Edmund Morris is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of landmark biographies of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He also wrote a biography of Beethoven, and his latest book, This Living Hand, also features quite a bit of writing on music. The book consists of 40 years of essays, lectures and notes from Morris. He tells Soundcheck about the brilliance of Beethoven, why it's so hard to write about music.
On Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata being far ahead of its time:
"[S]uddenly at the same time he produces this music unlike any other music that had been written before — impressionistic and mysterious and monotonous. And it’s almost the language of Chopin, 40 years before Chopin was born."
On a neurologist’s claims that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony mimics the sound of hearing loss:
"I’d always been aware of the fact, as most people do when they hear it, that there’s something mysterious and strange and otherworldly about this music. But it never occurred to me there might be something pathological about it. And as he stressed — this neurologist — it consists of very rapid soft vibrato… which Beethoven spells out very carefully in his own notation. Any other composer would have just done a tremolo and let the violins just shiver their strings as they like, but he specified the steady buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh, which seemed to me and to this neurologist to be pathological.”
On exhibiting pain through music in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:
"There are screams of pain in Beethoven. For example, in the same Ninth Symphony in the finale, the sopranos have to sing that high A 75 times. I counted it. Very painful to sing, very painful to hear. And I think Beethoven was expressing his own aural pain."
On the difficulty of writing about music:
"[I] like the challenge of trying to express with words what music does. [Felix] Mendelssohn once said very acutely that the reason its hard to write about music is that music is a superior language. So in using prose to describe music, you’re using something inferior. But I love the challenge and I hope that I succeeded in it."