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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:

    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 uartets masses and symphonies while reading the descriptions andor reading score selections But as Swafford proves Beethoven believed What is difficult is goodThis 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 friendsI 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 uickly 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 Conuering heroes and benevolent despots cannot do it that for us We have to find Elysium for ourselvesWe cannot depend on a hero to save us Rather millions of brothers will have to find their own inner paradiseAs for the uartets 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 uartet Op 130 was Beethoven's as wellShortly 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 geniusBut 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

  2. says:

    In looking back through the course of Beethoven's life as a man what may be most astonishing about him is that he survived the burden of being Beethoven And looking back through the course of this magisterial work what may be most astonishing about it is that Jan Swafford makes his subject almost likeable He may have been able to make friends but he was certainly not affable or easy to get on with A psychologist could have a field day on his habit of only ever falling in love with the unavailable the already engaged or married rather than the less showy sister who hung on his every word And when you see how he treated his servants noting that Nanni is slightly tractable since he threw half a dozen books at her head it's tempting to feel relief for womankind that none had to put up with his mercurial moods paranoia and peevishnessThis biography is a magnificent synthesis Swafford deftly places Beethoven in the political landscape of the time anchors him securely in the era of the Enlightenment gives him his due position in the history of music and ideas strips away a lot of the myth making that Schindler describes the reactions to the man through letters diary entries reports of those who met him and not least provides analysis of the work This last was a stretch for me someone who when they hear the words tonic scale is likely to start thinking about the relative merits of Fever Tree and Thomas Henry than anything to do with triads or chords But I valiantly took up the challenge freuently failing miserably and sometimes ahem skipping over pages Other times though taking great delight in original and insightful descriptions that truly convey moods and texturesOf greatest interest to me was how Beethoven managed financially as he was born into that awkward time when the old system of aristocratic patronage was giving way to a commercial nexus but without the structures that allow an artist to make money at a time when such concepts as copyright or royalties for performance were non existent For him it meant paradoxically that the works which cost him the greatest time and effort the large symphonic works brought him the least income Publishing houses needed to supply the demand for small chamber pieces which came from a burgeoning number of amateur and professional players looking for new pieces to play a constant complaint from his British publisher Thomson was that the piano accompaniment to his settings of folk songs were too difficult for their young ladies And the proofreading A frustrating business all roundAs a freelance for Haydn was firmly ensconced as Kapellmeister in Vienna Beethoven had to cobble together a living from a grab bag of sources commissions publishing part time jobs in church or court teaching performing patronage from the nobility Thus was his early deafness such a disaster as he could no longer perform as a virtuoso pianist losing him around a uarter of his income He was inventive in sourcing income he was one of the first composers to demand and get a share of the ticket proceedings from a public concert although he refused to make his music pleasing to increase the appeal and the takings and he was sure that he'd been fiddled of course And he also enjoyed the benefits of a stipend from a kind of conglomerate of patrons His Imperial Highness Archduke Rudolph Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Ferdinand Kinsky A brilliant way of hedging your bets as uarrels or bankruptcy could always cause a source to dry up and he could feel less like the personal servant of any particular one of these indeed often cried off giving Archduke Rudolph lessons due to ill health And his health was always poor to put it mildly This work is itself a triumph It succeeds in all its many sided undertakings and leaves you utterly astounded at the singularity of Beethoven's achievement Even when the myth making is stripped away he still emerges as nothing less than an incomparable phenomenon the standard setter for music to come

  3. says:

    “Who can ever do anything after Beethoven?”Franz SchubertI picked up this biography after reading Swafford’s outstanding work on Brahms I have read many fine biographies and in my opinion Swafford is among the best of biographers He has all the necessary skills to make his subjects come alive; he’s an accomplished writer musician and historian The biographies are thoroughly researched and well sourced and his understanding of Beethoven and Brahms as individuals the times in which they lived the thoughts and feelings integrated into their works is impressive While it isn’t absolutely necessary to have a basic knowledge of musical theory and the repertoire to enjoy this book it’s certainly helpful Swafford provides a little “refresher course” in an appendix covering “sonata form sonata rondo form concerto sonata form theme and variations ABA form minuet scherzo form fugue and its derivations canon and so on” In the introduction he recommends the general reader go to the appendix first and I agree this is a good ideaThe Schubert uote is apposite; all the great Western composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries lived and worked in the Titan’s shadow Beethoven was perhaps the most transformative of composers in the sense that he took the forms referenced in the appendix mastered them and stretched them to their limits to express in sound all that was in his head and heart Moreover it’s important to remember that for much of his adult life he could not hear the amazing sounds he was creating He challenged the technical capabilities of performers both instrumentalists and singers and the instrument makers and pedagogues as well In that regard it’s been recognized that Western music history can be divided into two eras Before Beethoven and After Beethoven I’ll close with an analogy to physics Studying understanding and appreciating Mozart is like studying understanding and appreciating Newton; studying understanding and appreciating Beethoven is like studying understanding and appreciating Einstein

  4. says:

    A word of caution first a da da da dum if you will The author is a classical music composer as well as a teacher of music theory and composition So in this superb biography of Beethoven there is also much written about the music of Beethoven You will get the ultimate joy of reading this if you can read music and talk knowledgeably about the Sonata Form I unfortunately can do neither Pictured portions of musical score were thus useless to me as were explanations like this In a long unfolding melody of various phrasing without hurry it drifts down from B flat to D below the staff then over the next twelve bars slowly wends its way up to B flat above the staff then sinks down an octaveThose of you who recognized the Pathétiue Sonata can rightly feel smugI did not and I surely skimmed a few lengthy musical dissections But some of the descriptions of selected works were uite beautiful even for the likes of me Here's what we're told as the final movement of the 9th Symphony fills the air The fanfare breaks out again the basses answer again At that point Beethoven in the context of his time plays one of his strangest cards yet As if in a mangling of time we hear for a few seconds the mysterious A E tremolos that began the symphony The basses respond to this phantom with wordless chromatic recitative that seems to say No not that Now there is a snippet of the scherzo and then the slow movement the scherzo rebuffed gruffly by the basses the slow movement with wistful regret growing to a fortissimo outburst That in turn gives rise to another snippet it is the first phrase of the Freude theme in the winds marked dolce sweetly Now in a clear D major the basses wordlessly but unmistakably cry Yes This is what we want In short evocations of the first three movements have appeared in the finale the basses have turned them away and then they embrace the Freude themeMusic anthropomorphizedWe are told this also of the 9th It would be exalted by tyrannies and it would celebrate the downfall of tyranniesSome bullet points In school he learned to add but never to divide or multiply To the end of his life if he needed to multiply 62 by 50 he did it by writing 62 in a column 50 times and adding it up Beethoven thought Handel was his only superior In Bonn Beethoven heard his name pronounced Biet hoffen When he moved to Vienna he was called Herr Be toof fen The author never told when Ludwig became Bay toe ven And I was looking for that His ideas about women were puritanical but his instincts were robust Beethoven checked out a book about venereal diseases from the library The last words spoken by Beethoven are reputed to be Pity pity too late I prefer his penultimate words spoken in Latin Plaudite amici comoedia finita est Applaud friends the comedy is over

  5. says:

    A Wise And Moving Biography Of BeethovenI 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 writesThe 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 societyThis 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 Aufklarungand 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 bookSwafford 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 freuently taken as mad He falls in love with unattainable women and to his sorrow is never able to form a lasting relationship He uarrels 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 BeethovenFor 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 This characterization will surprise some readers 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 spiritualSwafford combines his treatment of Beethoven's life with insightful detailed treatments of many of his major works His discussions 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 uartets 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 VictorySwafford summarizes his view of Beethoven in the discussion of the Ninth Symphony which has been discussed above and in his discussion of the late uartet 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 writesAs Beethoven's increasingly hard won labors transcended the anguish of his life the triumph of the C sharp Minor uartet its answer to suffering is the supreme poise and integration of the whole workThis 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 uartets the Missa Soleminis and its predecessor C major mass the violin sonatas cello sonatas and the string uintet 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 ageRobin Friedman

  6. says:

    Biographer Jan Swafford aims to be fair and balanced about Beethoven but at the end of the day forgives the man with total absolution despite those times when that smelly unkempt disease ridden misanthrope was a total ass dick and shithead which was a lotAnd I guess I'll let bygones be bygones also Otherwise why would I have attended the opera to see the staging of Beethoven's Fidelio or heard the master pianist Rudolf Serkin play his mighty Emperor Fifth Piano Concerto or seen Sir Charles Mackerras and the English Chamber Orchestra perform Beethoven's Fourth Symphony at the Pabst Theatre in Milwaukee in 1983 or joined the congregants twice no less to hear his magnum opus the sublime ode to humanity the Symphony No 9 once helmed with a hilarious conducting techniue by Lukas Foss the composer conductor pal of Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould?And why would I own four dozen recordings of the third symphony the Eroica the dividing line between all that was and all that would be in music? Or possess three dozen recordings of the Violin Concerto a piece that I listen to with fair regularity this morning it was Zino Francescatti from 1961 and right now it's Hilary Hahn live from 2017?Because whatever else Beethoven was and he himself admitted freely that he was a complete incompetent at everything but composition he created a body of work that never gets old never gets boring never sounds the same in any two performances and never fails to inspire all musicians to the heights of personal excellence that turns the greatest ideas and ideals and poetry into a sound so incomparable that one can do nothing but stop and listen and ponder and feel better about this flawed world And when it's done especially well cry at how amazing it isAs I was listening this week to Trevor Pinnock's crystalline interpretationrecording of Handel's Messiah I could still hear the plaintive sonorities of Medieval troubadour songs in it Haydn and Mozart started the process of shedding this ancient sound from music but it was Beethoven who threw off the stench of the Middle Ages entirely Are any of these assertions musicologically or historically sound? No they're my opinions based on my semi experienced ears Late in the book though after I'd written the above Swafford literally writes of how Beethoven in his complex Hammerklavier piano sonata obliterated the old dichotomy between melody and harmony But I'm saying nothing new and maybe neither is Swafford Beethoven the musical revolutionary is a cliche but Swafford understands that the idea of revolution certainly the Enlightenment Era's understanding of it is central to understanding Beethoven his music and the complex and contradictory approach to life that those notions animatedIndeed my favorite part of this book is the opening pages in which Swafford lays out clearly the philosophical precepts of the Enlightenment or Aufklärung which informed Beethoven's artistic and life outlooks Coming from a musician and musical biographer it's an explanation of such clarity that most college philosophy professors who do far worse at it should retire to the locker room in hangdog shame Interestingly it's this marble pure belief in high ideals that also made Beethoven an insufferable prude so that even as a wildly popular young performing pianist and innovative composer a rock star long haired fiercely independent and untameable he never could get on board with the sex and drugs part of the rock star life unless applying a horseradish home remedy to one's failing ears ualifies as indulgence in illicit substances His misanthropy and poor social skills didn't help him parlay his rock star status into free love opportunities And despite his mastery and staunch aesthetic principles he did compromise sometimes as when he wrote the hilariously schlocky Wellington's Victory But at the end of the day he resisted publishers who wanted him to technically tone down his pieces a bit so that the young ladies who bought piano sheet music could play without looking too embarrassed about it Beethoven perhaps wanted too much and was right in the end to throw himself thoroughly into his art when the chick thing wasn't working He had done everything you shouldn't do with women excessive flattery for one and thus never came close to marriage or union with a perfect idealized love partner His misery translates into our rewards; and the poignancy of the music is the pain of his heart As Jan Swafford notes in this bio Beethoven from his earliest youth was poorly raised and socialized and never truly understood how to mix and mingle effectively with other humans especially women When the pressure got too great he visited brothels but he also felt dirty and guilty about it afterward His immortal beloved his romantic ideal expressed in a famous letter was a woman whose identity has never been satisfactorily pinned down by scholars Swafford lays out all the possibilities about who this woman might have been without committing to a preference And perhaps that's how it should be This warped socialization led to one of the great tragedies of Beethoven's life apart from the obvious one of deafness his controlling smothering treatment of his nephew Karl; the composer's apparent response to his own lack of an heir A sad story for all involvedThe point of me reading this was to find a good recent starter biography of Beethoven without going back to the ancient one by Thayer that made me understand the arc of his life times and personality and on this score Swafford delivers Beethoven ceased to be a remote figure and emerged as a breathing flawed poignant and frustrating character The writing is good overall though not always as elegant as one would like but Swafford is never less than thoughtful and there's a real musicological authority all the way Even when he discusses deeply technical matters I felt myself absorbing something of use despite my limited understanding of terminology and notationI find it funny that Beethoven a genius who nonetheless never learned multiplication so that he literally wrote the same number in a column dozens of times to painstakingly add them up could juggle the complexities of uintuple dealing as Swafford puts it underhandedly trying the sell his Missa Solemnis to four different wannabe publishers at once A feat I suppose only possible by someone with an understanding of the intricacies of counterpoint and complex musical structureI've read the pros and cons about this book including a somewhat unfair review in the Wall Street Journal by the late biographer Edmund Morris who himself was not above criticism for fabrication There's nothing fabricated in Swafford's tome but there are individual uirks and educated speculations Since I understand where these occur based on context I find nothing wrong with them There are many gaps in the story of Beethoven and Swafford does the best he can with them Swafford examines the myths of the romantic heroic Beethoven and tracks down and names sources of those legends examining their validity while still maintaining his own awe for the manThe uestion is Is this the place to start with Beethoven? Yes But maybe after you've dedicated years to listening to his music as I haveuite an achievement and very close to five stars Let's call it four and a halfegkr '20Foss by the end during the Ode to Joy simply balled up his fists and pumped them up and down at his sides as if lifting and lowering an invisible wheelbarrow smiling and bopping up and down on his feet in a stationary dance He just let the players go and was enjoying himself RIP maestro

  7. 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 compellingThis 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 advantageThe book also traces his musical output from childhood efforts to his mature works the final string uartets 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 reuisite 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 enoughThe 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 onAll in all an important work if one wishes to understand better Beethoven's life and artBut the value of this book is a a deeper understanding of Beethoven the person and b his music and how it came about

  8. 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 lastfm 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 uite 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 musicFinally 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 musicIn 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 339This is from the chapter on Eroica and is uite 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 andor 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 uoting 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

  9. 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 uartets 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 uite tiring perhaps why the most known works tend to be the simple ones like Für 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

  10. 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