I have a relationship with Ludwig van Beethoven that is as nearly as old as I am. When I was little, I was taught piano by my grandmother, whose love for music made me the person I am today. Beethoven’s music, specifically a simplified version of his Symphony No. 9, was the first piece I ever played by ear. I was playing the work of Beethoven before I could read. As a young child, I struggled under the weight of Beethoven’s brilliance, trying to match his soaring compositions and play them (even simplified versions) to the approval of family, teachers, and directors. When the stakes grew higher, I threw in the towel — my nerves and my distinct lack of desire to practice kept me from pushing myself as a pianist.
Quitting was okay for me — I had any number of exit strategies from music. But, as Mikael Ross’ Golden Boy: Beethoven’s Youth details, quitting was not an option for little Ludwig, a child who from a very young age was forced to play and practice at his father’s demand. Opening in 1778, in the Holy Roman capital city of Bonn, Ross illustrates the young Beethoven as a young musician in training, already showing his prodigy in both playing and composition. The Beethovens live above the home of a baker, and Johann von Beethoven, a harsh taskmaster and an alcoholic, would sing as tenor and teach music all day, only to wake little Ludwig from his sleep to demand he practice or perform for friends after a night at the bar. Despite his frustration with his father, he is fiercely loyal to the man keeping him under his thumb, but desperate to prove to the world that something good can come from the house of Beethoven.
Ross illustrates the story with aplomb. I don’t say this lightly, but I think Golden Boy is, at least in my book, the best illustrated comic released in 2022. Golden Boy is a feast for the eyes. Ross’ line is simultaneously messy and immaculate, so full of life that it practically leaps off the page. His Beethoven is squat and dour-faced, pock-marked and pissed off, and it makes him a comedic and sympathetic figure. You can hear the young man grinding his teeth before he screams at his good-for-nothing brothers, just like you can hear his knees knocking before major performances. And those performances! Ross’ illustration of Beethoven at the piano is metaphoric and otherworldly, full of extraordinary line and color. It’s Ross’ beautiful illustration that brings Beethoven to life, turning him from a historical figure into a human being, capable of genius and folly.
While Ross’ skill as an artist has never been more apparent, the book has some significant flaws as a biography. Readers should take Golden Boy as a dramatic retelling of Beethoven’s youth rather than as a recounting of understood facts. Some of this is expected — Ross is creating a story of Beethoven where the historical data is lacking most, and the relationships and speech are clearly fictional. But Ross also takes liberties with the timelines of Beethoven’s life for dramatic effect, and readers interested in what we actually know about young Beethoven’s life will instead be fed a great dollop of apocrypha and conjecture. In Ross’ telling, young Beethoven contracts smallpox the day of his childhood debut performance in 1778 — most biographies do not even agree whether or not he had smallpox, let alone that he caught it right before his debut. The most stunning example is Ross’ liberties with Beethoven’s hearing loss, which by most accounts, first came about at least three years after his major debut as a performer and composer with Hadyn in 1795, well after the setting of this book. Readers looking for a story that sticks with the researched facts should look elsewhere.
But what Ross gives up in accuracy, he gains in both humor and pathos. Beethoven’s sour attitude and blistering rebuke of any criticism show his vanity and pride, but his many illnesses and his humble beginnings center the man who has now mostly passed into myth. If it does anything, Golden Boy humanizes Beethoven. It shows him in triumph and in despair — and because of that, it also makes him a person worth rooting for, even though you know how the story ends.
It is telling when a biography of an artist makes you yearn for their art. During my reading of Golden Boy, I found myself scanning YouTube for Beethoven’s earliest works; his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor were two I listened to enough times that they weaseled their way into my regular playlists. Their intrusion on the weird amalgamation that is my musical taste didn’t keep me from going down the rabbit hole — I even brought my score of Für Elise from storage and gave it a go on the keyboard. From a personal standpoint, this result is the most dramatic and important outcome of Ross’ work. His work has reminded me of and perhaps reawakened my love of Beethoven. Perhaps it will do the same for you.