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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.
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on June 17, 2015
Well Done! I read Jan Swafford's "Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph" biography and wanted more. This seemed like the next step. A lot of the same stuff is covered but in a more literary prose. The chapter on women in Beethoven's life was most interesting. His theory of the identity of "the "Immortal Beloved" is most unusual but well presented. All other serious possibilities were discussed in depth as well and some popular picks that were debunked.
I think that the history was better in this book than Swafford's. However, Jan Swafford's in depth musical analysis was very enlightening. (Warning: the notation discussed in Swafford requires one to have the ability to read music and understand music theory.)
For a great overall biography of the master composer, that doesn't require one to be a professional musician, this book by Marek fits the bill perfectly. The story of the man's life and times is told in a more interesting fashion than Swafford's bio. Highly recommended!
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on September 25, 2010
George Marek has written definitive, though not exhaustive bios of Schubert, Strauss, Beethoven...each is clear and flavored with a love for music and an intuitive understanding of how the man makes the music. This volume seems to have solved who the "Immortal Beloved" was -- quite logically. And it's not one of the regular group. Highly recommend.
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on March 24, 2016
George Marek and H C Robbins Landon, when doing some research in Prague, discovered the so far unknown (in America) pianist Dorothea von Ertmann.
On Josephine:
"Josephine could not have been the Immortal Beloved … The Josephine-Beethoven relationship ended in 1807, and there is not an iota of evidence that it was ever taken up again." (Marek 1969, p. 257)
On Bettina:
"Whether we call her an embellisher of truth or just a plain liar depends on the charity of our view … But she did not lie all the time; she sometimes told the truth about Goethe and Beethoven." (p. 278)
Whereas:
"In several respects Dorothea v. Ertmann makes an ideal choice. It is not scientific to say so but let us say it anyway: there could hardly be among the women Beethoven knew a more fitting 'Beloved'. She was pretty … she was musically gifted and understood his music." (p. 308)
Goldschmidt (2014) pointed out that
"the tragic conflict in the Letter to the 'Immortal Beloved' … cannot, however, be reconciled with the non-tragic relationship with Dorothea Ertmann". (p. 57)
Yet
"Dorothea von Ertmann … is a possibility. She arrived in Karlsbad on June 25." (Marek 1969, p. 307)
And here we should stop: Sure, Dorothea was in Karlsbad from 25 June 1812, for four weeks. However, there is no evidence that she was in Prague on 3-4 July.
Massin & Massin (1955) on Dorothea (they knew already):
"Apart from the fact that she was in Karlsbad, Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann has little chance of a successful candidature! She was a friend and student of Beethoven for a long time; and he would be especially intimate with her in 1816, when he dedicated to her his op. 101 in terms that were hardly compatible with the existence of a great past love." (p. 240)
The 2nd edition of the Beethoven Biography by Massin & Massin (1967) – where they did not have to change anything they had said already in 1955, despite the discovery of the "Thirteen Letters"! – was followed by a long essay, Recherche de Beethoven (Massin & Massin 1970). Their views of 1955 – that only Josephine could possibly have been the Immortal Beloved – were certainly more than vindicated by these "Thirteen Letters".
Everything about this in The Immortal Beloved Compendium: Everything About The Only Woman Beethoven Ever Loved - And Many He Didn't
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on August 13, 2012
I am still reading this wonderful book. It has all you want in a book such as this: history, biographical details, relation to other composers, political facts, and important locations. The best!
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on February 20, 2011
The cover of this biography shows more wear and tear than was described; however, the contents are remarkable. Superb writing and a bonus of illustrations and photos. If one really has an interest in knowing the life of the remarkable composer Beethoven, then this is THE book for purchase.
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on April 26, 2015
Awesome book
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