Beethoven; A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge…

Beethoven; A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge; Yale University Press, 2020. 276 pages; $39.00 (hardcover); reading level: adult.

Timed to appear for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 2020, this book’s fascinating structure drew me in. Each of the nine chapters centers on a work by Beethoven and focuses on “a theme that sheds light on the historical context…and on his personality.” Its concise length and publication by Yale – a press known for bringing large subjects within the grasp of lay readers – sealed the deal. I was all in…then found myself struggling to turn the pages. Though the selected pieces moved chronologically through Beethoven’s life and the themes addressed intriguing topics (Was he a political, as well as a musical, revolutionary? Who was his “Immortal Beloved”? Why did he fight so hard to win custody of his nephew from his brother’s widow?) the narrative flow suffered from lack of biographical detail, flashbacks and foreshadowing that left me unsure of where I was in time, and long digressions on the music that read like extended program notes. Tunbridge’s research is solid and she does manage to achieve her goal of humanizing Beethoven through insights that offset some of the stereotypic baggage he’s accumulated over the years. Additionally, there were plenty of delightful, startling tidbits (such as the emerging role of the conductor and Beethoven’s shrewd negotiations to make a living from his talent) that caused me to reexamine my admittedly hazy notion of both the composer and his time. Those with a musical background will undoubtedly enjoy the book; I wish the writing had made its subject more accessible to the uninitiated.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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