Audiobook Review: Great Course: Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life And Music

Great Course:  Great Maters:  Beethoven–His Life And Music, taught by Professor Robert Greenberg

I must admit that I did not know a great deal about the personal life of Ludwig von Beethoven before taking this fantastic course from the always-entertaining Robert Greenberg [1].  I knew that he was deaf and dishonest in his financial dealings with publishers, but not much else.  This course does a good job of discussing the intriguing relationship between Beethoven’s Nathanish and troubled personal life with his immense creativity as a composer.  What makes this course particularly interesting, even fascinating, is the way that the instructor eschews a chronological approach to Beethoven’s life and music and attacks it from different places at the same time.  This turns what could be viewed as a melodramatic U-shaped narrative into something that is more unconventional.  Of course, Beethoven’s life was as compelling and as full of drama as his music is exciting and so this approach works well because both the life and the music are of deep interest.  If one is looking for tortured artistic geniuses, Beethoven certain qualifies by that score [2], and the course is both honest as well as ultimately sympathetic to Beethoven’s struggles and appreciative of his musical genius.

As is common among the musical lectures in the Great Courses series, there are eight lectures here of 45 minutes apiece, which is barely sufficient to give even an introduction to the complexity of Beethoven’s life and music.  The lectures begin with a discussion of the Immortal Beloved affair (1) and how it revealed the composer’s inability to have loving and stable romantic relationships.  After this the instructor spends a couple of lectures looking at the rise of Beethoven to his greatest popularity thanks to the release of the 7th and 8th symphonies between 1813 and 1815 as well as his immensely popular but musically slight Wellington’s March, which marked the apex of his popular success during his lifetime (2) as well as the fall from that popularity due to increasing deafness and resulting disastrous public concerts as well as some ugly legal drama including a custody fight over his nephew with the boy’s mother (3).  An entire lecture is discussed showing Beethoven’s failures to be a good surrogate father for his nephew and his acrimonious relationships with his sister-in-law Joanna (4).  At this point the course goes back to the beginning of Beethoven’s life to discuss Beethoven’s growth as a pianist over his early life despite his father’s horrific and deeply damaging child abuse (5).  A lecture about Beethoven’s early compositional career (6) and the first of his revivals as a composer of heroic material that related to his own struggle against “fate” in solitude (7) precede the course’s concluding lecture on two concerts in 1808 and 1824 (8) that marked key turning points in the middle as well as the end of the composer’s tumultuous life.

There are at least a few aspects of Beethoven’s life that make him compelling to study.  For one, it must be acknowledged that he was an excellent composer even if as a person he definitely had some major flaws in his character and personality.  A family history of alcoholism and a personal history of being abused as a child were major negatives, and his crippling lack of ability in dealing successfully with those he viewed as authorities as well as engaging in intimate relationships were also major negatives in his dealings with others.  He was a classic example of someone whose personal life and difficulties made it very difficult to appreciate him during his life time, but whose obvious genius made it easy to appreciate his creativity after his death.  Greenberg’s course is full of complexity in large part because Beethoven was a complex character, a blend of good and evil that makes for compelling listening, and that makes his heroic and defiant music all the more poignant in retrospect.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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