A juke box hero, got stars in his eyes

This summer’s project involves Beethoven (more on that later), so I’ve been hitting the journals. And I’ve found something interesting—not enough examples to make a trend, but something I’ve been quickly conditioned to notice. It has to do with what you might call the musicological counter-reformation—the reaction against the New Musicology and various other revisionist strains. As you might imagine, Beethoven is a composer of particular interest for such revisionism, given both the encrusted consensus on interpreting his music and the highly-charged political atmospheres both in which he worked and in which his music has been used (and misused) ever since. There’s a particular tone in a lot of the reaction that aims to re-establish Beethoven as a capital-G, capital-C Great Composer, a paragon of high-art virtue, outside of any possibly qualifying context. And here’s one way to spot that tone in the wild: the author, usually in passing, cites Robert Haven Schauffler unironically.

The book in question in Schauffler’s 1929 biography Beethoven: The Man Who Freed Music. It is what you might call an old-fashioned celebrity biography. It was pretty popular in its time—since my own project involves a fair amount of reception study, I’ve been getting reacquainted with it. When I read it, I feel like I should put on a smoking jacket and pour myself a cognac. Here’s an example:

The infant [this is Ludwig], who was to be worshipped as “the saviour of music” by wise men yet unborn, first made himself heard in a room assuredly more lowly and probably more picturesque than the manger of Bethlehem. A man of average height must stoop under the beams of the little mansard chamber in No. 20 Bonngasse. On the wall outside an old crane still hangs, and a splendid vine with a stem now thick as a man’s leg. In the garden there is a portentous pendulum pump four yards tall.

For Ludwig himself it was unlucky to have been born under such conditions. Poverty and family misery bore harder on him as a child than they ever have on any other great composer, not excepting Haydn. But for the world it was a huge piece of luck that he descended from a cook, a valet’s widow, and a poor drunken singer and had ancestors with liberty-loving Flemish blood in their veins. If he had been born into the German “society” of the day he might never have emancipated music from the bonds of fashion. (pp. 8-9)

And so on, for nearly 600 pages. And yes, he maintains that style for pretty much the whole way. Every time I pick it up, I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s deconstruction of James Bond novels:

The minute descriptions constitute, not encyclopaedic information, but literary evocation. Indubitably, if an underwater swimmer swims towards his death and I glimpse above him a milky and calm sea and vague shapes of phosphorescent fish which skim by him, his act is inscribed within the framework of an ambiguous and eternal indifferent Nature which evokes a kind of profound and moral conflict. Usually Journalism, when a diver is devoured by a shark, says that, and it is enough. If someone embellishes this death with three pages of description of coral, is not that Literature?

As scholarship, Schauffler’s biography has been surpassed many times over (and keep in mind that this is the same author who produced the juicy but unreliable The Unknown Brahms), but as a stylistic affirmation of the heroic Beethoven in excelsis it’s hard to beat. No wonder he keeps coming back.


  1. Methinks they were just trying to match their grandiose opinion of the music itself, since it seems like biographies of that day placed a priority on finding a direction correlation between life and music.

    Doing any research on the Fourth Symphony, for example, places you square in Immortal Beloved-land, chronological inconsistencies be damned. (Luckily I had Solomon to pull me out.)


  2. The style reminds me a bit of Emil Ludwig.

    He wrote highly readable bios of Bismark and Napoleon; but by the time he'd gotten to interview Mussolini, Ludwig's style had clearly gone off the deep end. Something to the effect of “'Is it true, Il Duce, that when you were injured in WWI, and had to operated on, you refused anaesthetic so you could observe the operation?' Il Duce, with his piercing eyes, nodded triumpantly.”

    Then you pick up Benedetto Croce's bio of Mussolini, which reproduces his military discharge where there's no mention of his being injured at all…


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