In the crowded field of Beethoven biographies, any addition to this body of literature must be outstanding in order to merit our attention. Composer and historian Jan Swafford’s, Beethoven - Anguish and Triumph, a mammoth new biography of the composer, warrants the effort of our careful study and thought. Casual readers should stay away from this thick volume, but those with a desire to deepen their understanding of this iconic figure would find their efforts amply rewarded.
Written in the spirit of Thayer’s voluminous Life of Beethoven, Swafford succeeded in giving us as complete a portrait of the composer as history allows us, separating the facts from the myths and legends that had been building up during the composer’s life and, especially, after his death.
Born into a Europe still reeling from the spirit and atmosphere of the Sturm und Drang movement, one that created the period that came to be called Romantic. Swafford stresses quite emphatically that Beethoven, from the earliest days, was a pianist rather than a harpsichordist. Beethoven himself gave conflicting reports of whether he heard Mozart play. If he did, he had only one comment about Mozart’s playing, “He had a fine but choppy way of playing – no legato”, which is interesting (if true) considering, Mozart’s own admonition that his music should be played “like oil”.
When he was almost twenty-two, Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna, the musical capital of Europe then as now, to study under the great Haydn. Emperor Franz II, conservative and fearful of change, had made Vienna a virtual police state. The police, however, could find no grounds to censor instrumental music, and music thus became the one thing in which the nobility and the aristocrats show their good taste. From the beginning, there was no love-loss between Beethoven and the Viennese. Yet, Vienna was to be the home for him for his professional, a place where he was to find fame and, to a lesser extent, fortune. Throughout his life, he would think of Bonn as his true home.
Swafford details Beethoven’s relationship with his many admirers and patrons, friends, colleagues, and love interests, many whose names are known to us only because of their association with certain works of Beethoven. Beethoven’s life was his work, his composition, and Swafford’s narration certainly centers around the evolution of Beethoven as composer. The author gives us quite detailed analysis of certain landmark works, the Missa Solemnis and the Symphony No. 9 each receiving its own chapters.
What makes intriguing reading is the author’s discussion of the psychology behind discussion of the structural, motivic (crucial in understanding Beethoven’s work), harmonic, and key-relationship of many compositions, as well as the importance and meaning of certain keys in Beethoven’s works. In the appendix, there is a section titled “Beethoven’s Musical Forms”, with explanations of the technical names mentioned in the text. All this makes for fascinating but certainly not casual reading.
According to Swafford, Beethoven also had a very complex relationship with Joseph Haydn. Many biographers had stated that Beethoven began studies with Haydn, but that the two had a falling out with each other. We can all see and hear the unmistakable influence Haydn’s music had on the younger composer. Beethoven’s formal lessons with Haydn only lasted until 1793, but “there would be contacts and consulting between them in the coming years, and now and then they appeared in concerts together.” Never was there a formal break between the two. Haydn had been patient and generous with Beethoven, and Beethoven was circumspect enough not to openly insult the foremost composer of Europe. Haydn even took Beethoven to Esterházy Palace to introduce this young talent to his former employer. When Haydn heard the premiere of the 24-year old Beethoven’s fiery C Minor Trio, he “had to sense that he was the past and this youth was the future.”
Beethoven was often jealous of Haydn’s great success and the adulation he receives. Haydn’s anthem, God Protect Franz the Kaiser, was so successful that it became the unofficial Austrian national anthem. The fact that “Haydn and not Beethoven had written such an anthem would burn in him until his own last years.” Beethoven admired and was influenced by Haydn’s The Creation, but it wasn’t until Haydn’s death in 1809 that Beethoven, knowing that he “was the only peer of Haydn alive,” begins to speak with unreserved admiration of Haydn.
No biography of Beethoven would be complete without a discussion of the possible identity of the “immortal beloved.” Swafford did not suggest any one woman to be the chosen one, but gives us the evidence available. Like a medieval knight with his idea of courtly love, Beethoven idolizes certain women in his life, mostly young and beautiful piano students from a much higher social class than a freelance composer and pianist. All but one of these attempts would end in rejection and bitterness (on his part), either by the lady herself or by her family.
In some ways, Beethoven’s relationship with women is similar to his dealings with those around him – friends, patrons, and family, especially his problematic nephew Karl, the one person who gave him no end of grief in his later years. Swafford discusses Beethoven’s solipsism, his complete inability to deal with the world beyond music, often with disastrous consequences. I feel that perhaps Leonore, the heroine of his opera Fidelio, represents an idea of his ideal woman – utterly loyal, and willing to risk even her own life to rescue her husband from the clutches of evil. What woman can measure up to that?
It is an amazing fact that in spite of all his difficulties, Beethoven attained success quite early on and maintained his popularity with the fickle Viennese. With the writings of E. T. A. Hoffman, early music theorist Adolph Bernhard Marx, and Franz Grillparzer, Beethoven becomes, after his death, a towering figure, a Romantic demigod, and a myth, one that persists to this day.
In his wonderfully readable book, Jan Swafford has successfully given us a picture of the man behind the myth, certainly the man behind the music. As with most great men, Beethoven was neither angel nor demon, but a man who had given us some of the most moving, passionate, and soul-stirring music of any time.
At the end of the book, I realized that even in this crowded field of Beethoven biographies, we must make room on our shelves for this one magnificent volume.