BeethovenLudwig 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.

Mimetic Desire and Truth (2)

yellowTulips1We tend to think our likes and dislikes and beliefs and unbeliefs are our own. “I like apple pie.” “I hate pickles.” “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” “I don’t believe in a conspiracy of interplanetary lizards to take over the planet earth.” As I admitted in my first post in this series, I reflexively think in these terms in spite of all the reading and reflection on mimetic desire that I’ve done. But if desire is mimetic, then all of our likes and dislikes, beliefs and unbeliefs are connected with those of other people.

There is, of course, a distinction between appetite—our bodily needs and gut reactions to various things—and desire, which is mimetic, but pinpointing the distinction in our ongoing experience is sometimes tricky. We all need to eat, but the specific foods we desire are colored by desires of others for specific foods. What we eat may depend on what is available, but when there is a choice, although individual preferences may be present, the desires of other people tend to make some foods more desirable than others. My parents encouraged a desire for roast beef and shrimp. The former never take that much but the latter sure did. Even so, during an impressionable period of my life when I was just starting to live into my conversion back to Christianity, a couple of my best friends were so strong on the desire for steak that I fooled myself into falling in with their desire when I really would have preferred crab cakes. I wasn’t really put under pressure or anything; it was just the ambient desire trumped what I more naturally liked.

In non-rivalrous situations, this imitation of desire is not a problem and is often a good thing. It was the sharing of a desire for good music in the church choir I sang in as a boy that awoke my own interest in music. One could speak of this as an individual choice in that not all choristers got interested in music to the extent that I did, but following up this interest brought me into the community of music lovers. Books, such as The Victor Book of the Symphony and people I knew introduced me into the “canon” of classical music and instilled in me a desire for the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and others. I was dismayed and disappointed when the Symphonie-Fantastique by Berlioz didn’t take and it leaves me cold to this day. In those days, Gustav Mahler’s canonicity was in dispute until Leonard Bernstein put him in the composers’ hall of fame so I had to make a choice. It was a no-brainer as soon as I heard one of his symphonies.  Even so, my growing sense of what I liked and disliked was never unaffected by the mimetic desire floating about in my musical ambience. When a sophisticated friend of mine dismissed some great works, it was difficult for me to see beyond his prejudices and get a sense of what was true about the music.

It is also more possible to see the truth of other people in a non-rivalrous situation than one fraught with rivalry. In such a situation, two young men can appreciate the qualities of the young woman who is currently coupled with his friend, sharing gently in his friend’s desire but not becoming a rival. This is the situation in the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s TaIe. Polixenes appreciates the qualities of his friend’s wife Hermione without envy, but Leontes projects is own jealousy on his friend with terrible results. That is, with the entry of envy and rivalry, the truth ceases to be expansive and shared; it becomes distorted. I will examine this distortion in my next post in this series.

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (3)

See also Mimetic Desire and Mimetic Rivalry