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Immersed in the Austria of Beethoven's time.
on March 12, 2004
The great advantage I find in Marek's book is his effort to give the reader a feel for the era in which Beethoven lived. In the foreword of the book Marek says he sees Beethoven not as an isolated phenomenon but "as a man who grew from the soil of his times and stood deep in the cultural, political, and social streams that swirled around him." Marek takes the time to explore these streams, as when for instance he devotes the first two chapters to review the shifts in philosophy, science, art in general and music in particular - in Europe overall, then focusing on Bonn, birthplace of the composer. He describes the streets of Bonn, the Electoral Palace and its household, the personalities of the various Electors who employed not only Beethoven but his father and grandfather before him. Later, a whole chapter is given to discuss the transition of the arts from the Classical to the Romantic period. And he paints verbal portraits of many figures acquainted with Beethoven, such as Goethe and Napoleon, Maazel and Count Rasoumovsky.
As one example, we learn early on in a quote by Kapellmeister Ignaz von Seyfried that Beethoven "was as much at home in Rasoumovsky's palace as a hen in her coop." How sad then to learn that in 1816, Rasoumovsky - shortly after being elevated from Count to Prince - gave a gala event at which a fire broke out, destroying much of his palace including its library and tapestries, and causing the roof to collapse onto his collection of sculptures. After this, Marek relates, Rasoumovsky went into a decline in which he "existed rather than lived." Now, one does not need to know this in order to appreciate the set of quartets that Beethoven had dedicated to this patron, but I for one am glad to know of it nonetheless.
All this background is in addition to, not in place of, the details of Beethoven's life, all presented in an extremely readable style without in any way "writing down" to the reader. Quoted are many of the composer's contemporaries and letters, as well as Thayer's classic "Life of Beethoven". As one example of the effort that went into this book, a team of researchers in Vienna searched - among many other things - the Vienna newspaper files dating between 1793 and 1827.
Note well -- this book is not the place to look for extensive discussion of the music itself. Of this Marek gives fair warning in his statement: "I would like to emphasize that this book is about the man, not about the music." You will, however, find plenty of details on the performances, the successes and failures, of Beethoven's resulting delight or rage.
So, if you like the idea of following Beethoven's life while being more or less immersed in the Austria of two centuries ago, this biography is a wonderful place to begin.
In this handsome book (my copy is of the original Funk & Wagnalls' edition) there are extensive illustrations, all save one in black-and-white.
A little on the author. George R. Marek was born in Vienna and often attended performances of the Vienna State Opera. At the age of 17, he came to the USA, where in the 1950's he headed RCA's Red Seal division, later becoming V.P. and General Manager of the Record Division. He worked with a number of top classical recording artists of the time, such as Toscanini and Artur Rubinstein.