Having discovered the music of Beethoven over 40 years ago, esteemed newsreader and writer John Suchet spoke to Classic FM in 2010 about his passion for the composer and the effect he’s had on all aspects of his life.
It might be the excitement, but we’re pretty sure that our interviewee’s hands are shaking in anticipation. We’re in the boardroom of the British Library in London with former ITN newsreader, Classic FM presenter and the country’s best-known Beethoven obsessive John Suchet, and we are about to be given the chance to see, and possibly even touch, the original sketchbook containing Beethoven’s handwritten score to the Pastoral Symphony. Flanked by staff from the library, we pore over Beethoven’s famously haphazard scrawling and often semi-legible handiwork.
The British Library holds two important Beethoven manuscripts: a full score of the Ninth Symphony, which was written as a commission for the Royal Philharmonic Society complete with a handwritten dedication from the composer, and this sketchbook containing an early outline of the Sixth Symphony.
John Suchet: The score of the Ninth is pivotal to Beethoven’s relationship with this country. He was due to come here from his early twenties onwards; he kept saying he would come and was booked to conduct the Ninth, but then his health collapsed and he never came. That score is written in a copyist’s hand whereas this sketchbook for the Sixth is all Beethoven, which makes it much more important. Look, there he’s written on the first page, “Pleasant feelings on arrival in the countryside.” This is the only occasion other than in his opera, Fidelio, when Beethoven actually wrote on a score what the music was about.
You’re in your sixties now – how far back does your passion for Beethoven’s music go?
JS: I don’t think there was a pivotal moment. It was during my twenties that Beethoven’s music began seeping into my head. At first I only knew the angry stuff, then later I discovered all the beautiful, lyrical, music that he wrote and I was intrigued that the same man could write in such different styles at the same time as he was going deaf. I realised that everything I wanted and needed was there and quickly I became what people call obsessed; I prefer the word “passionate”.
Many of us are passionate about music but we don’t feel the need to write books about our favourite composers. What inspired you to put pen to paper?
JS: Two separate incidents. The first was in Washington DC in 1983 with Bonnie, the woman who was to become my second wife. We went to an all-Beethoven concert at the Kennedy Center. We heard the Third Piano Concerto and Seventh Symphony. After the concert, browsing the Georgetown bookshops, I saw a biography of Beethoven that Bonnie encouraged me to buy. I read it and that was the inspiration to write my own book of the great man’s life. A year later I was on a ferry from Limassol in Cyprus to Lebanon to report on the civil war in Beirut. I was the only passenger as everybody else was travelling in the opposite direction. You could see the city in the distance with a red glow above it and I was thinking, “What on earth am I doing?” I put on my Walkman with a tape of the Eroica Symphony and suddenly, listening to Beethoven, the world set itself right again.
You wrote that first book in 1993. Since then four more Beethoven books have followed. What do musicologists and Beethoven academics think of you?
JS: When I started buying books on Beethoven for my research I realised that there were 250-page books about a single composition. Experts write those books for other musicologists and students. Millions all over the world love Beethoven’s music and I am writing for them. My books get to the music through the man, whereas most books start with the music to get to the man. Take the Eroica for example. It begins with two massive E major chords – no symphony had ever begun like that before. That’s fascinating, but what I want to know is when he was writing those chords where was he living, where was he sitting, what was on the table… I’m friends with two of our finest Beethoven scholars Barry Cooper and Jonathan Del Mar. They respect me, I think, because I haven’t tried to tread on their toes or pretend I’m a musicologist. I’ve published five books on Beethoven, I’m 80 pages into a sixth, and I know what the seventh will be about.
You started your career at the BBC then moved to ITN where you stayed for 32 years as a writer, then a reporter, then a correspondent and finally a newscaster.
JS: I did 10 years as a reporter in the field and I look back on that decade from 1976 to 1986 as the most important and formative time of my journalistic life. I covered the Iran revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the revolution in the Philippines and had two years based in the US. It’s an old-fashioned idea that newscasters should first have experience in the field but I totally agree with it! I understand that with 24-hour rolling news you need younger newscasters with the stamina to present long shifts, but I also know that if a TV news presenter has done their time at the sharp end then that imbues them with more natural authority and I think that comes through. My youngest son has just become a reporter with Russia Today, an English-language TV news station based in Moscow and they sent him out on the road. After two months he was back in the studio anchoring programmes. I warned him that although he’s doing well he mustn’t give up reporting.
You talk about your family a great deal and in February last year you spoke publicly for the first time about Bonnie and her battle with dementia. You’ve since written a book about that experience. How difficult was it to talk and write about such deeply personal events?
JS: The charity who provided me with an Admiral (specialist dementia) nurse asked me to go public so I did an interview on breakfast TV. The overwhelming response was positive, with carers getting in touch with me from all over the world. So when a publisher asked me to write about our life together I thought that as I’d already put Bonnie out there and I wanted to try and raise the profile of Admiral nurses, I’d do it. Dementia now is where cancer was 40 years ago. It was a word you whispered – a diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence. Nowadays people fight and beat cancer. Not so dementia. But at least more people are talking about it now and the government has published its first strategy for dealing with dementia and it’s less taboo.
How has your relationship with your wife changed in recent months?
JS: It’s changed totally. She’s now in full-time care. It cracks me up even to think that, but she’s settled amazingly. When I go to see her she cries tears of joy to see me but doesn’t ask me any questions about what I’ve been doing or why she’s in the home. Bonnie remembers nothing now. She’s moved on. She hasn’t chosen to but she has new friends and a new life and I have decided I have to do the same. So I’m selling the flat in which we lived together all our lives and I’m moving to be closer to my brother David.
And does Bonnie still share your love of Beethoven?
JS: She encouraged me nearly 30 years ago to write about him, came with me on every research trip, spent hours with me discussing the identity of the “Immortal Beloved”, but when the dementia kicked in she not only lost interest but would also get angry if I mentioned his name. I’ve told the carers at her home that if ever she’s distressed because I’m not there to tell her I’m away on a Beethoven research trip. The thought that she’d simply shake her head and say, “Oh, bloody Beethoven” is heartbreaking but also in a way quite comforting.
John Suchet’s book My Bonnie: How Dementia Stole The Love Of My Life is out now (Harper Collins, ISBN 978 0 00732 842 0)