The Beethoven Obsession

Brendan Ward


The great Viennese dramatist, Franz Grillparzer, wrote the funeral oration for that city’s most famous citizen and his friend: Ludwig van Beethoven. Grillparzer asked the question: ‘He was an artist – and who shall arise to stand beside him?’ The answer to the challenge posed in 1827 is still, ‘No one’. No single person has been able to match the transformative impact of Beethoven on his art.

In the interim, Beethoven’s life has been scrutinised and romanticised, his music analysed, politicised and digitised. Compositions he never intended to be published have been revealed to the world, and sketches for works have been ‘reconstructed’ in an attempt to squeeze every last quaver from the mind of a genius working 200 years ago. Even the iconic 32 piano sonatas have been expanded. Seven years after Australia’s Gerard Willems finished recording his ARIA-winning version, England’s leading Beethoven scholar published a controversial new edition, Beethoven – The 35 Piano Sonatas. He admitted the three ‘Electoral’ sonatas, written when Beethoven was twelve, into the previously sacrosanct oeuvre. It made sense: by continually ignoring early works, we miss the longer trajectory of the composer’s development. Across the Channel, a Dutch musicologist and Beethoven expert Cees Nieuwenhuizen has taken on the extraordinary task of reconstructing numerous unfinished works that Beethoven set aside. These include concertos for piano, oboe and violin, and a variety of chamber works.

At about the same time I finished, or at least, thought I had finished, writing The Beethoven Obsession, the ABC decided to remaster and re-release Gerard Willems’ celebrated recordings of the legendary 32. On the other side of the world, Nieuwenhuizen was completing his reconstruction of a 1000-bar piano sonata Beethoven sketched in his early twenties. The confluence of coincidences offered Gerard the unique opportunity to record the ‘Electoral’ sonatas and Nieuwenhuizen’s reconstructed ‘Fantasy Sonata in D’ for a world-first ‘36 piano sonatas of Beethoven’. Now Beethoven lovers will be able to follow an even longer trajectory of the composer’s development. It also meant an extra chapter for the book.

Every Beethoven blog, book and recording extends his life and our collective obsession with him. Millions listen to his music on YouTube, giving Beethoven an audience that even his Promethean mind could not have imagined. To borrow Grillparzer’s closing words at his friend’s funeral: ‘Thus he shall live forever’.

The Beethoven Obsession by Brendan Ward is published this month by NewSouth.