Many lives of Ludwig

With the appearance of a new study of the composer, Michael Church investigates the Beethoven business
YOU couldn't wish for a more perfect autobiography than Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas. From the boundless optimism of their beginnings, through heroism and despair, to their visionary conclusion, these dramas in miniature chart a quest which was at once artistic, political and personal. The quartets, symphonies and Fidelio round out crucial points in the story, but the sonatas say it all.

Other people, however, were competing to publish their version of Beethoven's story before he'd even finished living it, and they've been competing ever since. The first serious memoir, by Wegeler and Ries (one the composer's closest friend, the other his most devoted pupil), was upstaged by two successive biographies by the lawyer-violinist Anton Schindler, who muddied the waters by inserting fake entries in the conversation books he had somehow acquired after Beethoven's death.

Enter, on a white charger, Alexander Wheelock Thayer, a sickly news-hack from Massachusetts who proceeded to spend half a century producing (in German) a magisterial corrective to Schindler, based on court records, diaries, conversation books, and recollections by acquaintances. Thayer died before his last volume was finished, and his notes were passed from hand to hand, published and republished, until the American scholar Elliot Forbes pulled them together, spliced in the latest scholarship, and produced an edition which after 30 years still stands as the definitive factual account.

But a mythical beast like Beethoven, who really did die shaking his fist at a thunderstorm, after declaring "Comoedia finita est", was bound to generate fanciful accounts as well. He mesmerised his contemporaries, and most only grasped one facet of his extraordinarily complex character. To Clementi he was a "haughty beauty". Goethe saw him as "an utterly untamed personality". To others he seemed a hairy, clumsy tramp. His abortive love-life, with the mysterious letter to the "Immortal Beloved", has always provoked speculation, as has his fight with his brother's widow over custody of his nephew Karl.

This grotesque tug-of-love, which Beethoven masochistically dragged through the courts, was the pretext for the hostile diagnosis produced by Richard and Edith Sterba in 1954. He was an authoritarian sadist, they claimed, transferring his homosexual feelings for his younger brother Caspar to his nephew Karl, whom he tried to rescue from the "fatal claws" of his evil mother Johanna.

But the facts won't support this simplistic case: Beethoven's hatred of his sister-in-law alternated with remorse, even desire. It was only in 1977 - a century and a half after his death - that a biography appeared which finally made sense of this conundrum, and much more besides. Maynard Solomon is a Freudian musicologist who has just applied his techniques to Mozart, with equivocal results. But with Beethoven - a more suitable case for treatment - he scored a remarkable series of bull's-eyes.

The first was to solve, by methodically matching names, dates and places, the riddle of the Immortal Beloved: Solomon proved this must have been graceful mother-of-six Antonie Brentano (the recent Gary Oldman film Immortal Beloved ludicrously posited Johanna herself). But Solomon's main achievement was to show Beethoven's entanglement with his nephew and sister-in-law as a delusory attempt to create a fantasy-family, and to link this with the composer's other lifelong obsessions.

Beethoven suffered from a central wounding fantasy - that he was illegitimate, and not the son of the drunken tenor Johann van Beethoven. Like Salvador Dali, he lived in the shadow of an elder brother with the same name who had died in infancy; he believed his own birth certificate actually belonged to this brother. When he was 12, Beethoven composed a song "An einen Saugling" (suckling) which began with the words: "You still do not know whose child you are." Even in his middle years he claimed not to know his age, and he wove a fantasy - which he encouraged others to believe - that he was of noble birth. This suited both his aristocratic view of himself, and his contempt for his father. But denying the truth always comes at a price, and Beethoven paid his in the form of mid-life madness.

The dead elder brother's immanence throws light on many oddities, not least the postcript to the Heiligenstadt Testament which is addressed, not to Beethoven's two living brothers, but to a person with no name. Moreover, the inscription over the Adagio of his String Quartet Op 59 No 1 reads: "A weeping willow or acacia tree on my brother's grave"; and brother-rescue is the central theme of Fidelio. Solomon thinks this imaginary companion long helped alleviate the composer's mental torment.

Solomon's other contribution was to show the interaction between real- life crisis and artistic creativity. Beethoven's productivity was brought to a complete halt by the Immortal Beloved affair, which marked the final defeat of his hopes of founding a family of his own. But during his long and irrational battle over the guardianship of Karl he groped his way, one painful masterpiece at a time, into the transfigured world of his late works. Solomon persuasively argues the benefits of Beethoven's deafness, a disability which magically freed his genius.

Solomon is one of the high priests whose commendations decorate the cover of William Kinderman's Beethoven; Alfred Brendel is another; but I am mystified as to what it is they're celebrating, beyond a faithful echo of their own respective discoveries. The portrait of the man is so perfunctory as to be misleading, particularly with respect to the triangular relationship with Johanna and Karl. The occasional anecdotes are done more entertainingly by Solomon, and more fully by Thayer; the historical perspective is trudging, textbook stuff.

And it makes an odd, even maddening guide to the music. Kinderman is professor of music at Victoria University in British Columbia. Since he invites the reader to use his book piecemeal, focusing on specific analyses of specific works, it may seem churlish to damn it as a continuous narrative, but he wants it read that way too. Its immensely detailed descriptions of each work's structure all make perfect sense but add up to - what? Kindermann's analyses sometimes remind one of our old friend M Jourdain being triumphantly told he's been speaking prose all his life.

Music is one of the hardest things to write about, and there's no recipe for success. It must be a poetic response, and it's odd, for example, that the notoriously cerebral G B Shaw should have done it so well. One of the most evocative writers about Beethoven was that inspired pedagogue Donald Francis Tovey, whose crystalline thoughts fired generations of students using the Associated Board edition of the sonatas. Solomon writes with graceful suggestiveness. And the exegetic prose of Alfred Brendel and Charles Rosen (a pianist-professor) has also been touched by the divine wind.

Kinderman's book does have redeeming virtues, including an illuminating discussion of Beethoven's concept of musical time, and it occasionally produces admirable insights. But it is addressed to fellow-specialists: much space is devoted to obscure musical examples, much energy wasted proving painfully obvious points. "I always have a picture in my mind when I am composing, and work up to it," Beethoven said once. Kinderman teeters on the verge of illustrating this, but then pulls back, which is a shame considering the archive material at his disposal.

Meanwhile the industry rolls on. Some scholars are dating particular compositions, others are charting the course of the composer's deafness, and yet others are trying to discover what he was wriing in 1821 (so far, an undocumented year). Solomon himself is looking into Beethoven's reading during his philosophical fifth decade - Homer, it seems, and a lot of Indian theology. Two centuries on, he's still full of surprises.

! 'Beethoven' by William Kinderman is published by OUP at pounds 25.

Forbes's edition of Thayer's 'Beethoven' is available from Princeton. Solomon's 'Beethoven Essays' are published by Harvard.