Jan Swafford S Biographies Of Charles Ives And Johannes Brahms Have Established Him As A Revered Music Historian, Capable Of Bringing His Subjects Vibrantly To Life His Magnificent New Biography Of Ludwig Van Beethoven Peels Away Layers Of Legend To Get To The Living, Breathing Human Being Who Composed Some Of The World S Most Iconic Music Swafford Mines Sources Never Before Used In English Language Biographies To Reanimate The Revolutionary Ferment Of Enlightenment Era Bonn, Where Beethoven Grew Up And Imbibed The Ideas That Would Shape All Of His Future Work Swafford Then Tracks His Subject To Vienna, Capital Of European Music, Where Beethoven Built His Career In The Face Of Critical Incomprehension, Crippling Ill Health, Romantic Rejection, And Fate S Hammer, His Ever Encroaching Deafness Throughout, Swafford Offers Insightful Readings Of Beethoven S Key Works More Than A Decade In The Making, This Will Be The Standard Beethoven Biography For Years To Come


10 thoughts on “Beethoven

  1. says:

    background music The Piano Sonata No 17 Tempest Ludwig van Beethoven is one of those historical figures that genuinely needs no introduction Since his musical career started, he has been held in continuously high esteem He did not need to be rediscovered like some other beloved composers like Bach he was always this famous Even people without any formal training in classical music can recognize at the very least the 5th, 7th, and 9th symphonies and the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata So why on earth do we need another biography of the man, even though they ve been appearing almost continuously since 1840 Why is this one a thousand pages long Jan Swafford is well suited to writing a biography of Beethoven he s a composer himself, and has written biographies of Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives Retelling Beethoven s life and influences are a useful part of the story, but without any real discussion of his work, this book would be woefully incomplete.Swafford places Beethoven s work in the context of the Enlightenment, and what he believes to be the total relations of the human experience But there s also not an ideological basis to Beethoven s beliefs but also reactions to historical events There is the the famous anecdote about Beethoven tearing up the title page of the 3rd Symphony in rage after hearing Napoleon installed himself as Emperor, but Swafford did find a surviving page with the word Napoleon scratched out so violently that the page is torn and ink blots the page underneath it It s curious to find that Beethoven envied Haydn for writing national anthems like God Save the King , and Beethoven attempted to write some patriotic fluff with Wellington s Victory , one of his worst pieces It would be some vindication to find that the European Union, titanic and flawed and hopeful project that it is, would adopt his 9th symphony as its own pan European anthem There s also the details about Beethoven s own life, most of which are basically familiar Yet Swafford still makes everything flow well and he adds multiple useful details To take one example Beethoven s deafness is famous as the great tragedy of Beethoven s life, but his health was truly miserable for many years as well Cirrhosis, diarrhea, and multiple other ailments made that life miserable And Swafford of course remembers the Heilingenstadt Testimony where Beethoven confesses his despair over his health and that he has thought again and again about killing himself, but he feels compelled to go on because of his art.But these past stories are at best a part of what Beethoven was The long segments in praise of his music are the real highlights of the book Swafford has a real skill for describing the course of music, and these sections are best read either with a recording playing or a piano nearby to see his tangents.Genius, whatever it is, cannot be so easily bound by definitions and explanations Perhaps the characteristic of genius is that it cannot be so limited That new ages and new peoples can find it and react to it That genius is not something static to be imitated and copied, but which provides new insights and experiences for every generation after it The chamber music, the 9 symphonies, the piano concertoes, the Mass in C Minor each one of these could be a milestone in the history of music, and yet Beethoven wrote them all.


  2. says:

    Written by a trombone player and clearly a piano player and a music professor Pitched at an audience that is familiar, or willing to become familiar, with music theory concepts, and either sight reads music, or is willing to ignore the fairly rare page of a few bars of theme, or two pages from the conductor s score of a symphony I took music theory lessons as a kid, kept it up in college including some conducting , and am an avid listener and concert goer I own recordings of the majority of the works discussed here and a score of the Ninth Why am I writing all this not to brag, but to warn there were places in the book that were over my head And, one reason this book is a long read is that it s best to listen to at least the major piano sonatas, string quartets, masses and symphonies while reading the descriptions and or reading score selections But, as Swafford proves Beethoven believed, What is difficult is good This is not the first Beethoven biography I ve read But it is the first to communicate how out of place he was Not because he was the Romantic hero often celebrated today, but because he was an unlucky and unloved man, who luckily for us could communicate best only through music composition The history did not make the man this man made history When the bass soloist speaks the first words in the finale, an invitation to sing for joy, Beethoven s words are addressed to everybody, to history There s something singularly moving about that moment when this man deaf and sick and misanthropic and self torturing, at the same time one of the most extraordinarily and boundlessly generous men our species has produced greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends I knew that the arc of Beethoven symphonies began with the heroic, then as the spirit of the age changed when Napoleon took the crown of Emperor Beethoven scratched out the planned dedication of his Third Eroica Symphony The zeitgeist changed so quickly that the Fifth Symphony clearly was about fate death knocks on your door Yet the book describes how the arc resumes by the Ninth, the first movement for the first time creates an anti hero out of nothingness, and the famous choral last movement explains that without heroism, Freude Joy is a matter of self help In the first movement of that 9th symphony, for the last time, he buried the hero and heroic ideal once exalted in the Eroica Now through Schiller he replaced that idea with a new one the perfected society that begins in the freedom, happiness and moral enlightens of each person, growing from inside outward to brothers and friends and lovers, from there in a mounting chorus outward to universal brotherhood, in the world Schiller named for the Classical paradise Elysium Conquering heroes and benevolent despots cannot do it that for us We have to find Elysium for ourselves We cannot depend on a hero to save us Rather, millions of brothers will have to find their own inner paradise.As for the quartets, how had I never before known the gorgeous Third Movement of Op 132 late period was Beethoven s own Hymn of Thanksgiving from a medical recovery Holy song of thanks to God form a convalescent, in Lydian mode Listening with the author s prompts was like hearing what I thought a familiar work, again for the first time It also was a pleasure and re affirmation to learn that my favorite Quartet, Op 130, was Beethoven s as well.Shortly after Beethoven s death, the music critic Johann Friedrich Rochlitz wrote the composer wanted to appear as a new man in each work, even at the risk of making an occasional blunder, or sometimes being scarcely understood by even a few people Beethoven was oft misunderstood in his time He made some blunders, most notably in orchestration after his deafness But, fortunately, Swafford s biography is an excellent pointer to understanding the greatness of the new man that virtually defined the word the author is careful to avoid genius.But a man So much of what we know about Beethoven we best forget when we come to his art The limits and the pettiness of humanity held up against the illusion of the limitless in art were never pointed as with him He understood people little and liked them less, yet he lived and worked and exhausted himself to exalt humanity And that contradiction is the greatest pleasure Swafford s biography manages to explain.


  3. says:

    This is a rich and nuanced biography of Ludwig van Beethoven warts and all The book does not romanticize him it does not take a critical orientation It is an evenhanded consideration of a complex, extraordinarily talented, difficult person And it highlights his musical output making the book very compelling.This is, on the one hand, a cradle to grave biography, beginning with his family s background and his early life I had always thought it settled that his birth was on December 16, 1770 but not so certain according to the author The book explores his childhood as a prodigy, pushed by his father to generate income His father championed him as a new Mozart indeed, the young Beethoven met Mozart once, to no great advantage.The book also traces his musical output, from childhood efforts to his mature works the final string quartets, Symphony 9, Missa Solemnis, and the like One of the stronger features of the book is the author s detailed discussion of selected works, in terms of their musicality Jan Swafford, the author, teaches music history, theory, and composition so that he has the requisite background for making sense of Beethoven s music I cannot read music, so that his inclusion of the music itself is beyond me but his description of the music informs well enough.The book also considers the arc of Beethoven s life his battles with others, his friends, his volatile temperament, his relationship as guardian of his nephew, his ill fated loves, his challenging economic situation over time, his scheming to enhance his income sometimes offering several publishing companies the same piece of music , his progressive deafness a tragedy for a composer and a pianist and so on.All in all, an important work if one wishes to understand better Beethoven s life and art.But the value of this book is a a deeper understanding of Beethoven the person and b his music and how it came about.


  4. says:

    This was the first biography I read about a classical composer and it was an excellent choice Jan Swafford is a great biographer that really but flesh on the bones of this eccentric genius His life is absolutely fascinating and this book does not lose itself as many other biographies about classical composers in endless musical scores incomprehensible to non musicians like me Rather, it concentrates on Beethoven the man and his productive and somewhat revolutionary life You will come away with a whole new appreciation for his life and his work I had to go back and listen to everything and found so many treasures that they are impossible to count I guess put another way, before this book, the only pieces I could unhesitatingly identify as being from Beethoven were the 5th and the 9th symphonies and I was really only aware of his as a symphonic writer I learned thanks to Swafford about his incredible 32 sonatas, his gorgeous and incredibly challenging 16 string quartets, his opera Fidelioit was like opening the closet door to the Narnia of classical music I find Beethoven to uncompromising to his audience he demands us to listen carefully and critically and this can be quite tiring perhaps why the most known works tend to be the simple ones like F r Elise and the 5th Symphony In any case, this is the best biography I read about Beethoven and one of the best I found about any composer I have not yet read Swafford s Brahms biography but it is on my list


  5. says:

    You know what would make this audiobook awesome If it played his songs in the background so I knew what the hell it was talking about


  6. says:

    During the last few months, I have, with something that must be called close to an obsession, listened to classical music In the past, I have resolutely tried to wade my way into the vast ocean of classical music, getting, at most, my ankles wet The idea then was that if I just forced myself to listen to it a lot, it would click and I would get it Alas, at every instance, I eventually waded back out of the ocean, and then only sat at the shore gleaming at the beautiful and safe surface That is to say, I was back where I started being able to recognise the decidedly most famous pieces by ear, but only rarely being able to name even the composer of the piece Humorously, I find in my last.fm that I attempted a few listens of Eroica a few years ago I do not recall that at all That was that I must not have gotten it These last few months, however, it finally clicked, and it was not forced at all Classical is pretty much all I ve listened during these months I have, to complete the slightly silly metaphor above, finally delved into the ocean of it and stayed there The one composer that I have explored the most by far, who has been the cause for my obsession really, is the man this mammoth biography is about really he needs no introduction Beethoven The book is huge 1077 pages, with some 100 of them being notes, and a 10 page appendix which is helpful as it explains Beethoven s musical forms, introducing some essential concepts for the reader if he or she is unfamiliar with sonata form what a fugue is what is meant by theme and variations, and so on The biography is also written by a man who is himself a composer This fact is both a strength and a weakness for the book, because this is as much a biography about Beethoven the human being as it is about Beethoven s art For me, that is great We get to see how Beethoven was reared from the start by his alcoholic father to become a great musician, like his namesake and grandfather before him, who died when young Ludwig was 3 He was bred to outdo Haydn and Mozart We see how his father did this partly because he himself was a mediocre musician who failed to achieve the things he aspired to we see Beethoven s affection for his mother, his only real friend in life, he would later write We see his growth as a person or really, in many ways, lack of growth and his slow ascent to becoming the revolutionary composer he eventually became We get Beethoven placed in a historical context throughout the book done in an exemplary way as the author never meanders or forgets who the focal point of the book is Rather, we get historical events explained and examined briefly, and we see how this affected or in some cases might have affected the composer in his music, and why we can say that Beethoven was a romantic composer and in what ways he was so much In the end we get painted a brutally honest picture of Beethoven, as a man who was remarkably temperamental to the point of it being destructive to just about everything he touched in his life except perhaps his music , a man who was incredibly moody, oftentimes childish in his anger and temperament, and even quite vindictive a man who drove his own nephew to attempt suicide while in his custody But even so, as Swafford notes, Beethoven rarely intended harm He just never really grew to understand other human beings And of course, the devastating deafness that hit him at a young age he was only 28 when he began complaining about this and the myriad of other physical illnesses that pestered him throughout his life meant it could not always have been pleasant being Beethoven But, as said, Beethoven s music is just as big a part of the book Swafford spends a great many pages explaining what Beethoven did musically that makes him so great, so revolutionary though Swafford is careful to say evolutionary A typical passage goes something like this prefaced by a picture of some sheet music Finally, to make the opening theme he adds the note G to the scaffolding of the basso and inverts the direction of the two B flats To that he appends the three note chromatic slide, this time going not up but down E flat D C sharp The first three notes of the resulting Thema, a major third up and back down, E flat G E flat, are the same as the first three notes of the englische tune The new theme and the englische share a trochaic rhythm, long short, long short, and a wavelike shape some sheet music In other words, the new opening starts by outlining an E flat major chord, a triad, filling in the outline of the bass theme and forming the familiar figure of a horn call A triadic horn call, then, is the essence of das Thema Taking the most common chord in music as the leading motif is an utterly Beethovenian way to proceed Surely from Haydn he had learned that he could start with something nearly meaningless and fill it with meaning through the course of a work pp 338 339.This is from the chapter on Eroica, and is quite typical for how Swafford talks about many of Beethoven s most famous works There is a lot of this type of stuff in the book if you are looking for a book merely describing Beethoven s life and his character, then this book is probably not for you at least you have to do a lot of skimming and or skipping The book is generally good and well written, though you should expect to read a few things over again, as sometimes the author introduces people or events twice or sometimes thrice, often just quoting himself from the first time Basically he repeats himself a few times, but not so often that it becomes jarring, but you do end up thinking perhaps the book needed a bit of editing in places It s just that you notice it Frankly, this was okay with me, as my memory is less than stellar anyway Recommended for people who love Beethoven s music, want to understand his music better both by contextualising it and by having it explaining by a capable person, and also for people who simply are interested in LvB s person, though you may need to skip a lot of the musical analysis.


  7. says:

    Ludwig von Beethoven is one of those larger than life cultural figures who towers over Western Civilization like a Colossus Is the man worthy of this mythological status As a human being, far from it as a composer of music, very much so In Beethoven Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford has written a biography and musical survey of Beethoven that is worthy of the subject and surely sets the standards very high for any future works on Beethoven The book is nearly a thousand pages long but I was so absorbed in the narratives that I didn t mind the length at all.Swafford places Beethoven firmly in his cultural and historical contexts His discussion of the Enlightenment as developed in Bonn is particularly interesting as its formative influence on Beethoven was deep Schiller s famous Ode to Joy was published during Beethoven s youth and it haunted the composer throughout his life, giving him a lifelong intention to set it to music which he finally did in the ninth symphony Then there is Napoleon, another towering figure of the Age who inspired humanistic idealism in Beethoven as well as many others, only to end in disillusionment when he crowned himself emperor of France Beethoven s richest period of frenetic composing coincided with the Napoleonic wars and the disruptions they caused, not least in Vienna After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Austria sank into a police state where instrumental music was about the only area with some freedom Although Beethoven was too grounded in the classical tradition to be a Romantic figure, he roughly pushed enough envelopes to be possibly the most inspiring figure of the Romantic Movement wit E.T.A Hoffman the first to build the Romantic mythology around Beethoven.The sad narrative of Beethoven s life is told with novelistic detail and immediacy Not only Beethoven s famously cantankerous personality but those of dozens of other important figures in the composer s life come alive in the telling The idealism Beethoven believed in and embodied in the nobility of his greatest works did not translate into Beethoven s daily life Time after time, the reader winces at Beethoven s inability to understand any individual person besides himself His problem isn t so much a willful egoism so much as a constitutional problem with him, exacerbated by his deafness I wonder if it might also show the weakness of Enlightenment idealism which stirred love for humanity in general but not for humans in particular That surely catches Beethoven s personality in a nutshell Beethoven could be a devoted and intense friend but he quarreled with nearly all of his friends throughout his life His problematic relationship with his nephew Karl is particularly painful When Beethoven s brother died, Ludwig devoted himself to an ugly custody battle with Karl s mother To be blunt and short Beethoven was not cut out to be a good father figure for an orphaned child Beethoven s dealings with music publishers were shabbier than their dealings with him If royalties had been invented back then, Beethoven would have been less desperate about money The sad saga of Beethoven s hopes for a companion is marriage is pitiful, though understandable, from the point of view of any woman who ever lived.The book s greatest strength, for me anyway, is the discussion of Beethoven s music Some rudimentary knowledge of music theory or better would be helpful for any reader, but Swafford s ability to make Beethoven s musical works sound like awesome adventure stories might carry along some readers who lack such knowledge Every work of Beethoven s of any consequence and there are many is discussed with at least a page s worth of pinpointed criticism, and the most complex works, such as the Eroica and ninth symphonies, are given the epic treatment they deserve Swafford s probing analyses reminded me of the frisson of my own first encounters with these great works as a child and adolescent the amazing start of the Eroica and the numinous opening of the ninth, to name a couple Swafford also demonstrates how profound Beethoven could be in simplicity as he was in the Pastoral Symphony and the Mass in C Major, a work underrated then as much as it is now Much attention is given to Mozart s drawing upon and reacting to his immediate predecessors Mozart and Haydn Haydn was as much a rival as a mentor to Beethoven Poor Papa Haydn was traumatized by Beethoven s early C Minor piano trio and the Eroica shattered his life musical world As a youth, Beethoven was lucky enough to be introduced to JS Bach s Well Tempered Clavier which loomed as a great formative influence throughout his life Many writers have written fine things about the transcendent late works such as the final piano sonatas the last string quartets, but Swafford outdoes all of them in leading the reader to the heights of these incredible works.Beethoven could be problematic not only as a person but even as a composer For a century, he was a formidable challenge to all other composers The final movement of his B flat quartet, known as the Grosse Fugue is as bewildering today as Bartok s string quartets Not only was Beethoven a musical pioneer in his own time, he is still well ahead of us today To tell the truth, I find the subtleties of Mozart and Schubert rich territory for my musical wanderings, but Beethoven s storming the heavens and then gently floating up into and above them is an important part of my musical life as well.All this is to say that I recommend Swafford s book on Beethoven with no reservations He leaves me hoping that Schubert is next on his list.


  8. says:

    Fascinating Made it a point to listen to everything music discussed and look up architecture and portraits A wonderfully enriching experience History at its best,


  9. says:

    I became an admirer of Jan Swafford through reading his biographies of Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives My admiration has increased with this wise and moving new biography, Beethoven Anguish and Triumph 2014 Swafford offers much to think about in understanding Beethoven For example, he discusses Beethoven s composition of the Ninth Symphony and of how the work spanned the composer s life from youth to age Swafford writes The threads in Beethoven s life gathered Twenty years before, he anguished in his Heiligenstadt Testament, Oh Providence grant me at last but one day of pure joy it is so long since real joy echoed in my heart In age we often return to the ideas and inspirations of our youth In the Ninth Beethoven returned to Schiller s poem that had been a motif of his life since his teens, to the Enlightenment ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness Rising from liberty, happiness transforms our lives and in turn transforms society This short passage captures much about Beethoven s life and work It touches the composer s anguish when he found he was becoming deaf and isolated and alone Swafford captures the strong influence of the Enlightenment the German Aufklarung and on Freemasonry on Beethoven s music from the days of his youth with its emphasis on reason and on the power of art and science to transform life Swafford shows how Beethoven became fascinated with Schiller in his youth and lived with the poet s work until writing the finale of his Ninth Symphony In talking about how individuals often return to the ideas and inspirations of youth, Swafford reminded me of my own fascination with Beethoven since childhood and of how I continue to return to him over the years most recently by reading Swafford s book.Swafford observes that even during his lifetime, Beethoven was becoming a mythological, romanticized figure rather than a living human being His stated aim is to present the facts of Beethoven s life without the myth Accordingly, the book describes a Beethoven who was a great artist but who did not know how to live in the many aspects of life outside of music His Beethoven is solipsistic, angry, self pitying, and petty He is frequently taken as mad He falls in love with unattainable women and, to his sorrow, is never able to form a lasting relationship He quarrels bitterly with most of his patrons and friends He spends much of his late years in a custody battle over his nephew, Karl, which nearly ruins the boy Much of this story will be familiar to those who have read about Beethoven Swafford may exaggerate the extent to which Beethoven has been put on a pedestal in an anti heroic, skeptical modern age Swafford s biography includes a great deal of focus on Beethoven s early years in Bonn In particular, he emphasizes Beethoven s early exposure to the German Aufklarung from his teacher Neefe and from the Freemasonry movement and its offshoots Swafford shows how this influence stayed with Beethoven.For the most part, Swafford portrays Beethoven as a conservative composer who deepened and expanded musical trends implicit in the works of Haydn and Mozart among others rather than as a revolutionary who overthrew the past As the book proceeds, Swafford emphasizes the romantic character of Beethoven s music in the latter works He offers fresh insights into the familiar three period division of Beethoven s music the first in which Beethoven was seeking his own path, the second or new path dominated by heroic music and the search for triumph over adversity in a political or individual way, and the third poetic path which became introspective, wandering, and spiritual.Swafford combines his treatment of Beethoven s life with insightful detailed treatments of many of his major works Hisdiscussions include some technical musical analysis but readers without a musical background will still be able to learn a great deal from them He devotes a lengthy chapter in the middle of the book to an analysis of the Eroica Symphony He offers a lengthy analysis late in the book of the Missa Solemnis , a difficult work which Swafford finds is a summit of Beethoven s art Swafford thinks highly of the Pastoral Symphony, a work which lovers of Beethoven sometimes downplay He sees the 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets as works written throughout Beethoven s life, each with its own individual character Swafford also discusses many works of Beethoven that deserve to be better known as well as some of his potboilers such as Wellington s Victory.Swafford summarizes his view of Beethoven in the discussion of the Ninth Symphony which has been discussed above and in his discussion of the late quartet in c sharp minor, another summit of Beethoven s achievement In his earlier heroic period, Swafford writes, Beethoven moved from anguish at the beginning to triumph at the end In his later works, Beethoven came to realize that anguish and triumph were interrelated throughout life rather than a linear progression with a hero at the end Swafford writes As Beethoven s increasingly hard won labors transcended the anguish of his life, the triumph of the C sharp Minor Quartet, its answer to suffering, is the supreme poise and integration of the whole work This is a long book and many passages invite thinking about and lingering over As I read, I wanted to pause and rehear music of Beethoven that I have not heard for some time, including the quartets, the Missa Soleminis and its predecessor C major mass, the violin sonatas, cello sonatas, and the string quintet, op 29 The book also made me want to return to the piano to struggle again with learning some of the piano sonatas Just as Beethoven s music has an immediacy while looking towards both the past and the future, Swafford s book helped me understand Beethoven as a person to be loved in youth, to be understood better as an adult, and to be inspired by in old age.Robin Friedman


  10. says:

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