Santa Fe writer John Clubbe radiates serenity. When you first meet him, it’s almost impossible to imagine him angry, especially at a level approaching the rage that’s conveyed on the cover of his newest book, Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary, where a scarlet-tinged portrait of the composer glares out.
But ask what prompted him to write it and he responds with a startling, if still quiet, intensity. “I wrote it because I was extremely annoyed by most of the Beethoven books and especially the musicologists who wrote them with all their jargon. That’s what led to it: I wanted to write something without any of that specialized language.”
Clubbe succeeded in doing so, but his is not a simplistic, talking-down-to-the-reader introductory tome. Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary (W.W. Norton & Co., 512 pages, $39.95) is a substantive cultural, political, and military history of Western Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as well as a biography of a composer whose worldview was shaped by the ideals of the French Revolution.
Having a major musical career, however, meant moving to Vienna, the “city that makes you crazy,” as Leopold Mozart put it, according to the book. There, Beethoven encountered a complacent citizenry and the increasingly repressive, paranoid rule of Franz Joseph I, who repealed many of his predecessor’s social reforms.
For Clubbe, the contemporary parallels are clear. “There was an incredibly negative attitude toward the press. The monarchy went to great lengths to suppress anything that wasn’t favorable to them. There were massive incarcerations, with people imprisoned for no valid reason, in terrible conditions.
“You never knew who was at the next table in the coffee houses, and you had to be very careful in what you said in public. The consequences could be very grave. Beethoven didn’t suit the Viennese temperament then and doesn’t suit them now. He’s still not that popular there.”
In Clubbe’s view, Beethoven’s response was to subsume his progressive outlook into much of his music, extending far beyond the obvious example of the Eroica Symphony. (It was initially dedicated to Napoleon, until he declared himself emperor, prompting Beethoven to scratch his name off the extant copy of the score.) His book examines not only the major works — the symphonies, the opera Fidelio, and Missa solemnis — from this perspective, but also explores some of the less familiar pieces that uniquely reflected their time.
A good example of the latter is Clubbe’s discussion about the Cantata on the Death of Joseph II, the 19-year-old Beethoven’s response to the death of Austria’s most progressive ruler: “Joseph’s death stands out as a landmark in Beethoven’s young life,” he writes. “His Cantata on the Death of Joseph II and the subsequent Cantata on the Accession of Leopold II are his first major contributions to the literature of revolution.”
The Joseph cantata, he continues, “reveals not only Beethoven’s admiration for the deceased emperor and his enlightened policies but also his hopes that the Revolution in France had truly announced a new era for humanity. He intended the sonata to strike a blow against excessive religiosity — and by extension, any doctrinaire monarch who supported religious or political excess. The churning intensity of Beethoven’s music resonates powerfully to the insistent beat of [the poet’s] mainly monosyllabic language; to the grim reality of the words the music offers powerful credence: ‘Thus rose the people towards the light.’ ”
On Fidelio, the composer’s only opera, and the character of Leonore, who disguises herself as a guard and engineers a daredevil rescue to free her husband from a political prison: “In revolutionary Europe, during Beethoven’s lifetime, a new kind of woman had come to the fore. Leonore emerged out of a tradition of forceful heroines that Schiller had made famous to the world. Those who argue that we need not take Leonore seriously because she is merely the product of Beethoven’s deep fantasies are not only wrong but historically asleep. The achievements of women contemporary with Beethoven … set the bar high. Beethoven would have known of them and their accomplishments. His self-directed, heroic Leonore has the same vital spirit.”
The author is a New York native who grew up in Manhattan. In an interview, Clubbe describes his interest in classical music as having developed “instantaneously” when he was in the sixth grade. “I was in my little public school, P.S. 6, and one of my schoolmates said his dad had just gotten a set of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Toscanini. He asked if I wanted to come over and hear some that evening, and I said yes. That was it. I was hooked from that moment on.”
He sports a formidable academic pedigree, with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree, all from Columbia University, as well as a year spent at the Sorbonne, in Paris. He’s taught English at Columbia; City University of New York; the University of Münster, Germany; Duke University; and the University of Kentucky, Lexington, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University. His books have been published by Harvard University Press, Duke University Press, The Ohio State University Press, and Macmillan, among others. Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary is his first book on music.
The educational experiences he’s most excited to speak about, though, involved lots of walking around by himself. “The bus I took to and from high school let me off about three blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” he explains. “It was free at that time and virtually empty after school, so I spent hours and hours there walking around. Now it’s a place where you pay a lot of money to get in and be seen and meet up with your socialite friends.”
His education in architecture was even simpler: “I looked up a lot while I was walking around the city.” Clubbe also walked around Cincinnati a lot during his time living in nearby Lexington, which resulted in his book Cincinnati Observed: Architecture and History (The Ohio State University Press). It’s a highly regarded exploration of the city’s history and streetscapes, organized in 12 walking tours.
It was architecture that brought Clubbe and his wife, Joan Blythe — also a professor of English at the University of Kentucky — to New Mexico. They came to Albuquerque in 1991 to take an architectural study tour of the city, after which they visited Ghost Ranch and Santa Fe. Five years later, they bought a sprawling old home off Upper Canyon Road. Since then, he’s served on the board of Santa Fe Pro Musica and has given pre-performance talks for Pro Musica and the Santa Fe Symphony.
Clubbe started work on his Beethoven book more than 10 years ago. Ultimately, like almost every other biographer of the composer, he faced the question, “Where, in the end, do we place Beethoven?”
“Musicological studies often classify him as the culmination of the Classicist ‘Viennese school,’” he writes in the book. “Yet his contemporary, E.T.A. [Ernst Theodor Amadeus] Hoffmann, viewed Beethoven ‘as a purely Romantic composer.’ Myself, I lean toward Hoffmann, but sometimes I wonder: Why try to classify Beethoven at all? ... Do we assign a ‘school’ to the great creative spirits of Western civilization, among them Shakespeare, Dante, Rabelais, Rembrandt, Michelangelo?
“As page after page of his music demonstrates, Beethoven looked upon humanity with a large perspective. He learned from Slavic, Italian, Turkish, Hungarian, Czech, most of all, perhaps, from French music. ... He faced a world transformed and attempted through his music to give it voice. He revolutionized music to match his desire for a utopian republic. He was in truth, as he wished to be, ‘a citizen of the world.’ ” ◀