On Dec. 16, while the classical music world is honoring Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the international community of scholars devoted to his music will also be honoring another round-numbered occasion: the 90th birthday of professor Lewis Lockwood, which coincides, to the day, with that of the composer he has placed at the center of his scholarly work for five decades. Born in New York City, and resident in Boston since moving from Princeton to teach at Harvard in 1980, Lockwood has been hailed by musicologist Joseph Kerman as “the leading authority on Beethoven in America.” And since retiring from full-time teaching in 2002, Lockwood has not exactly been resting on his laurels. His own Beethoven biography was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; he has written books on Beethoven’s Symphonies and one on Beethoven’s Quartets (with the Juilliard Quartet); and co-edited a landmark critical edition of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Sketchbook. Next up: “Beethoven’s Lives” will be published this month by Boydell and Brewer.
The new book surveys over two centuries of Beethoven biography, from the poet Franz Grillparzer’s funeral oration to the present day, and provides an insider’s look at this elusive genre from one of its finest practitioners. In between lecturing on Zoom and practicing his cello, Lockwood, 89, spoke with the Globe by phone from his Brookline home.
Q. With the exception of your work on the music of the Renaissance, Beethoven has been at the core of your scholarly life for five decades. Did this entire odyssey begin with the discovery of his birthday?
A. It’s true that when you’re a kid, you look up what else happened on your birthday. I found out about Beethoven and the Boston Tea Party! But if there’s anything in life we can do nothing about, it’s the day we’re born. I’m aware of the coincidence, and I feel it, but I wasn’t exactly spiritually commandeered by this fact. I came to Beethoven’s music first and foremost as a young musician growing up in New York City in the 1940s, and attending the High School of Music and Art. That was my most important musical and educational experience. I started studying cello at age 9, and have never left it or let it go. I still play chamber music as much as I can. Back then, Leonard Bernstein once came and conducted the student orchestra. It was Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3, and for the opening forte, Lenny gave the air a right-hand punch that I can remember to this day. All of us were completely electrified. And once you’ve immersed yourself in it, the love of playing this music never leaves you.
Q. You’ve spent years analyzing the sketchbooks used by Beethoven for the “Eroica” Symphony, and more broadly, championing the idea that we can learn profound things about a composer through closely studying the autograph manuscripts he or she leaves behind. What led you to embracing this particular window onto the musical past?
A. To study a manuscript is to come face-on with gigantic problems of interpretation. You have to decipher what is there, why it might be there, and what the consequences are. But the magnitude of the Beethoven source materials for understanding his inner life as a composer is enormous, compared to other major composers. Beethoven started using sketchbooks in the late 1790s, working on the Op. 18 quartets. For the rest of his compositional career, when he finished with one sketchbook, he would start on another. This is a man who in his life could barely find anything. But he always could find his sketchbooks. The result is, by the end of his life, he could reach out on a shelf and pick out any sketchbook he ever worked on. And he must have done so, because ideas from very early crop up in late works. Over 70 sketchbooks still survive! But maybe 20 percent of them are available right now in responsibly made critical editions. Why is that? Because producing these editions is very hard work. It’s not lucrative, it’s certainly not fashionable, and it’s hard to get published. But it’s still a service to mankind. We can go to the moon and Mars, but we can’t yet have all the sketchbooks!
In fact, you do this kind of work with tremendous trepidation. In the small scale, if you turn on a flashlight in the dark, it’s just you and the manuscript, and you’re trying to do your job in the best and most honest way you can. But if you brighten the room as a whole, you realize that it’s actually you and all the other scholars who have ever tried to do this, and who are doing this now.
Q. In your new book, as a biographer, you direct that same flashlight onto the industry of Beethoven biography as a whole over time. After publishing 15 books, including those you edited, you’ve called this your swan song.
A. Yes, I’m getting to that point in life. Each of us has a certain amount to give, in a variety of ways, in a given field. After writing my own Beethoven biography, I eventually got interested in the larger questions of the genre itself, and especially, how do you shape the relationship between life and work? That’s not a straightforward question to answer.
Q. Across the decades of Beethoven biographers, there are some very colorful characters. You write about Anton Schindler, his contemporary and first biographer, whose account was studied for over a century, until it was revealed in the 1970s that he had forged some of the documents he cited. How do you understand the Schindler story? Was it a case of over-ambition as a biographer, or a case of over-identification with his subject? I was amazed to learn that after Beethoven’s death, Schindler began receiving guests wearing the master’s dressing gowns.
A. I’m not a psychologist, but you’re looking at a kind of pathology. Inevitably some degree of attachment to the subject happens even when writers try to remain aloof and independent as people. Alexander Thayer, who was the soul of intellectual honesty, a positivist who questioned every known fact against the romanticism of his time, could never fully figure out the late Beethoven, whose dealings with the world and his nephew was something that Thayer found hard to swallow.
Q. Yet at the same time, these connections across time may be necessary to some degree. As another scholar recently remarked, your own biography exhibits an unusual degree of empathy toward your subject.
A. I think empathy is always needed for historians, whether it’s explicit or not. We’re dealing with people who lived in their own times, and inevitably had to struggle to bring out of themselves what was their inner most purpose. With Beethoven we have a lot of documentation about this very struggle. His deafness leads to the famous Heiligenstadt statement, in which he considers ending his own life, but then he says, “I could not leave the world until I had brought out all that is within me.”
Q. How do you think about the Beethoven year that’s being celebrated at the moment? The current state of the world would seem to place the ethical values underlying this music in particularly sharp relief.
A. Yes. In a newly discovered letter of 1795 Beethoven bemoans the lack of equality in the world of his time, and asks, “When will the time come in which there will be only human beings?” [not masters and slaves, as in Russia.] He goes on to say, “We will probably see that happy time in only a few places but, generally, we will not see it, it may take centuries before we do.” And sure enough, we haven’t yet seen that “happy time,” as we know so painfully right now in the United States, which was founded on the belief that “all men are created equal” but in which slavery had the tremendous consequences we know so well.
Q. Some have suggested that a utopian promise, a vision of that “happy time,” has been preserved for the future in Beethoven’s art itself.
A. Hearing music of this quality is certainly an experience that can carry you far from the everyday, into some better place.
Interview was condensed and edited.