The Beethoven Mystery Case

Leo Carey in the New York Review of Books:

L.carey_1-102314_jpg_250x1295_q85Nine hundred and thirty pages into Jan Swafford’s new biography of Beethoven, there is an interesting juxtaposition. After the composer died, in March 1827, his funeral was “one of the grandest Vienna ever put on for a commoner.” Schools were closed. Some 10,000 people crowded into the courtyard of the building where he had lived, then followed the coffin to the local parish church—not, as Swafford has it, to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. (Among the torchbearers was Franz Schubert.) Franz Grillparzer, the leading Viennese writer of the day, wrote a funeral oration. But later that year, when Beethoven’s effects were auctioned off, a lifetime’s worth of manuscripts and sketchbooks fetched prices that Swafford calls “pathetic.” Beethoven’s late masterpiece the Missa Solemnis went for just seven florins. By comparison, his old trousers and stockings sold for six florins.

Beethoven’s last years are rich in anecdotes of neglect. The late works were too abstruse for the public, and he told a visitor (exaggerating somewhat) that even earlier ones were out of fashion and never performed in Vienna. When Rossini, then Europe’s most popular composer, paid a visit, he was appalled at the squalor in which the great man was living and left in tears. He appealed to aristocratic contacts to do something, but they refused, considering Beethoven crazy and beyond help. Even Beethoven’s successes in these years were partial: the ecstatic reception of the Ninth Symphony is well known, but Swafford suspects that the audience at the premiere had come to cheer “the man and his legacy” rather than the music.

More here.