Jan Swafford’s biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms have established him as a revered music historian capable of bringing his subjects vibrantly to life His magnificent new biography of Ludwig van Beethoven peels away layers of legend to get to the living breathing human being who composed some of the world’s most iconic music Swafford mines sources never before used in English language biographies to reanimate the revolutionary ferment of Enlightenment era Bonn where Beethoven grew up and imbibed the ideas that would shape all of his future work Swafford then tracks his subject to Vienna capital of European music where Beethoven built his career in the face of critical incomprehension crippling ill health romantic rejection and “fate’s hammer” his ever encroaching deafness Throughout Swafford offers insightful readings of Beethoven’s key works More than a decade in the making this will be the standard Beethoven biography for years to come 

10 thoughts on “Beethoven

  1. says:

    Written by a trombone player and clearly a piano player and a music professor Pitched at an audience that is familiar or willing to become familiar with music theory concepts and either sight reads music or is willing to ignore the fairly rare page of a few bars of theme or two pages from the conductor's score of a symphony I took music theory lessons as a kid kept it up in college including some conducting and am an avid listener and concert goer I own recordings of the majority of the works discussed here and a score of the Ninth Why am I writing all this? not to brag but to warn there were places in the book that were over my head And one reason this book is a long read is that it's best to listen to at least the major piano sonatas string quartets masses and symphonies while reading the descriptions andor reading score selections But as Swafford proves Beethoven believed What is difficult is goodThis is not the first Beethoven biography I've read But it is the first to communicate how out of place he was Not because he was the Romantic hero often celebrated today but because he was an unlucky and unloved man who luckily for us could communicate best only through music composition The history did not make the man this man made history When the bass soloist speaks the first words in the finale an invitation to sing for joy Beethoven's words are addressed to everybody to history There's something singularly moving about that moment when this man deaf and sick and misanthropic and self torturing at the same time one of the most extraordinarily and boundlessly generous men our species has produced greets us person to person with glass raised and hails us as friendsI knew that the arc of Beethoven symphonies began with the heroic then as the spirit of the age changed when Napoleon took the crown of Emperor Beethoven scratched out the planned dedication of his Third Eroica Symphony The zeitgeist changed so quickly that the Fifth Symphony clearly was about fate death knocks on your door Yet the book describes how the arc resumes by the Ninth the first movement for the first time creates an anti hero out of nothingness and the famous choral last movement explains that without heroism Freude Joy is a matter of self help In the first movement of that 9th symphony for the last time he buried the hero and heroic ideal once exalted in the Eroica Now through Schiller he replaced that idea with a new one the perfected society that begins in the freedom happiness and moral enlightens of each person growing from inside outward to brothers and friends and lovers from there in a mounting chorus outward to universal brotherhood in the world Schiller named for the Classical paradise Elysium Conquering heroes and benevolent despots cannot do it that for us We have to find Elysium for ourselvesWe cannot depend on a hero to save us Rather millions of brothers will have to find their own inner paradiseAs for the quartets how had I never before known the gorgeous Third Movement of Op 132 late period was Beethoven's own Hymn of Thanksgiving from a medical recovery Holy song of thanks to God form a convalescent in Lydian mode Listening with the author's prompts was like hearing what I thought a familiar work again for the first time It also was a pleasure and re affirmation to learn that my favorite Quartet Op 130 was Beethoven's as wellShortly after Beethoven's death the music critic Johann Friedrich Rochlitz wrote the composer wanted to appear as a new man in each work even at the risk of making an occasional blunder or sometimes being scarcely understood by even a few people Beethoven was oft misunderstood in his time He made some blunders most notably in orchestration after his deafness But fortunately Swafford's biography is an excellent pointer to understanding the greatness of the new man that virtually defined the word the author is careful to avoid geniusBut a man So much of what we know about Beethoven we best forget when we come to his art The limits and the pettiness of humanity held up against the illusion of the limitless in art were never pointed as with him He understood people little and liked them less yet he lived and worked and exhausted himself to exalt humanity And that contradiction is the greatest pleasure Swafford's biography manages to explain