Beethoven fan John Suchet has delved into the life of the composer and is in the region to talk about it. DAVID WHETSTONE reports.
PLENTY of musicologists have analysed the works of Beethoven.
They have written books too, although many of them will seem impenetrable to readers who, while they may love Beethoven’s symphonies, couldn’t tell you the difference between adagio and allegro.
John Suchet, Classic FM presenter and former ITV newsman, loves the music but is equally interested in the man.
As he says in his book, Beethoven: The Man Revealed (Elliott & Thompson, £25): “Of Beethoven it is perhaps more true than of any other composer that if you know what is going on in his life you listen to his music through different ears.
“Beethoven’s life – its dramas, conflicts, loves and losses, his deafness coupled with health problems, his struggle with his sister-in-law for custody of her son, his nephew – is there in his music.”
That’s the life in a nutshell but Suchet’s book gives a much fuller account of Beethoven’s life, pulling together obscure sources.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn in December 1770, less than two years after his parents’ first child, christened Ludwig Maria van Beethoven, had died soon after being christened.
The baby was given the same name as his illustrious paternal grandfather, a skilled and influential figure in the musical life of the city.
We are told that Ludwig “idolised and idealised” his grandfather and, despite being just three, was deeply upset when he died.
Ludwig’s father, Johann, who had failed to live up to his own father’s hopes and expectations, was a less impressive role model, having a fancy for the bottle.
We can be “relatively sure”, says Suchet, that Johann van Beethoven “drove his son hard in the quest to develop his musical talent”.
He staged a public concert for him and, in advertising it, wrote of his “honour” at presenting “his little son of six years”.
But the boy was seven at the time. Deliberate fib or honest mistake? Suchet goes with the former explanation, saying Johann, having destroyed his son’s birth certificate, was keen to make his accomplishments seem impressive.
You could argue Johann’s approach was vindicated because the boy didn’t buckle under the pressure.
But Suchet says it’s hard to be charitable, suggesting Johann saw his son as a potential source of income, just as Wolfgang Amadeus had been for the Mozarts.
Due to his swarthy looks, Beethoven was nicknamed ‘Der Spagnol’ (The Spaniard) at school. A classmate later remembered him being “distinguished by uncleanliness, negligence, etc”. Suchet reckons he was probably teased.
In any case, he was soon whipped out of school by his dad who wanted to supervise his musical education.
The first to identify Ludwig as a “young genius” was the composer, organist and conductor Christian Gottlob Neefe who gave him his first proper music lessons and encouraged him.
Suchet, with a fan’s enthusiasm and a journalist’s nose for a story, tells of his discovery that Beethoven and Mozart “actually met”. Little has been written about it and nothing, evidently, by the two men concerned, but Suchet gives us an account of a meeting published in an 1856 biography of Mozart.
Beethoven, then about 17, was taken to meet Mozart, who would have been about 31, in Vienna. Mozart asked him to play something on the piano.
Beethoven played and Mozart wasn’t impressed at first, suggesting the young man must have prepared a piece. Beethoven then asked Mozart to give him a theme that he could improvise on. As the young man’s playing became more elaborate, Mozart remarked to some friends: “Watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.”
Suchet speculates about this encounter in print and may do so again tomorrow at the Lit & Phil, Westgate Road, Newcastle, where his talk begins at 7.30pm.
Tickets for the event, organised with Waterstone’s, cost £4 from Waterstone’s or call 0191 261 7757.