cover image Mr. Beethoven

Mr. Beethoven

Paul Griffiths. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-68137-580-9

Music critic, librettist, and novelist Griffiths (let me tell you) delivers a masterly and witty historical fantasy of German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). In 1833, Beethoven makes a transatlantic voyage to Boston, Mass., where he’s been commissioned to complete an oratorio about “the sufferings and the patience of Job.” Once he arrives, a teenage girl named Thankful from the signing community on Martha’s Vineyard teaches Beethoven, who has lost his hearing, sign language. Not only can she hear, she has an extensive musical education, and aids the maestro in auditions, rehearsals, and social situations. The author treats the novel itself as a work in progress (in places, an irreverent, impatient modern voice demands the author hurry up and get to the point). There’s plenty that happens, including a close friendship between Beethoven and a widow, and tension with the fussy minister who wrote the libretto, but the most exciting part of the story is the imaginary oratorio. Everything feels authentic musically and historically, due to the author’s wise use of primary sources, including Beethoven’s own letters. Griffiths incorporates music criticism, send-ups of convoluted 19th-century prose, excerpts from letters, and even auction-catalog descriptions of correspondence and autographs. This wild quilt of styles brings a very human giant of the Classical and Romantic periods vividly to life. (Oct.)