Historian-composer Jan Swafford tackles one of the most monumental figures in classical music in a biography that presents Ludwig van Beethoven more as a man and less as a legend.
Jan Swafford, author of biographies of both Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives, is no stranger to chronicling the lives of great composers. Still, tackling the great Ludwig van Beethoven would be an intimidating project for any biographer.
Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph is a book that is fully aware of the weightiness of its main character, one of the greatest and most influential composers of all time. It chooses, however, to look beyond the Beethoven myth, beyond the Romantic portrayal of Beethoven as a monumental "demigod" of composition. Swafford wants us to see instead the living, breathing human being.
In doing so, Swafford creates not just a portrait of the man, but a colorful and engaging landscape of the time to which he belonged.
For example, Swafford devotes a great deal of time early in the biography to a vivid and thorough description of Bonn, the town in which Beethoven grew up. Despite being home to a large number of small-town intellectuals steeped in the radical ideas in the Enlightenment era, the Bonn of Beethoven's era was a largely an unassuming country village, full of dancing, music, and colorful characters – all of which would have been only a footnote in history had Beethoven not been born there.
Swafford's descriptions of this small town are an unusual and charming look at a neglected corner of the past. This is where Beethoven got his start as a prodigy, but we see no trace of the mythical Beethoven in Bonn. Later history tends to focus on a great composer on the cutting edge of composition in Vienna, the music capital of the world. In this tiny town we only see a small child named Ludwig who once stole a chicken and made his friends swear never to tell.
"Beethoven" is not a biography with grandiose ideas about Beethoven's pivotal role in the artistic universe and his influence on Western civilization. Instead, it tells the more riveting story of a very real person who makes his place in history through frequently literal blood, sweat, and tears.
In Swafford's biography, we see a composer who is desperate to sell his music to publishers who don't fully understand it, a broken man who contemplates suicide as his deafness closes in around him, and an idealist who makes it his goal to serve humanity while nursing an almost universal disgust for his fellow humans. Swafford shows us an unattractive Beethoven who falls in love too easily with women above his social rank, a volatile man who apologizes profusely after arguments, and an inspiring individual who spends his most creative years composing while almost completely deaf.
In short, Beethoven was complex. Swafford expertly makes that complexity logical by telling Beethoven's story in fascinating and often humorous historical detail, employing a wide variety of stories from Beethoven's life. One of the more memorable incidents is a scene in which the composer, renowned for his improvisation skills, is challenged to a "piano duel" by an arrogant visiting composer. For the contest, each musician is supposed to improvise a piece on the spot. The challenger cheats and plays an "improvisation" that was memorized beforehand. Beethoven, furious, takes his turn by grabbing a sheet of music, turning it upside down, picking random notes, and basing his improvisation on notes happened upon by pure chance. The improvised piece is so good that the challenger leaves in shame before Beethoven even finishes playing.
With such anecdotes, Swafford creates the perfect blend of a historical person and musical genius, allowing the reader to be in awe of Beethoven's talents while never losing sight of the fact that Beethoven never really figured out the most basic ways to function in the world outside of music.
The biography itself is exhaustively researched, using documents from a range of sources, including a few that have never before been translated into English. The story largely follows the flow of Beethoven's life, but frequently jumps to other times and places to provide context. For instance, Swafford feels that one cannot fully understand Beethoven without understanding the political situation in Europe during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Swafford handles the jumps and explanations well, given the complexity of the historical characters and situations involved.
The biography makes a few stops in the overall flow of history in order to explain the significance of some of Beethoven's pieces in a musical context. As a reader, I found myself using Spotify and my own musical library on several occasions in order to hear the subtleties of certain passages being discussed. Swafford, a composer as well as a historian, can get a bit technical at times for a non-musician, but such passages of musical analysis are isolated and relatively infrequent, and should not scare musical amateurs away from this book. For someone with musical training, however, these passages may well be a highlight of the biography.
In any case, the goal of "Beethoven" is not musical analysis. The goal, as presented in Swafford's introduction to the biography, is ambitious in its simplicity: to look at Beethoven "directly as possible as he walks, talks, writes, rages, composes." That is to say, to look at Beethoven not as the myth he has become, but as the human being he was. In accomplishing this goal, Swafford has created something of a monumental work himself. The human being, Ludwig van Beethoven, looks out at the reader through the pages of a truly remarkable biography.
There is one substantial objection to the book, and it is purely financial: After I finished reading, I felt compelled to drop nearly thirty dollars on various pieces of Beethoven's music. It was money well spent.
Weston Williams is a Monitor contributor.