Marcus Phelps, Beethoven: God of Gods. Henley & Meyerbeer Press, 2014.
Of all the great composers throughout history, who excites our curiosity more than the transcendent Ludwig van Beethoven? Is there another composer whose works and life both fit so conveniently into the profundity sandwich of beginning, middle and end? Is there another composer who so ingeniously travails the Autobahn from Classical to the Romantical? Is there a comparable figure as pleasingly anti-establishment, whilst remaining as pleasingly fixed in the canon?
And it is with a cannon that Marcus Phelps’s new biography of Beethoven, God of Gods, begins. No, not the contrapuntal technique, but the military device, which was used to fire the newly deceased Beethoven into the Danube, a posthumous rite accorded by Viennese custom to only the most distinguished of its vagabonds, for which the famous musician had been mistaken.
Phelps does not miss a single classic Beethoven story, and indeed many you’ve never heard of but are just as good. Take the episode in which Beethoven becomes embroiled with a soldier at the fishmongers, after the latter dropped a cod on the manuscript of The Consecration of the House. We learn that Beethoven frees himself from the scuffle and declares with Ciceronian majesty ‘Thou art but crill to the godly leviathan of Beethoven.’ It certainly does no harm to learn that Haydn enjoyed two spoons of lukewarm coffee served in a chintz dish, whereas Beethoven would go days without nourishment before consuming a block of cheese in seven seconds, usually whilst writing the recapitulation of an Andante. To the naysayers, both are probably true despite Schindler’s reservations. And how delectably enriched our understanding of the Große Fuge because of it!
What separates Phelps’ biographical excursion from his peers is this talent for inference. On the basis of a (probably cheese-stained) letter Beethoven wrote to Prince Lichnowsky on 17 May, in which there is an allusion to a meeting in a gaming house, Phelps embarks on an inspired and debauched description of a meeting between Mozart and Beethoven, not dissimilar in style to Eduard Mörike’s Mozart on the Way to Prague (1856). In raucous surroundings, Beethoven and Mozart play ‘at Ombre, Nap, Cribbage, Buncombe, Chalky, Loo, Flips, Quadrille, Moggie, and Muppet after which the kleine hexenmesiter soon found himself in 1,000 florins worth of debt, but recompensed his friend by proffering the theme which was to become the darling of the Pathétique.’
Yet this is not all. The triumphal apex of the book includes a speculative list of Beethoven’s maladies, the most comprehensive to date. We learn in minute detail of his constipation, diarrhoea, intussusception, proctalgia fugax and more. Phelps reveals to us that Beethoven himself musically refers to many of these conditions, not just in the famous finale to the 2nd symphony, but in crude quodlibets inspired by Mozart’s ‘Leck mich im Arsch,’ and written to be performed by five hundred Franciscan monks in an unpublished project which makes Scriabin’s Mysterium (1903–1915) look a muted affair. These revelations alone, an unexampled victory of the fecal-scholastic retrospective diagnosis genre, is worth the price of the book, which in its quiet and comfortingly speculative way secures its place alongside the weightier tomes of Thayer, Solomon and Cooper.
David John Cowling is composing his Opus No. 1. With apologies to John Suchet’s Beethoven: The Man Revealed.