Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Life and Times of Beethoven – The First Angry Man

Written and recorded by yours truly, Robert Greenberg
Audible Originals, 2019

In February of this year, I was asked to be among the first “influencers” (yes, that’s how I was referred to: I, who am incapable of “influencing” my daughter to turn out the lights when she’s left a room or my son to flush the freakin’ toilet) to record original content for Amazon’s Audible brand. The result is a ten-lecture, five-hour (30 minutes per lecture), 40,000-word biography of Beethoven titled The Life and Times of Beethoven: The First Angry Man. Created in conjunction with The Great Courses, the course was recorded in Chantilly, Virginia in July and hit the market last month.

Smiling Beethoven Bust
Such a happy face!

A couple of points before moving on. 

Point one. By titling my course The First Angry Man, I have, admittedly, indulged in the tired cliché that Beethoven was angry pretty much all the time, a cliché reinforced a gazillion-fold by the famously scowling images of Beethoven that became stock-in-trade of the Beethoven myth as it evolved during the nineteenth century.

In response to the clichéd images of a sullen, glowering Beethoven, enjoy the included image of Beethoven smiling. Yes, of course, it is bogus, but so is the impression that he never smiled or laughed, which he did, all the time. (Beethoven’s laughter could be so unconstrained that it both amused and, at the same time, embarrassed his friends!)

Point two. By titling the course The First Angry Man, I made a purposeful reference to Gerald Green’s 1956 novel, The Last Angry Man. (We would note that the novel’s protagonist – Dr. Samuel Abelman – was not angry all the time either and was, like Beethoven, freely given to smiling and laughing when the mood struck him.) I grew up inordinately aware of the film version of The Last Angry Man (Columbia Pictures, 1959), because it co-starred my maternal grandmother, Nancy R. Pollock as the wife of Dr. Abelman, who was played by the Oscar-winning Paul Muni in his final film role.

A still from The Last Angry Man
A still from The Last Angry Man; left to right, Paul Muni (on the bed, looking not-so-hot), Luther Adler, David Wayne, Nancy R. Pollock, and Joby Baker

I have waited 60 years to use the phrase “the first angry man”, and having been given the opportunity, I went for it whole hog.

Now. Smile and laugh though he did, Herr van Beethoven was indeed an angry person, and given his life experiences and physical health, he had every right to be so. Having said that, he was not, obviously, the first angry man (or woman or girl or boy); human beings have been getting annoyed, irritated, livid, irate, incensed, pissed, peeved and furious since time immemorial and we can expect that folks will continue to do so as long as they feel threatened or attacked; frustrated or powerless; invalidated, ripped off, or disrespected. What makes Beethoven’s anger special is that he was the first composer to actually portray his personal emotions – of which anger was a principal sentiment – in his music. At a time when composers were expected to amuse and entertain their audiences, Beethoven – who lived from 1770 to 1827 – got it into his head that his music was not for anyone’s piddling pleasure but his own: that first and foremost, the creation of music was an act of profound self-expression. Why and how Beethoven came up with this seemingly heretical artistic belief occupies no small bit of this course. …

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