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Was the Romantic Beethoven Really a “Radical Evolutionary”?

Of all the standard myths and accepted truths of the life and music of Ludwig van Beethoven, the idea of the “Romantic” Beethoven—the embodiment of Germanic sturm und drang and 19th century revolution—clings the most. In a massive new biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford hopes to tear away that and many more myths to rediscover the real man and artist buried beneath. “Beethoven was not a Romantic, and he never called himself a revolutionary,” Swafford asserts. “He based much of what he did on tradition, models, and authorities, and he never intended to overthrow the past. He was an evolutionist more than a revolutionist. Call him a radical evolutionary, one with a unique voice.” Using his own unique voice as biographer of great composers, Swafford traces the life and art of Beethoven in eye-opening, rational detail and gives you a more human, more fascinating portrait of Beethoven the radical evolutionary than even the Beethoven the Romantic of legend.

A composer himself, Swafford’s written weighty and well-received biographies of American composer Charles Ives and German composer (and heir to Beethoven) Johannes Brahms, but neither of those biographies match the task Swafford sets for himself in Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. A titanic, thousand-page achievement about one of the great titans of music and Western civilization, Swafford’s latest biography recognizes, as he puts it, the “great danger in that kind of ubiquity” Beethoven’s achieved, which results in “[m]any present-day books [that] concern ideas about Beethoven rather than Beethoven himself.” In Swafford’s “composer’s-eye view of a composer,” he purposely avoids “two words that are all too familiar in biographies of artists: genius and masterpiece.” Stripped of those now-meaningless superlatives, Swafford restores the Beethoven of flesh and blood struggling to learn the craft of music and then how to make that craft into something new and his own, all while dealing with the day-to-day desires for love, family, and friendship.

“Music was the one extraordinary thing in a sea of the disappointing and ordinary,” Swafford writes of Beethoven’s early life. “Reared as he was in a relentless discipline, instinctively responsive to music as he was, the boy never truly learned to understand the world outside music.” As much as Beethoven was a “radical evolutionary” in music, in life he never overcame the personal arrested development of his youth. In the first few hundred pages of this biography, we get a sense not just of the failures of Beethoven’s upbringing, but also of how growing up in that time and place set in motion the artist he would become. “Music was everywhere,” Swafford says of late 18th century Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace. Although only 12,000 people lived in Bonn, it provided a whole universe of musical opportunities, from the folk songs of the commoners, to the professional musicians such as his Kapellmeister namesake grandfather and musician father (who failed to keep the Kappelmeister job and shifted his ambitions to young Ludwig), to rulers such as Max Franz, Beethoven’s first patron and financier of his first trip to Vienna. “If in the larger world Bonn was too much a backwater for a musician to find wide fame,” Swafford writes, “it was still a town as good as any in which to learn the art. Beethoven was not the only virtuoso to emerge from Bonn as if out of nowhere to dazzle the capitals of music.” Swafford swats away Beethovian exceptionalism not to diminish him but instead to explain just how he and his art came to be more clearly and believably than generic “genius” labels can.

Swafford writes with a great warmth and personality of Beethoven’s early years, setting up beautifully many of the conflicts and triumphs to come. Too often dismissed as a mere footnote, Beethoven’s early teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe finds new life in Swafford’s text as one of the great Schwärmers of the period—an enthusiast not just of music, but also of poetry, literature, philosophy, and how all those elements intersected in the politics of the age. One of the “cultish few” in the late 18th century who recognized the mostly forgotten J.S. Bach’s “stature and the importance and the synoptic quality of his Well-Tempered Clavier,” Neefe brought Beethoven into the cult of Bach as well, resulting in Ludwig becoming not only, as Swafford suggests, one of the first non-Bachs to learn keyboard by practicing The Well-Tempered Clavier, but also a key inheritor of the Bach tradition of composition so as to build upon that foundation in the future. “Teaching the boy the WTC from the age of ten or eleven may have been the single most important thing Neefe did for him,” Swafford concludes.

Aside from Beethoven’s musical development (dependent not only on the influence of Bach, but also that of nearer contemporaries Mozart and Haydn), we get many pictures of Beethoven’s arrested personal development from letters and accounts of friends. “Beethoven craved companionship, love, stimulation intellectual and spiritual, but other than people to play and publish and listen to his music, for most of his life he would never truly need anybody,” Swafford suggests. Throughout, Swafford keeps the psychoanalysis of his subject to a minimum, harking back on his pet peeve of books with ideas about Beethoven rather than about Beethoven himself. When Swafford writes about Beethoven’s raptus—the trance-like state friends remarked upon when he was most lost in his musical world—you feel as if you were there, listening to the improvisations flowing from the virtuoso’s fingers. Likewise, when Swafford gets to the “anguish” promised in the title, he does so with his own verbal virtuosity free of melodrama: “his body became his most virulent, most inescapable enemy. His livelihood, his creativity, his spirit were under siege by a force that did not care about his music, his talent, his wisdom.” When Beethoven’s deafness robs him of his career as a piano virtuoso (and the accompanying income), the reality of his desperation to compose and publish to make money deflates all previous biographies trumpeting the triumphs too loudly.

All the triumphs are here, of course. Swafford hits all the highlights with masterful set pieces on the Third or “Eroica” Symphony, the courage of the Heiligenstadt Testament, Missa solemnis, and the utopian Ninth Symphony.  Thanks to Swafford’s earlier set-up, Beethoven’s admiration of Napoleon as a benevolent dictator akin to those of his youth helps make the “Eroica” more logical to modern minds. But whereas others focus almost exclusively on the politics of the Third Symphony, Swafford shows how the music conveys the journey of a hero, any hero, coming into his or her own. Giving example of developed as well as discarded ideas for the symphony, Swafford takes us inside the mind of Beethoven as his musical essay on being and becoming itself comes into being. For those who cannot read music, Swafford’s published excerpts can look daunting, but with a little work and a good CD collection, anyone can follow Swafford’s journeys through Beethoven’s journeys. The payoff is more than worth it. Writing of the “Ode to Joy” finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Swafford momentarily (and justifiably) waxes poetic: “There’s something singularly moving when this man—deaf and sick and misanthropic and self-torturing, at the same time one of the most extraordinary and boundlessly generous men our species has produced—greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.” There are many such moments when you’ll want to raise a glass not just to Beethoven, but also to the Beethoven Swafford brings to us.

Whereas early portraits of Beethoven (such as the one above) showed us the dynamic performer and composer in action, later portraits painted after he became a living legend often showed him raising his eyes to heaven as if communicating with the divine. “In fact,” Swafford counters, “it was the characteristic stare of a deaf man straining to hear.” If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at the mythologizing and mischaracterizing of the Beethoven story, Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph will keep your eyes on the prize of a fuller understanding of the humanity of this artist that celebrated humanity as an abstraction while unable to deal with humans as individuals. I found myself wanting to wrap my arms around Beethoven by the end, but mentally stopped short knowing that he never could or would accept any embrace. Today, Beethoven might be labeled a savant or autistic for his low emotional IQ paired with his high musical aptitude, but in his day he faced such emotional trauma on top of his physical pain alone but with grace and courage. Swafford erases the Romantic revolutionary Beethoven for good while giving us an evolutionary Beethoven that invites us to learn and maybe even evolve in our own humanity from his story.

[Image: Joseph Willibrord Mähler. Portrait of Beethoven (detail), 1804-1805.]

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