Beethoven: A Life In Nine Pieces, by Laura Tunbridge

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces
By Laura Tunbridge
A review by Bethany Tillerson

Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life In Nine Pieces, is a well-regarded biography of Ludwig van Beethoven–and for good reason. Each of the nine chapters explores a particular piece composed by Beethoven, from less popular compositions like the Septet, Op. 20 to long-lasting masterpieces such as the Ninth Symphony. Tunbridge explores the idea that Beethoven’s life can be analyzed through the study of his compositions.

For example, Tunbridge uses Beethoven’s composition, ‘An die Geliebte’, to discuss the debated identity of his Immortal Beloved, and to investigate how Beethoven used music to express feelings like love. The Septet, Op. 20 is used to explore Beethoven’s early career and the musical style at the turn of the 19th century. As Tunbridge states regarding the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata, it “presented chamber music as a dialogue of equals…to be played by friends who, like the composer and [George] Bridgetower, could spar together”, and in doing so, it portrayed both the society’s strained culture and class status of the time and the often contentious but strong friendships Beethoven created with fellow musicians.

Turnbridge finds the inspiration for many of Beethoven’s musical themes by looking at his life experiences. However, she is careful not to jump to too many conclusions. For example, she is critical of other scholars who have done just that. She disparages the leaps of logic that have been performed to identify the woman Beethoven loved, and she goes out of her way to point to mundane parts of life that formed likely inspirations for certain pieces–such as friendly jokes and complaints about debts that supposedly inspired ‘Es muss sein’, WoO 196.

In biographies like this, there is a careful balance to be drawn between giving too much information and leaving your reader to form misconceptions from insufficient historical context; you can be dense and unreadable, or too vague. The balance Tunbridge strikes between being engaging and being informative is supported by the format of the book; since each part analyzes a different aspect of Beethoven and the time he was living in, the relevant information comes up when needed.

Chapter Two, for instance, focuses on the popular understanding of friendship in the early 19th century, while Chapter Six focuses on the French occupation of Vienna, which had steadily been looming in the background throughout the book. This historical context is always used to further an understanding of Beethoven’s life and personality. The turbulence of being a musician, of surviving via patronage at the mercy of fickle and forgetful noblemen, and of working in Vienna as Austria became embroiled in war with Napoleonic France is explored. The reader finds themself intimately understanding Beethoven’s frustrations–he often dealt with unfaithful patrons dealing with their own monetary struggles and lamented the necessity of being ‘half a businessman’, and mid-way through life he was often isolated from the rest of society due to his hearing loss. The reader comes to understand the effect this had on him, his sense of self, and his relationship to society.

The author transforms Beethoven the myth into Beethoven the historical man. Yale University Press published this book in honor of Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020, claiming to offer a ‘fresh, human portrayal’. That it does–as the title promises, every chapter offers a new side of Beethoven, exploring both the difficult, ambitious artist and the bachelor who, despite losing his hearing, would become one of the greatest composers in history.