Why is there such a frequent association between artistic genius and mental pathology? Over and over again we see this, and it is present again in the life of Ludwig Von Beethoven, as told in this Beethoven Biography by Edmund Morris. Beethoven was not a very nice or admirable person. He suffered from social withdrawal and possibly undiagnosed mental illness. He never had a successful romantic relationship. He showed brilliance at an early age and was trained mercilessly (there is no other word for it) on the piano and violin. His social and mental pathologies worsened over time, accompanied by his hearing loss, yet it was in his later years that he composed his greatest works. The Ninth Symphony, as most people know, was composed when Beethoven was stone deaf. Morris doesn’t gloss over the great composer’s personal flaws and in fact shows how some of his problems (particularly the deafness) actually contributed to the sounds in some of his work.
The great composer in his gritty human dimension
I have always liked Beethoven’s compositions, although he isn’t my favorite classical composer, but had never studied much about the man as a person. Morris’ book revealed some interesting things, such as the custody battle Ludwig waged with his sister-in-law to gain custody of his nephew, whom he thought of as his son, and how he attempted to ensure that the boy did not see his mother after that. His problems with alcohol, his financial difficulties brought on mainly by his own extravagance, his inability to form relationships with women, despite the abundant availability of the nineteenth-century equivalent of groupies, what may be evidence of bipolar disorder in Beethoven’s mood swings and egotism. This particular Beethoven Biography is somewhat lacking in musical analysis per se, but then there is no shortage of musical critique of the works of Beethoven elsewhere and it’s interesting to get a view of the composer as a man. None of his severe problems stopped him from producing great works of art, and in fact they may have helped.