Jan Swafford: Reply To John E. Klapproth

After John E. Klapproth recently responded to our review of Jan Swafford’s biography of Beethoven, we were contacted by Mr.  Swafford himself asking to be allowed to speak on his own behalf. Following is his riposte to Mr. Klapproth, so now you will have heard from all sides.

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John E. Klapproth has made something of a career mounting incendiary attacks on everybody who doesn’t embrace his book on Josephine Deym as Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved. This site has his latest lambaste of my Beethoven bio, but I’m not the only object of his wrath. On Amazon you can find more, not only about my Beethoven biography but books by Edward Walden on Bettina Brentano and Lewis Lockwood’s biography. Klapproth’s book, though it has some worthwhile information and translations of letters, is still in scholarly terms a shabby and sometimes dishonest piece of work. I want to cite a few examples having to do with his veracity.

Actually, to check my facts I just looked up Klapproth’s diatribe about my Beethoven bio on Amazon and found it’s apparently been deleted, likewise his comment on Lewis Lockwood’s bio. You can get a hefty taste of his style, though, in his Amazon comment on Edward Walden’s book championing Bettina Brentano as Immortal Beloved. I don’t know why Amazon left that comment in, since it’s just as insulting as Klapproth’s on my and Lockwood’s bios—which is presumably why Amazon removed them.

Elsewhere Klapproth tried to take over the Beethoven Wikipedia page for his benefit, was warned by an editor there, and finally was banned from the site. To quote a Wikipedia editor last year: “changed block settings for JohnSpecialK…with an expiration time of indefinite (autoblock disabled, cannot edit own talk page). Revoking talk page access: inappropriate use of user talk page while blocked; using Wikipedia for spam or advertising purposes.”

Klapproth’s diatribes are decked out with name-calling in a kind of Trumplike style. He’s also given to Trump-style lies, in the sense that they’re sometimes painfully obvious. In his former Amazon comment on my Beethoven bio (where he referred to me as “Swaffle”) he wrote that I don’t know a word of German and there are no German sources in my book. I minored in German at Harvard and graduated magna cum laude, so I do have some acquaintance with the language. A one-minute perusal of my Beethoven bio’s Works Cited will turn up quite a number of German sources. (On this site he’s still claiming I have hardly any.) For my Brahms bio I did a lot of work to bring my long-neglected German up to par. I’d never done any translating, so at the end I had a professional look over my translations for the book. She said they were entirely accurate.

For my Brahms and Beethoven bios I read thousands of pages of German scholarship, including the four-volume Kalbeck bio of Brahms that’s never been translated, and for the Beethoven bio hundreds of pages from the invaluable Bonner Geschichtsblätter, which is some sixty years of scholarship on Bonn and its figures. I’m fairly sure none of that has been used in English writing on Beethoven.

I did contact Klapproth about his Josephine book when it was still in draft. I said I was interested, he sent me the draft, I read it and saw what it was, and that was that. I didn’t reply to his several emails after I read it. In the intro to the first edition of his book he thanked me as if I had somehow contributed to it, which was nonsense. (In the current edition he has expunged me but still thanks his nemesis Edward Walden–why, I can’t imagine.) I agreed to read his book and that’s it. I did cautiously use and cite some of his translations of Josephine’s letters because they’re the only ones in print, but I stuck to letters that didn’t involve his thesis so (I hoped) were unlikely to be jimmied.

Again I won’t go into details about Klapproth’s shenanigans in his Josephine book, or this would get very long. (There are a few points made in the endnotes of my Beethoven.) They involve deliberate misdatings and mistranslations to support his case. The sad thing is that there is a case to be made for Josephine as Immortal Beloved, she has been championed by some serious scholars, and Klapproth didn’t have to fake anything to make his case.

I spent over ten years working on my Beethoven bio and through it all pondered the Immortal Beloved problem. There are really only three viable candidates: Josephine Deym, Bettina Brentano (see Walden’s very thorough book), and Antonie Brentano (put forth by Maynard Solomon as the final word on the subject, but it isn’t). The last thing I wanted to do was produce a bio that didn’t have a solid candidate for Immortal Beloved. But in the end I honestly couldn’t do it. Instead I took a chapter to survey the three candidates, the cases for and against each of them. There are tantalizing clues for each, followed by a row of reasons why it’s hard to believe it could be any of them. Yet it almost certainly was one of those three. None of this makes sense, but then life doesn’t make sense either.

I would have been delighted to settle on Josephine because she’s the dark horse of the three, and I like dark horses—I’m one myself. But while I think she’s possible, I also think she’s the least likely. And to date there are no other workable candidates than the three above. (A couple of reviews of the Beethoven said I picked Bettina, but that was careless reading—I didn’t vote for any of them.)

I’m not going to deal with Klapproth’s points on this site about my book. I don’t have the time or patience for that, and I don’t want to get into a flame war, which is a specialty of Klapproth’s but not mine.

To summarize: Klapproth is a chronic fact-bender in ways that begin with the most obvious lies and go on into less obvious ones that on the surface look like actual scholarship. All that is mixed in with legitimate research. He’s done a lot of reading, but that doesn’t make you an actual scholar. I can’t imagine that any serious scholar takes his book seriously, and doubt that any ever will. And mounting insulting attacks on everybody who doesn’t agree with you is not how to promote your work. I suggest he should calm down, issue his self-published books, and let them compete in the marketplace of ideas.

I want to add one more, larger point. Both as a composer and writer I’ve been pretty lucky with reviews. Both my endeavors are on the one hand deeply absorbing, on the other hand perfectly idiotic ways to try to make a living. For all the misery involved in my so-called jobs, however, my reviews and my reception on Amazon and the like are one of the few things I have nothing to complain about. My main grief has come from Klapproth re the Beethoven bio, and re the Brahms, a British woman who has staked her career on maintaining that the old story of Brahms playing piano in barrooms/brothels in his teens, being abused by prostitutes for the amusement of sailors, isn’t true. I’m quite sure it is true, because Brahms was a highly honest and self-aware man, he talked about it all his life, and he said it wrecked his relations with women. Brahms was the last person in the world to spend his life promulgating a shameful and humiliating lie about himself.

But my real point is this: the two people above have an absolute stake in their point of view, because they both believe that if they’re wrong, or have no takers, their career is for nothing. I propose that a writer of history or biography should have no stake at all, nothing that isn’t up for revision if better information turns up, no stake in anything other than what appears to be the truth based on the best evidence available. Truth and objectivity are what history is about, however impossible it is, when all is said and done, to achieve either of them. History in that respect is like science: there are degrees of certainty, but ultimately everything is provisional. History and science are both imperfect because everything human beings do is imperfect. But that doesn’t mean you don’t strive toward the truth–the kind of truth that has nothing to do with what you prefer to believe, or with the dubious careerism involved in depending on an angle that defines you.

When my Brahms book came out virtually the only criticism it got had to do with the bars, the idea that they didn’t happen. A supposed friend of mine who had been on the Pulitzer committee told me, kind of gleefully, that the bar issue had sunk any chances I might have had. We weren’t friends after that.

That idea that the bars didn’t happen actually originated with a well-known German Brahms scholar named Hofmann. As a Brahms biographer I came out of nowhere, so most critics and scholars assumed the German guy had to be right. I hadn’t read Hofmann’s fairly slim book on Brahms. So I examined his evidence, found it unconvincing re the bars, but did find some points of his worthwhile–mainly that Brahms did not grow up in a slum. That in turn made me realize I’d overemphasized the poverty of his family, who were actually, more or less, intermittently, bourgeois. So for the paperback edition of the Brahms I revised a few pages having to do with those issues. If I’d been convinced of Hofmann’s position on the bars—and that of his British disciple–, that would have involved revising a few more pages. I would readily have done that because I wasn’t attached to the bars or to anything else. But I couldn’t honestly do it. I published an article defending my position, that entered the marketplace of ideas, and I left it at that. Some agree with me and some don’t.

Some postmodern historians say that since we ultimately can’t escape ourselves, our upbringing, our cultural prejudices and hegemonies, etc., there’s no reason to aim for truth and objectivity at all. I call that irresponsible. Knowing that we’ll never get there, in writing history and biography we should strive for absolute truth and objectivity, to the death if necessary. (Fortunately, in the West at least, right now at least, that’s not usually necessary.) And then we see what turns up.

To put it another way: to stop striving to find truth and objectivity is irresponsible and often dangerous; to assume that you have found absolute truth and objectivity is also delusional and dangerous. For examples of the former, see a lot of current academic “theorists.” For the latter, see jihadists, Nazis, right-wing ranters, fanatics of all flavors.

This has gotten way too long. It is, after all, a tempest in a teapot.

For fun, I’ll finish with a translation from the German I did for my Brahms bio, one of the “Ossian” poems he used in the Harp Songs. (They’re actually 18th-century fakes of a supposed ancient Irish bard.) I’m proud of this verse because it maintains the tone of the original and also its dactylic rhythm. Probably no readers have realized it’s mine. (By the way, the mythical Irish hero involved, “Cuthulin” in one spelling, is pronounced coohoolin.)

Weep on the rocks
in the blustering sea-wind,
weep you, O daughter of Inistore!…
Your love he has fallen,
now lies overmastered,
pale as a ghost
under Cuthulin’s sword.