Ludwig von Beethoven is one of those larger-than-life cultural figures who towers over Western Civilization like a Colossus. Is the man worthy of this mythological status? As a human being, far from it; as a composer of music, very much so. In Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford has written a biography and musical survey of Beethoven that is worthy of the subject and surely sets the standards (very high) for any future works on Beethoven. The book is nearly a thousand pages long but I was so absorbed in the narratives that I didn’t mind the length at all.
Swafford places Beethoven firmly in his cultural and historical contexts. His discussion of the Enlightenment as developed in Bonn is particularly interesting as its formative influence on Beethoven was deep. Schiller’s famous Ode to Joy was published during Beethoven’s youth and it haunted the composer throughout his life, giving him a lifelong intention to set it to music which he finally did in the ninth symphony. Then there is Napoleon, another towering figure of the Age who inspired humanistic idealism in Beethoven as well as many others, only to end in disillusionment when he crowned himself emperor of France. Beethoven’s richest period of frenetic composing coincided with the Napoleonic wars and the disruptions they caused, not least in Vienna. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Austria sank into a police state where instrumental music was about the only area with some freedom. Although Beethoven was too grounded in the classical tradition to be a Romantic figure, he roughly pushed enough envelopes to be possibly the most inspiring figure of the Romantic Movement wit E.T.A. Hoffman the first to build the Romantic mythology around Beethoven.
The sad narrative of Beethoven’s life is told with novelistic detail and immediacy. Not only Beethoven’s famously cantankerous personality but those of dozens of other important figures in the composer’s life come alive in the telling. The idealism Beethoven believed in and embodied in the nobility of his greatest works did not translate into Beethoven’s daily life. Time after time, the reader winces at Beethoven’s inability to understand any individual person besides himself. His problem isn’t so much a willful egoism so much as a constitutional problem with him, exacerbated by his deafness. I wonder if it might also show the weakness of Enlightenment idealism which stirred love for humanity in general but not for humans in particular. That surely catches Beethoven’s personality in a nutshell. Beethoven could be a devoted and intense friend but he quarreled with nearly all of his friends throughout his life. His problematic relationship with his nephew Karl is particularly painful. When Beethoven’s brother died, Ludwig devoted himself to an ugly custody battle with Karl’s mother. To be blunt and short: Beethoven was not cut out to be a good father figure for an orphaned child. Beethoven’s dealings with music publishers were shabbier than their dealings with him. (If royalties had been invented back then, Beethoven would have been less desperate about money.) The sad saga of Beethoven’s hopes for a companion is marriage is pitiful, though understandable, from the point of view of any woman who ever lived.
The book’s greatest strength, for me anyway, is the discussion of Beethoven’s music. Some rudimentary knowledge of music theory or better would be helpful for any reader, but Swafford’s ability to make Beethoven’s musical works sound like awesome adventure stories might carry along some readers who lack such knowledge. Every work of Beethoven’s of any consequence (and there are many) is discussed with at least a page’s worth of pinpointed criticism, and the most complex works, such as the Eroica and ninth symphonies, are given the epic treatment they deserve. Swafford’s probing analyses reminded me of the frisson of my own first encounters with these great works as a child and adolescent: the amazing start of the Eroica and the numinous opening of the ninth, to name a couple. Swafford also demonstrates how profound Beethoven could be in simplicity as he was in the Pastoral Symphony and the Mass in C Major, a work underrated then as much as it is now. Much attention is given to Mozart’s drawing upon and reacting to his immediate predecessors Mozart and Haydn. Haydn was as much a rival as a mentor to Beethoven. Poor Papa Haydn was traumatized by Beethoven’s early C Minor piano trio and the Eroica shattered his life musical world. As a youth, Beethoven was lucky enough to be introduced to JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier which loomed as a great formative influence throughout his life. Many writers have written fine things about the transcendent late works such as the final piano sonatas & the last string quartets, but Swafford outdoes all of them in leading the reader to the heights of these incredible works.
Beethoven could be problematic not only as a person but even as a composer. For a century, he was a formidable challenge to all other composers. The final movement of his B-flat quartet, known as the Grosse Fugue is as bewildering today as Bartok’s string quartets. Not only was Beethoven a musical pioneer in his own time, he is still well ahead of us today. To tell the truth, I find the subtleties of Mozart and Schubert rich territory for my musical wanderings, but Beethoven’s storming the heavens and then gently floating up into and above them is an important part of my musical life as well.
All this is to say that I recommend Swafford’s book on Beethoven with no reservations. He leaves me hoping that Schubert is next on his list.