Anguish and Triumph – a new Beethoven biography

Why do we need a new biography of Beethoven, the facts of whose life are already well-known and whose works are among the most familiar in the entire repertoire?  Jan Swafford, composer, scholar, and distinguished biographer of Brahms and Charles Ives, answers that question handsomely in his new Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014).  While the book offers no new revelations, in nearly 1,000 pages Swafford offers pleasure to the general reader and insight for musicians.  It is gracefully written and free of the jargon that bogs down so many scholarly works on music.

It is an odd work in one sense.  We get a straightforward account of the composer’s life, a general summary of Beethoven’s times, and an analysis of some of the works.  But the components of the whole sometimes are not as well integrated as one might like.  Beethoven was born in 1770 in the provincial Rhenish town of Bonn (most recently former capital of the Federal Republic of Germany), for which Beethoven was nostalgic late in his life.  But as a result of spending his entire career in Vienna, he became thoroughly Viennese.  Looming over both the life of Beethoven and of the politics and military affairs of Imperial Austria was Napoleon, the original dedicatee of the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.”

Beethoven chafed under the heavy-handed rule of the Hapsburg dynasty that ruled Austria, and he longed for the liberty that he believed Napoleon represented.  When it became obvious that Napoleon lusted only for absolute power and military glory, with no intention of conferring freedom on the subjects of his empire, Beethoven angrily revoked the dedication.  Alas for Beethoven and his fellow Viennese, the Hapsburg regime became even more repressive after it was restored upon Napoleon’s final defeat.  Still, in his music Beethoven became a symbol for liberty to all future generations.

Beethoven, like other artists of his day, was dependent on aristocratic patronage, which he both craved and resented.  Beethoven never achieved the prosperity that he believed his genius merited, largely because his management of his affairs was so haphazard.  Taken together with his romantic disappointments and chronic, debilitating illnesses, Beethoven was a pathetic figure who found fulfillment only in his music.  The onset of his deafness largely sealed him off from the world, a terrible burden for him to bear, particularly since in his youth he was probably the finest piano virtuoso in the world.

The most moving and effective part of Swafford’s book is his account of Beethoven’s final years when the only consolation he had was the music that reposed in the vastness of his stupendous musical imagination.  Swafford writes movingly of the anguish in Beethoven’s life reflected in the Heiligenstadt Testament and the letter to the “Immortal Beloved” (who probably was Josephine Deym, a woman from Beethoven’s past).  Late in his life, Beethoven assumed the guardianship of his nephew Karl.  It was a cross for both of them to bear.  No one was less qualified to assume that role than Beethoven, life-long bachelor and curmudgeon who lived in lodgings that became a hovel.  He could not abide any of his servants, who left him after enduring his constant abuse.

Surprisingly, the musical analysis is less convincing overall that the biographical account of Beethoven’s life.  That said, some of the strongest passages in the book are Swafford’s analysis of the Late Quartets.  There are excellent color illustrations and an appendix for non-musicians of analysis of musical forms used in Beethoven’s day.  The book is a continuing delight, despite its length, and for years to come will be the definitive account of Beethoven’s life.

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014

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