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Book Review: Beethoven – Anguish and Triumph

By (August 7, 2014) One Comment

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumphbeethoven cover
by Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Boston Conservatory professor Jan Swafford’s last book, his 1999 biography of Johannes Brahms, was a masterpiece, a near-perfect blend of scholarship and popular synthesis, and his new book, a gigantic biography of Beethoven, is a product very much along the same magnificent lines, a massive, four-square conventional cradle-to-grave life & times in the grand tradition. Beethoven as a man and as a composer has been the subject of many hundreds of such works, and Swafford’s book immediately takes its place in the front ranks of these. Swafford is both a scrupulous researcher and evocative storyteller, and this book, like his previous two, has an amazingly small number of longueurs for a work of such girth. And he has a pleasingly Edwardian tendency toward both philosophical soliloquies and adumbration that’s just a touch purple:

What Haydn would not have calculated [in 1791, when Mozart died] but was nonetheless true was that in Vienna, Europe’s capital of music, after Mozart’s death there was no longer an apparent heir to his legacy. As Haydn approached his sixtieth birthday, the position of Mozart’s musical heir, the new indispensable man, lay open.

With that little drumroll accomplished, the stage is set for the advent of Beethoven, and Swafford walks his reader through the familiar story – the money troubles, the family troubles, the growing cultural disillusionment, the worsening deafness, the loutish behavior, the burgeoning genius – with a gusto so infectious it makes the familiar story seem new. Swafford doesn’t revere the man despite his genius, nor does he hate the man despite his odious behavior on almost every day of his adult life. Like many biographers before him, Swafford probes the letters, the contemporary critical responses, and the ‘conversation books’ his subject filled throughout his later life, always standing by to point to salient characteristics even when they’re (frequently) unappealing:

In Februrary 1824, Beethoven wrote out the final score of the Ninth Symphony. Then he got busy pitching it to publishers and planning a gala premiere of the symphony and the complete Missa solemnis. The conversation books broke out with schemes and proposals. Lying over the deliberations like a pall were Beethoven’s indecisiveness and suspicion of everything and everybody.

Since Swafford is himself a composer, it’s perhaps not surprising that some of the most enjoyable segments of his book are the spirited and knowledgeable readings of Beethoven’s various compositions. These passages are so passionate that they virtually propel the reader across the room to the CD collection, to play the pieces being so smartly described. Take the first of the Razumovsky quartets:

Nothing quite prepares listeners for the F-minor Adagio molto e mesto third movement, mesto meaning “mournful.” It begins in medias res, with its twisting, anguished mesto aria. On a sketch, Beethoven wrote, “A Weeping Willow for Acacia Tree over my Brother’s Grave.” That is a poetically apt evocation of the mood, if a mystery in terms of his life: both his brothers were still alive. The second theme is a sorrowfully arching melody that begins in a spidery texture of violin and cello. Unlike his earlier mesto in op. 10, hopefulness lingers amid the sadness, the cello turning its theme to A-flat major. In the development comes a poignant, whispering D-flat arioso, like a tentative answer to pathos, a wounded consolation.

Pathos and wounded consolation feature prominently, of course, in any biography of this extremely troubled titan, and Swafford so balances his blames and credits that his subject is allowed to stand in the spotlight relatively unencumbered by program or slant. The result is stunning tour de force, a Beethoven biography to shine for a lifetime.

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