As the summer, impossibly, begins to wane — where did it go? — and another Tanglewood season draws to a finish, Beethoven is again on the horizon. The idyllic festival will conclude with an all-Beethoven program that includes the Choral Fantasy, with pianist Yefim Bronfman, and what the BSO calls its “traditional” season closer: the Ninth Symphony, this year led by guest conductor Charles Dutoit.
Ceremonial treatment is a familiar position for the Ninth. But how did it go from being a daringly modern specimen of symphonic art to the world’s favorite occasion-marker? This question (and many others) has been on the mind of Jan Swafford, professor of music history, theory, and composition at the Boston Conservatory and a noted biographer. Swafford’s massive new tome, “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph,” is his attempt to wrest the composer’s life story away from both academic theories and mythmaking hagiography, focusing instead on the flesh-and-blood human underlying them. It offers a particularly rich account of the composer’s roots in the German Enlightenment, and vividly written analyses of many of his works.
Swafford spoke to the Globe about his biography and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Q. There are a lot of Beethoven biographies. Why add to the pile?
A. I felt that Beethoven had been owned for a while by the academic industry, and that most of the books produced from that, which are perfectly good books, were still more ideas about Beethoven than Beethoven himself. So I wanted to write a book that was intensely involved with him as a person and tried to bring him alive more than any other book I knew since [Alexander Wheelock] Thayer, in the 19th century. Also, one of the things I bring to the table is that I’m a composer myself, I’ve written a lot of music. And I think nobody of my experience as a composer has ever written biographies of composers before. So when it comes to the music I think I have something to add. Not that it’s better but just that it’s different — it’s a new angle.
Q. You say in the introduction that you wanted to “strip away the decades of accumulated theories and postures, and look at the subject as clearly and plainly as possible, without prejudices and preconceptions.” Did you think Beethoven was being distorted to fit into intellectual movements?
A. I was talking about academic fashions and theory, the sort of thing that’s been inflicted on a lot of artists over the last 20 years or so. But also the myth of the Romantic demigod Beethoven that started even during his lifetime. All that stuff has been going on ever since. As I mention in the book, Beethoven’s name is engraved over the proscenium in Symphony Hall. In a way, I don’t think that’s good for Beethoven and I don’t think it’s good for music. I wanted to get back to the guy himself, approached without any theories.
Q. Let’s talk about the Ninth. We think of it as such a forward-looking piece, but you write that it marked “a return to roots in his life, his art, and his culture.” Why?
A. The main thing is that it’s a setting of “Ode to Joy,” which is something he’d wanted to do since he was a teenager, and he may have done. And the fact that “Ode to Joy” was part of the revolutionary 1780s — many people set it to music, it was sung by people in the streets. It was a central text of the revolutionary years. Those are the roots I was talking about him returning to, during a period of enormous repression and a police state in Vienna — really, a pall had settled over Europe. He wanted, with the Ninth Symphony, partly, to keep the dream of freedom alive.
The other thing is that the Ninth Symphony was definitely a new direction — every one of his symphonies was a new direction. And yet, in many ways, I felt that it was an intensification of things he’d been doing all along. It was longer, it was bigger, it was more ambitious; his familiar envelope-pushing was just going further. He was getting more complicated, but also more simple.
Q. I was surprised to learn that the Ninth was neglected for decades before it found its triumph.
A. And yet it had tremendous influence. It changed Brahms’s life when he first heard it in the 1850s. Part of it is that it’s so big, and it takes a chorus. The other thing is that it needed a new kind of conductor to manage pieces like that. The idea of the specialist conductor is something that came in in the later part of the 19th century. That’s exactly when pieces like the Ninth Symphony and some oratorios that are very difficult to hold together started to get a foothold. Because that’s what it takes to make those pieces make sense and really project.
Q. You argue that the “Ode to Joy” theme was to be Beethoven’s “Marseillaise” — his transnational anthem, if you will. Given the Ninth Symphony’s ubiquity, he seems to have succeeded beyond even his lofty ambition.
A. I think the position of the Ninth Symphony in the world today is exactly what it was supposed to be. It’s a work that is about immortal ideals, about social ideals that are, I hope, permanent in humanity. But it’s also a great celebratory piece that’s almost too big for the concert hall. It’s a celebratory piece and that’s how it’s used. I used to find it annoying that every time something happens people trot out the Ninth Symphony. And I’ve realized, that’s what it’s for. The Berlin Wall falls, they play the Ninth Symphony. He would’ve been thrilled about that.
Q. But do we need to demythify the Ninth? In treating the piece as a public icon, which is what it’s become, do we miss something in the music itself?
A. Of course we do. We miss the immediacy and the actual human passion. One of my epigraphs is from Jorge Luis Borges, that fame is one of the worst forms of distortion. Fame gets between us and the person. People who are so iconic like Beethoven and Shakespeare, it makes it so hard to reach them, and it makes it so hard for us to see their work in its true freshness and originality.
The Fifth Symphony, most people look at as the very definition of the classical symphony. But at the time it was weird as hell. And so was the “Eroica,” and the Ninth. The Ninth was incomprehensible in its time. And I want to put some of that weirdness, that freshness, that wildness, back into people’s perception of the music, if I can. It’s not up on a pedestal anymore; it’s a living, breathing thing.Interview was condensed and edited. David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.