Maynard Solomon, provocative biographer of composers, dies at 90

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Maynard Solomon, provocative biographer of composers, dies at 90
A photo provided by Jerry Bauer/University of California Press shows Maynard Solomon, who founded Vanguard records with his brother and went on to write weighty biographies of Beethoven and Mozart. Solomon, a musicologist and record producer best known for influential, lucidly written biographies of Beethoven and Mozart as well as a hotly debated scholarly article on Schubert’s sexuality, died on Sept. 28, 2020, at his apartment in Manhattan. He was 90. Jerry Bauer/University of California Press via The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Maynard Solomon, a musicologist and record producer best known for influential, lucidly written biographies of Beethoven and Mozart as well as a hotly debated scholarly article on Schubert’s sexuality, died on Sept. 28 at his apartment in Manhattan. He was 90.

The cause was Lewy body dementia, his family said.

Reviewing Solomon’s 1988 book “Beethoven Essays,” the New York Times music critic Donal Henahan described the author as “one of the most persuasive voices on behalf of the perilous intellectual voyage known as psychobiography — or, less kindly, ‘psychobabblography.’” But in investigating the mysteries of creative energy, he wrote, Solomon “builds even his most speculative essays on musicological foundations, not moonbeams.”

Solomon’s compelling 1977 biography of Beethoven, later revised and reissued, offered fresh, meticulously researched accounts of the composer’s life and perceptive yet mostly nontechnical discussions of the compositions.

Going further, he boldly framed the narrative with psychological speculations on the composer’s life, including the young Beethoven’s fraught relationship with his bullying, alcoholic father and his fantasies of having been born illegitimate and of having royal blood.

Solomon was especially astute about Beethoven’s arduous, ultimately successful attempt later in life to wrest legal guardianship of his young nephew, Karl, from his widowed sister-in-law, a woman Beethoven thought immoral. Beethoven’s “obsessive entanglement with them,” Solomon wrote, “forcibly wrenched his emotional energies from their attachment to the outer world and focused them upon the still unresolved issues of his family constellation.”

For some readers, in his books and numerous articles, Solomon went too far. He puts the “stubborn, moody, withdrawn Ludwig on a psychoanalytic couch,” as a review of the Beethoven biography in Kirkus put it.

Still, his approach resonated outside the realm of classical music. Solomon’s “Mozart: A Life” was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in biography. And he won wide respect among scholars. In a 2007 article for the Journal of the American Musicological Society, music scholar Thomas S. Grey wrote that “no living writer, at least in English, has had a greater influence on our current perception of Beethoven as a creative personality than Maynard Solomon.”

His 2004 book “Late Beethoven: Music. Thought, Imagination,” was also influential.

Maynard Elliott Solomon was born on Jan. 5, 1930, in Manhattan, the youngest of three children of Benjamin Solomon and Dora (Levinsky) Solomon. His father, who had a rabbinical education in Ukraine, immigrated to New York where he worked as a typesetter, owned a candy store near Gracie Mansion, and, after the family moved to Brooklyn, ran a successful art supplies store, where young Maynard often worked. His mother, who immigrated from Lithuania, worked as a seamstress until her marriage.

Attending the High School of Music and Art, as it was then called, in Manhattan, Solomon played the piano and studied cello. Recalling family music-making sessions for a Talk of the Town feature in The New Yorker in 1955, Solomon said that though neither of his parents was musical, his mother “always wanted, and got, a trio in the house”: He played cello, his brother violin and his sister piano.

He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1950 with a B.A. in music and English, and continued his studies at Columbia University. Unusually for someone who became a respected scholar, Solomon never completed an advanced degree.

In 1950, with a $10,000 loan from their father, Maynard and his brother, Seymour, founded Vanguard Records. The venture began after Seymour, who had studied musicology at New York University, took a tape recorder to Vienna to capture performances of Bach cantatas by the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Felix Prohaska.

Over time Vanguard and its Bach Guild label released an impressively diverse catalog of valuable recordings, especially of overlooked works, and issued pivotal albums of folk music, blues and jazz. The classical repertory including English madrigals, overlooked Bach cantatas, masses by Haydn and a landmark survey of the complete Mahler symphonies with Maurice Abravanel conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

During the height of McCarthyism in the mid-1950s, Vanguard signed blacklisted performers including the bass-baritone Paul Robeson and the Weavers, whose 1956 release “The Weavers at Carnegie Hall” helped spark a revival of folk music in America. Vanguard made important recordings with Joan Baez, Odetta, Mississippi John Hurt, Larry Coryell, and other major folk music artists. The Solomon brothers sold the label in 1986.

In the 1970s, while maintaining a full-time job at Vanguard, Maynard Solomon had been drawn increasingly into research and writing, mostly working in the evenings and weekend. His political sympathies led to the publication in 1973 of “Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary,” a collection of basic readings in Marxist criticism and aesthetics edited and introduced by Solomon. The sale of Vanguard allowed him to concentrate fully on research.

He shook up musicology in 1989 with an article in the journal 19th-Century Music intriguingly titled “Franz Schubert and the Peacocks of Benvenuto Cellini.” Citing letters and written recollections from Schubert’s close male friends, accompanied by deep dives into the mores of the period, Solomon presented a case that the composer was primarily homosexual.

There was predictable pushback from some corners of the musicological establishment. Several scholars pointed to questionable readings of sources. And Solomon’s analysis of evidence that Schubert may have engaged in relations with adolescent men, referred to in coded references as “peacocks,” was seen as the most speculative leap in his argument.

Still, that Schubert had deep longings for men that filled him at once with sensual excitement and anguish comes through persuasively. Those emotions, some may feel, help explain the melancholy that can permeate even Schubert pieces that seem cheerful on the surface.

The most controversial element of Solomon’s absorbing biography of Mozart was his portrait of the composer’s father. Leopold Mozart “emerges as a possessive monster,” the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in a 1995 review, “obsessed with controlling his brilliant son’s entire life, as a means of financial aggrandizement, as a ratification of his own skills as a teacher and as an unconscious recapitulation with his own conflicts with his mother.”

Yet Edward W. Said, in an admiring review for The New Yorker, saw nuance in the book’s depiction of a father-son partnership. Solomon “shows how it imprisoned the young Wolfgang Mozart creatively and personally in the older man’s sphere as rebel and — here Solomon’s ingenuity gives an audacious edge to his interpretation — as willing captive,” Said wrote. Leopold’s feelings are seen as “predicated on love and admiration, not merely venality and greed.” He concluded that he “did not know a musician’s biography as satisfying and moving as this one.”

Solomon taught regularly in adjunct and visiting professor stints at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Columbia, Harvard and Yale, and joined the graduate faculty at the Juilliard School.

His brother died in 2002, and his sister, Mildred Gelbloom, in 2015. Solomon is survived by his wife, Eva Tevan Solomon; sons Mark and Maury; daughter Nina Solomon; and five grandchildren.

He was well aware that some felt his speculations on composers were too Freudian. But, in the preface to the original edition of his Beethoven biography, he quoted Freud’s observation that “There is a grain of truth concealed in every delusion.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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