Beethoven’s Life Re-examined in a New Biography

Swafford Book-small

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 1077 pages. $40.00.

It takes something pretty special to elbow into the crowded field of Beethoven biographies without new research and discoveries, or at least a new candidate for the Immortal Beloved. Author Jan Swafford manages just that with his eminently readable new biography of Beethoven.

Checking in at 934 pages of text, plus 140 more of appendix, notes, and index, it rivals the massive Thayer/Forbes biography for length. Indeed, Swofford acknowledges a debt to Thayer/Forbes and rather cheekily suggests that his book may become a replacement for that classic text. While that seems improbable, what Swafford does do is recollate familiar materials and put them into a coherent whole that sheds new light on what was already known about the composer. It seems that even if you don’t have new facts about the composer, you can still provide new thinking about him.

Swafford’s central thesis is that Beethoven’s outlook on life was shaped by the principle of Aufklärung, a quasi-Masonic Enlightenment theory that was propounded by Beethoven’s first composition teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe. Central to that belief system was belief in reason and an appeal to brotherhood as the means to happiness. This thought will resonate with anyone familiar with the text of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, used by Beethoven as the finale to the Ninth Symphony, but which he had been determined to set since the early 1790s.

Swafford is fairly convincing in tracing the history of this concept (which I don’t recollect ever seeing mentioned in a Beethoven biography previously) and its impact on the composer’s way of thinking. In particular, it helps explain Beethoven’s antipathy for the Romantic movement that he himself helped to create. It’s a significant accomplishment to be able to find such a different way of approaching a biographical subject that has been covered so many times before.

And make no mistake: Swafford does not contribute anything new to the scholarship of Beethoven biography. There is virtually no original research here. The copious footnotes are chockablock with references to Thayer, Cooper, Lockwood and Solomon, among others. There are a few references to the conversation books and letters, but the vast bulk of the references are to prior biographies and analyses of Beethoven’s work. Very little here even comes from journal articles (and of those, only a scant handful date from the last 25 years), and of course there is no mention of the many discoveries of The Unheard Beethoven. Other than a mention of the online presence of the Beethovenhaus, Swafford seems to be blissfully unaware of the Internet.

Despite his unique viewpoint, there are some typically American biases, such as taking Maynard Solomon seriously as a scholar. But Swafford at least doesn’t swallow Solomon’s theories about Antonie Brentano as the Immortal Beloved wholeheartedly as so many do. Refreshingly, he simply sets forth the cases for the most likely three candidates, but acknowledges it could well be someone we have no idea about, and that it may be unknowable. Which is fine with me.

Yet this is still a highly recommended biography. It’s very well written and is quite a lively and brisk read. It takes some doing to make the political background of 18th-century Bonn interesting, and Swafford manages to do exactly that, rendering the important context in a vivid and readable fashion. The volume also includes analyses and detailed discussions of Beethoven’s major compositions, culminating in two chapters devoted respectively to the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony. Here is where Swafford does have a more original approach, though there are still copious footnotes to other reference works even in these analyses. I don’t think that this volume can really be called a reference work; for starters, the index while long verges on useless. Piano sonatas are a good example. The bulk of them are listed only by key, not by number or even opus number. Most of them are under ‘P’ for ‘Piano sonata,’ which is fair enough. But the “Moonlight Sonata” is indexed under ‘M.’ The ‘Les adieux’ sonata is under ‘F’ for ‘Farewell.’ Seriously? The index is thoroughly random and designed to be maddening.

Even though this volume won’t have a place amongst my references, it would be my first choice of biography for a more casual reader. In that respect, it does take the place of Thayer/Forbes for that kind of reader. It’s best absorbed with one of the Complete Works sets of CDs at hand, so you can listen along with the thorough and insightful musical discussions.

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