Given the anvil-like solidity of this new Beethoven biography from Slate regular Jan Swafford, it’s clear that an attempt is being made to cleave a sizable space among the various works centered on the life of the man who is perhaps the most famous of all composers.
Swafford has a knack for bringing in the reader wholly unschooled in the technical vernacular of classical music. That skill is in evidence in this blend of biography and musical assessment. Even if you don’t know the difference between a leitmotif and a lighthouse, don’t sweat it, for this is, more than anything, a saga of a man at odds with so many things: convention, social mores, himself, women, his family, scullery maids. You name it, and Beethoven was pretty much battling against it, all the while with a good deal of self-awareness about it.
Swafford meticulously traces Beethoven’s life (1770-1827) and music from his childhood in Bonn, the early signs of his talent (and his father’s attempts to exploit it for cash), the flowering of his skills in his 20s, deafness at 27, and his already well-known accomplishments beyond.
Throughout, the portrait we get is of an artist who was an utter failure at relationships — seemingly undermining himself and any prospects of personal happiness — but a soaring, driven genius. Violent tempered, lacking in social skills, gruff to the point of being domineering, Beethoven didn’t exactly exude warmth. Which is ironic, given that we also have one of history’s great humanists, albeit one housed in the persona of a curmudgeon.
Beethoven clearly believed certain things were just owed to him, and his attitude is one of a king believing himself possessed of divine right. This is hardly a way to go about one’s relationships, as Swafford lays plain, but, paradoxically, that level of self-immersion lends itself to heroic writing stretches.
We learn that he was obsessed with Countess Josephine (and Beethoven was a veritable league leader when it came to racking up incidents of unrequited love), and his rage became such that “Josephine had ordered her servants not to let him in the house.” Swafford is a careful writer and knows exactly what the implications of this language are, the notion of Beethoven as some kind of protean beast in occasional need of being pent up, a man whose affections could be described as “a fury of his love.”
If this isn’t exactly the Beethoven that Schroeder of “Peanuts” fame worshiped, it’s a more believable characterization, and, more than that, one gets a better sense of how this roiling personality produced works to roil the human soil. The depth of feeling in his compositions indicates a mind of all-out intensity, be that for raw, dramatic musical power, or phrases so alluringly beautiful that you’d think they must have been authored by the most sweet-tempered of men.
The longtime reader of Beethoven biographies is apt to find that of Maynard Solomon heavier on musical analysis, but if you’re not well-versed in musical shop talk, you’ll be lost. Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s multivolume “The Life of Ludwig van Beethoven’’ remains your best bet, but that Beethoven rollicks a bit too much to be a totally accurate Beethoven.
My own personal hope was that Swafford’s effort might be as spry as some of his Slate columns on classical music, but it’s more serious. It is, however, impressively researched, including recorded remembrances of friends and family, portions of his letters, and examples from his scores.
Even in Beethoven’s early days, with his father playing up the prodigy angle — being a prodigy was big business in the 18th century — by lying about his son’s age, the boy handles himself with such assurance that he seems like a 50-year-old man.
Swafford duly quotes letters that has Beethoven sniffing at how outmoded a given country was, and how he’d never be back, never mind that he hadn’t even hit his teen years. The steady beat of purpose flowed through the young genius, even before he was capable of producing genius.
And yet, for all the grousing, all the mean-spiritedness of which he was capable, Beethoven had a preternatural calm within himself, a paradoxical stillness amid his rages — notes of thunder, formulated in quiet, otherwise ordinary moments. Which perhaps renders this biography of Beethoven an indirect examination of the workings of genius itself.