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Tacoma music professor gets back to his Beethoven roots

“Experiencing Beethoven,” a musical exploration of the master composer for music newbies by Tacoma professor Geoffrey Block.
“Experiencing Beethoven,” a musical exploration of the master composer for music newbies by Tacoma professor Geoffrey Block. Courtesy

Geoffrey Block has written a lot of books about music. But the latest by the University of Puget Sound professor is different in a couple of ways. It’s written for music beginners, it brings him back to his own academic beginnings, and it tries to answer the age-old question of why we all keep coming back to Beethoven.

“Beethoven’s music just really affects people in profound ways,” Block says. “It makes us better as people.”

Part of the Listeners Companion Series, “Experiencing Beethoven” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017) is a guide meant for the average person. You don’t have to know classical music. Block includes a generous glossary to explain musical terms and often explains concepts in the text before going on.

What you do need, though, is a curiosity about this 18th-century Viennese composer who has since become a pop culture icon (think Peanuts, “Die Hard,” Chuck Berry and that slobbering St. Bernard dog). You also need some recordings, or at least access to YouTube, because Block chose to answer the question “Why Beethoven?” with a 235-page explanation — it’s the music.

“The deafness, the suffering, the sketching, the mad genius, that’s part of it,” says Block.

But for real understanding of why Beethoven is still so compelling, you need to dive deep into the notes. Working his way chronologically through the composer’s personal, performing and composing life, Block devotes chapters to his early works (more precocious than he has a reputation for), his “heroic style,” his one and only opera (“Fidelio”), other symphonies, songs, late piano music, the famous Ninth Symphony and his penultimate quartet, the C# minor op. 131, written the year before he died. There are several pieces per section, and Block works his way through all of them with a musicologist’s precision and a teacher’s patience. He puts the music in context of Beethoven’s public performances and career moves, as well as his letters and conversation books (a result of the deafness), yet this is more a biography of the music than the man.

For Block, whose many other books and writings focus on Charles Ives, Richard Rogers and Broadway history (with a scholarly work on Schubert slated for January), it’s also a return to his beginnings.

“I’ve been interested in Beethoven since I was a teenager,” says Block, now 68. “I did my dissertation and early work on him. So it takes me back to my roots.”

Block wrote the book in six months during a 2015 sabbatical, working with material he uses in his Beethoven class for nonmusic major freshmen at University of Puget Sound.

“I was so happy — I never did anything this big with Beethoven, so it’s like relearning everything for the first time,” he says. “It was an amazing challenge, but fun.”

Frustratingly, the book doesn’t conclude with a definitive answer to the “why Beethoven” question.

“It’s really hard (to answer),” admits Block. “But it’s about communication. Beethoven communicates to people at all levels from the most basic to the most profound theorist. He seems deeper than other composers. He wrote in response to what he experienced in life, and we understand that.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Experiencing Beethoven: A Listener’s Companion

Author: Geoffrey Block.

Where: King’s Books, 218 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma; the University of Puget Sound bookstore, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma; and at amazon.com.

Cost: $45 (25 percent discount on UPS website).

Information: pugetsound.edu.

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