Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life


A fascinating poetic journey into the mind and heart of a musical genius, from the author of the celebrated Darwin: A Life in Poems, will be published by Alfred A Knopf, New York, in February 2021.

‘Absolutely gorgeous poems, beautifully written, full of wonderful imagery. She has a marvellous way of surprising you with hindsight, atmosphere and context. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece, I love it to pieces.’ - Jessica Duchen, novelist and music critic, Best Books on Beethoven

‘Wonderful… Ruth Padel writes with true passion. Her love for, and understanding of, the man and his music shine through each poem.’ - Steven Isserlis, cellist

‘With precision, heart-breaking beauty and lyric insight, Ruth Padel performs a miracle: he comes alive before us, the son of a drunk who became a genius – and here we are, following Padel’s own genius for composing the music of a story: generous, painful, tender, gorgeously lyrical.’ - Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic

‘Ruth Padel’s poems capture that uncontainable spirit to an astounding degree, and preserve the primal shock of our first hearing.’ - Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker

‘Beethoven Variations challenges the assumption that the long-dead composer has little relevance to the contemporary moment. Resonant connections… speak to his universality. Padel’s light touch recharges the reader’s perception of the unfolding drama of his life. [With] a conversational intimacy like the composer’s chamber works, invocations originate in places once blessed by his presence - the orchestration, as it were, of one life through the prism of another, structured around Padel’s expansive empathy.’ Los Angeles Review of Books

BEETHOVEN VARIATIONS is a personal voyage through the life and legend of one of our greatest composers, retraces his steps through Europe, tracing his private thoughts through letters, diaries, and the conversation books he used as he went deaf. Beethoven as a battered four-year-old weeping at the clavier; the young pianist, agonised by encroaching deafness; the passionate heartbroken lover, the clumsy eccentric making coffee with exactly sixty beans, the isolated artist who ends even his most harrowing works on a note of hope.

Padel’s quest for Beethoven takes her to the heart of Europe and back to her own musical childhood. Her great-grandfather studied in Leipzig with Moscheles, a pupil of Beethoven, became a concert pianist, and migrated to Britain. Her parents met making music and Ruth grew up playing viola, Beethoven’s instrument as a child. This book grew from her collaboration with the Endellion String Quartet: an intimate response to Beethoven's music, a lyrical exploration of the power of music in all our lives.