He dug up, as far as I can understand, every letter that was written by Beethoven or to Beethoven that was still in existence.  He chased down anyone who was still living who knew the man. The research is phenomenal, and it shows.

Having previously only learned about Beethoven’s life from films like Immortal Beloved and Copying Beethoven, this was a much more detailed life of Beethoven than any I’d read before.  In fact, perhaps a little too detailed.

Believe it or not, the Folio Books edition, which is 600+ pages long, is actually an abridged version of the completely two-volume Thayer’s Life of Beethoven.  I’m not sure exactly what made the cut, but the editor in the foreword said that he cut a lot of discussion about music, which I thought was a bit of a shame, because I’m always keen to learn more about the music.

But what we’re left with is still an interesting portrait.  To a degree. While some parts of this biography are absolutely fascinating (for instance, the story of one of Beethoven’s good friends who played a practical joke on him and, in his rage, Beethoven never played the piano in front of him ever again).  And because most of the information is drawn from letters and documents, there’s not a lot of speculation.  It’s all fact.  (Actually, it’s funny – Thayer tends to disappear into the background, whereas nowadays we like our storytellers to have a bit of personality.)

But these letters and documents are part of the drawback.  The vast majority of letters in these books usually consist of Beethoven saying one or more of the following things: 1) I’m sick. 2) I’m poor. 3) Someone has irritated me. 4) You have irritated me. 5) I forgive you for irritating me. 6) Will you forgive me for irritating you?

And, of course, the most frequent of all: 7) Will you buy this piece of music from me?  I’ve got it all written up, ready to go, just for you.

And, inevitably, the piece of music wasn’t all written up, and often it wasn’t “just for you” either (Beethoven would occasionally play two or three publishers off against each other).

All in all, Beethoven is a fascinating character.  If he was just a common man, like a farmer or a politician – he would have angered and irritated so many people that nobody would have wanted to spend time with him.

But his music cast such a spell over his fans (and there were many loyal friends throughout his lifetime) that they forgave him time and time again for the most antisocial behaviour.  And, of course, the behaviour and the man start to become blurry over time.  Most people nowadays don’t know much about the man at all.  But we do know his music. And we still love it just as much.

3 1/2 out of 5.

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One thought on “Book Review: Life of Beethoven (Alexander Thayer)

  1. Thayer was not English, he was an American. He was born in Natick, Massachusetts, educated in Massachusetts and worked there before going to Germany to begin his research on Beethoven.

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