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Book Review


Beethoven by Swafford

Anguish and Triumph

Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, 1077 pages
Colored illustrations, Appendix (Beethoven's musical forms), bibliography, notes, index
ISBN-10: 061805474X
ISBN-13: 978-0618054749
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This superb account of Beethoven's life, times, and works – all interwoven like the musical counterpoint in many of Beethoven's compositions – gives the best understanding of Beethoven's mind, character, and yes, his music, which I have found among the several biographies of Beethoven of my acquaintance. Swafford says at the outset that he is not presenting a life and works, but he is, and much more. That it takes him a thousand pages to do this, in imitation of the length of the Thayer-Forbes biography, is simply the cost of the value we are receiving. Swafford is a composer – as well as the author of an excellent Brahms biography – and examines Beethoven's music from the standpoint of one who really knows how music is put together; but he writes about it from a listener's standpoint as well, something I really value and strove to do in my own book on neoclassical music. Swafford writes clearly for the general reader, with an occasional delightful colloquial turn of phrase. ("…the timpani, which is apt to barge in…") I love Swafford's book and I am giving it my highest possible recommendation.

Swafford presents some technical analysis, but he does this in such a way as to promote understanding even among those with rudimentary knowledge of musical theory. For instance, he devotes five pages to the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which I have always found both exciting and disturbing, on account of inadequate understanding of how this movement is organized. Early listeners tended to share such puzzlement, and about other of Beethoven's works later than the Eroica (which work is also explained in detail by Swafford). They expected all new music to be more like that of Haydn and Mozart, as in Beethoven's early period works. Regarding the Ninth opening movement, Swafford shows, for one thing, how Beethoven delayed harmonic resolution for many, many bars, something that can disorient listeners. He also tells us that Beethoven wrote all his works with the entire piece in mind; in this case the earlier movements were meant to lead up to the choral setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy in the finale, the first movement representing a kind of chaos.

Within the capability of all readers is Swafford's reading of Beethoven's works in terms of their expressive content, beginning with his early piano trios. Swafford does not doubt for one moment that music can be emotionally expressive. If any composer can put the nail in Stravinsky's ill-considered remark – which he later regretted – that music is incapable of expressing anything at all, it is Beethoven.

Beethoven wanted each of his works to be unlike all the others. And he actually said, "What is difficult is good." He meant mostly difficulty on the part of the composer, I think, but one of his publishers kept asking that piano pieces, to be saleable, be easy enough for his daughter to play. Beethoven did strive for simplicity, but on his own terms. Some of his works, like the Hammerklavier Sonata, for instance, were difficult for anyone to play. Such is greatness, sometimes. Swafford does not discuss all of Beethoven's works, and definitely does not give all of them – even all the greatest ones – equal space. Probably this is what he means by denying that this is a "life and works." But what does do is plenty – and I have mentioned only a fraction of that. As it happens, I was never aware of most of Beethoven's trios before reading this book, aside from the Archduke, and Swafford made me aware of the "Ghost" Trio.

It has long been a commonplace that Beethoven's musical output had early, middle and late phases. Swafford shows exactly why, when and how these "new paths" happened to be. When Beethoven started out as a composer he modeled his forms and style on the greatest living composers, Haydn and Mozart; Swafford maintains that for many years Beethoven strove to exceed to accomplishments of Haydn, no easy task, in view of Haydn's late oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, for instance. His second, heroic style, in which he wrote the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony, coincided historically with the Napoleonic period. His Eroica, in fact was actually called Bonaparte by Beethoven. His third phase, which Stafford calls his Poetic Period, and which he describes in terms of a dozen specific characteristics. It began with the late cello sonatas (a form which Beethoven initiated) and followed the overthrow of Napoleon in 1815. What happened then was extreme political reaction in Vienna, with a repressive police state; one could even be arrested for using the word "freedom." No kidding. Although Swafford does not mention the fact, this gives added resonance to Leonard Bernstein's substitution of "Freiheit" (freedom) for "Freude" (joy) in his performance of the Ninth at the Berlin Wall in 1989. As for joy, in the context of Beethoven's life, the finding of joy in musical creation is what kept him going in the face of increasing deafness, chronic gastrointestinal illness (caused by early lead poisoning, Swafford thinks), and the end of all Beethoven's matrimonial hopes after the age of forty five.

The background of these factors is explained fully in Swafford's biography. First, as everyone knows, Beethoven grew up in Bonn, in the Rhineland. What most people today probably do not know is that Bonn was a culturally important city, a center of the German Enlightenment, in fact, and the seat of one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, which had lasted a millennium until Napoleon terminated it when he declared himself Emperor. Beethoven wrote little music in Bonn, but he practiced piano until he became probably the greatest pianists alive – which stood him in good stead as a composer and even performer well into his later deafness (which had a surprisingly sudden onset, we learn.) In particular, he was a past master at improvisation, and some of his finished works had their origin in his improvising, which he could do for others for hours at a time. In Bonn, Beethoven earned appreciation from the Elector and various friends, some of whom remained lifetime friends. There Beethoven acquired the outlook of the Aufklärung, as the German Enlightenment was called, and he kept that for life. And the intellectual interests he acquired there went far beyond music. Even in his final illness, when he was very weak, he read such authors as Homer and other Greek and Roman writers. Not what ordinary folk would while away their last days doing!

As for Beethoven's love life, although he seemed to verge on prudery in his attitudes for much of his life, he passionately loved more women than it is easy to keep track of: young, beautiful and musical women from the nobility, chiefly. Many of them also tended to be married already. Unfortunately, class norms of the day made marriage to them unthinkable on their part and more than one woman who liked him, declined his proposals. It did not help that they tended to consider him physically ugly. One exception to this was the 25-year-old Fanny Giannastasio, the daughter of the schoolmaster to whom Beethoven sent his nephew, who fell in love with Beethoven. She seems to have been beneath Beethoven's notice. Swafford reproduces several pages from her journal. Her unrequited love is reminiscent, for me, of the narrator of Stefan Zweig's Letter from an Unknown Woman. There was also Bettina Brentano, lively, young, single, when Beethoven first knew her, very bright, an eligible commoner, and someone who worshipped both Beethoven and Goethe. She was also one of the three leading credible finalists for the identity of the elusive Eternal Beloved, in Swafford's judgment, along with Antonie Brentano (who had five children) and Countess Josephine Brunswick Dehm – who had rejected Beethoven before entering into a disastrously wretched marriage. Swafford cites authors who have made a case for each of these in turn. It is likely, it seems to me, that the Eternal Beloved has to have been unavailable on account of a status as married. Each of these women has had her proponent in recent scholarship. My personal preference among these – not that it matters in the least – is Bettina, because she clearly cared for Beethoven, and her lively personality and high intellectual gifts would have appealed to him. But it really is none of our business who the Eternal Beloved was, and the parties seemingly ensured we would never know. What is clear is that Beethoven in fact was deeply in love with her, and had loved others. Beethoven missed his chance with Bettina, because he was still enamored with the one who had most recently rejected him.

Beethoven was never known for elegance in dress. In fact his attire tended to be downright disreputable – except, as Swafford relates, when he was in the process of courting a beloved woman. On one occasion late in his life he was arrested as a vagrant and put in jail for a few hours, yelling that he was Beethoven, until someone who was summoned to identify him declared he was indeed the composer. But his appearance did not mean that he was not widely respected in Vienna. At his funeral there was a crowd of ten thousand.

Beethoven was not even-tempered and sometimes exploded at people. Typically he would apologize profusely afterward and could usually repair relations with the person involved. My personal understanding of his outbursts is that his chronic painful illnesses were a major factor in such behavior.

No biography of Beethoven could be complete without accounts of Beethoven's obsessive guardianship of his nephew Carl, or Beethoven's seeming double-dealing with publishers. In mitigation of the latter, it can be remarked that publishers in Beethoven's day had no hesitation about pirating editions of his works without any payment to Beethoven. Anyway, Swafford gives us full accounts of these matters.

My only negative criticism of this book is that the index leaves much to be desired in terms of comprehensiveness.

Copyright © 2015 by R. James Tobin.