Put simply, this book is hilarious and respectful at the same time. It’s not a biography per se, but it does bring some levity to a figure whose only portrait seems to be glowering and petulant. And it is true, Winter tells us in his author’s note, that Beethoven lived in 39 different apartments. Winter is asking and taking a shot at answering a pretty good question: why did he move so often, and how the heck did he move his pianos?
Possible reasons include unbearable stinky cheese smells and forgetting to pay rent, and possible piano maneuvers include pulleys and roofs and dentist offices and… I can’t even begin to summarize it. These difficulties are emphasized by such illustrations as boots and flying piano keys and neighbors’ cotton stuffed ears.
Beethoven is illustrated with his characteristic scowl, but Barry Blitt’s portrayal renders him endearing, particularly when combined with Winter’s narration. Winter knows what we do – that Beethoven was slowly going deaf – but his tongue-in-cheek narration also tries to consider it from Beethoven’s point of view (as well as the neighbors’ and movers’). Beethoven’s intensity comes through as he bangs on the pianos on the floor (and the broomsticks bang up). You feel for him – why aren’t his pianos loud enough in these apartments? You feel his frustration as he stomps from one apartment to another, lip jutting out.
In The 39 Apartments, Winter humanizes a musical icon into a man with a job, a genius, and a day to day life, rent and all. His droll humor does a lot to accomplish this – he brings Beethoven into colloquial language, even slang, so that the incongruity with the somber figure you know from music class makes it doubly funny. And he says it so matter-of-factly, so that when I got to parts like “Bits of paper with the German words for ‘SHUUUUUT UP!’ have been discovered,” or the modern English translation of Anselm Schwartz’s diary, I was giggling at the scowling man. And I think that’s so important; I don’t mean laughing at musicians, but realizing that historical figures were human. And really, if you think about it – Beethoven set an Ode to Joy to music, too, you know.