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01/21/2015 03:36 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2015

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph By Jan Swafford

Jan Swafford, one of our best music biographers, is first and foremost a composer. His compositional output, while not large, is rich in spirit. Listen to his Piano Quartet and Piano Trio (both available on a single disc) for starters. It is this compositional persona that so informs his biographies. Not only does his empathy for the composer come through, but so does his understanding of the compositional process, its inner workings. Whether in his definitive biography of Ives, his meditation on Brahms or in this most recent offering, Swafford gets to the core of the man and deep inside the music.

His book, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, ten years in the making, is no exception. The book is really two books in one; the life and times of Mr. Beethoven, and gentle analyses of a number of his most seminal pieces. Swafford is masterful in both spheres.

Beethoven's father was a musician, and his son's musical proclivity, as with many prodigies, was displayed very early. His talent as a pianoforte virtuoso developed through his teen years into his early twenties. His general education, that which there was, was influenced by the Aufklarung, that late 18th century intellectual movement of enlightenment and liberalization. He never did learn to multiply. He was nominally religious -- he believed in God -- without having a strong attachment to Christian dogma or practice.

He was self-possessed, defiant, manipulative, overbearing, a braggart; yet he could also be charming, felicitous, engaging and witty. While he loved humanity in general, his dealings with people as individuals were difficult from the start and remained so all his life. He fought with everyone -- his landlords, teachers (Haydn included), musicians, patrons/aristocrats, bureaucrats, his nephew, his immediate family and relatives. His dealings with women were equally disastrous, with tragedy plaguing him throughout his life. (In this regard, Swafford makes the case for his choice of the Immortal Beloved, but has a hard time putting too much energy into this enterprise. Only a few musicologists and amorous detectives could really care about this, and Swafford isn't one of them.)

Beethoven's health was always rotten and only got worse throughout his life. He had a bad stomach, perhaps from lead poisoning. He suffered headaches and other maladies dealt with by doctors who usually only made matters worse given the primitive nature of medicine.

There is of course the matter of his deafness. Swafford, as any biographer does, takes this and the Heiligenstadt letter -- the contemplation of suicide -- as a watershed in the composer's life. How could one not, as this was a turning point for Beethoven. It meant the end of his performing career, a slow retreat from society, polite and otherwise and a complete commitment to composition. Once he decided to remain alive, his compositions were what gave his life meaning. His deafness didn't slow him down a whit; rather, it seems to have added to his basic nature of defiance.

Once he arrived in Vienna from Bonn, where he grew up, Beethoven made himself known through his stellar playing and improvisation. He eventually put on concerts of his own music to raise money. In these concerts he included both crowd pleasers as well as works that stretched his listeners. He followed this pattern in his compositional process as well, following "more aggressive and challenging works with milder, more attractive, more "pleasing" ones".

Throughout his life he moved around frequently. While based in Vienna he was forever changing apartments. He summered in the countryside and vacationed at baths to gain their supposed curative effects. With all this hustle and bustle it is even more remarkable that his compositional efforts were so steadily productive.

Swafford notes that Beethoven had to teach his audience how to listen to his music. Even more so that Mozart or Haydn, the listener had to grasp the radically evolutionary nature of his music, for he was taking the principles of these two composers but always going for more: "volume levels both louder and softer than his models, everything more intense, more poignant, more driven and dramatic, more individual, longer and weightier, with heightened contrasts and greater virtuosity. There is an attempt to give each piece a higher profile, or individual personality than in the past." His music is like the blues -- in gaiety there lurks sadness, and in sadness there lurks a hidden joy. It is perhaps this mixture of emotion, or its possibility, as well as its unceasing intensity, that makes this music so unique. By the way, he didn't have an immediate success, although it didn't take all that long for the Viennese to realize that he was indeed the rightful successor to Mozart and Haydn. His music became accepted when "the value of pleasing declined and the values of "original, fiery and bold" ascended". In other words as the classical ethos declined and the new ideas of romanticism arose, Beethoven's stock soared -- he was their man.

After giving up the piano for composition, he did just about only that, while giving the occasional piano lesson. But he was also a business man, as he had to curry favor with his courtly patrons, and beg for them to pay up; wheel and deal with publishers, often engaging in rather unsavory tactics like promising the same piece to multiple publishers, or taking commissioning funds for pieces he patently wasn't interested in writing, and then never delivering those pieces; or promising premiere performances to multiple entities. And Beethoven knew the difference between public and private pieces, pieces he wrote for others and those for himself and pieces he wrote to put food and wine on the table (as in the many piano renditions of folk music written for the Scottish publisher who never made money from them but kept trying nonetheless).

Swafford uses the word raptus to describe Beethoven's state in improvisation and composition. It is that place were the composer or creative artist goes when in that blessed realm of creation. (In sports it is called "being in the zone"). A contemporary musical version of this is when, at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix and his band launch into The Star-Spangled Banner, and Jimi goes into his usual state of playing, what could best be described as rapture -- he is gone, lifted, in another place of mind, another state.

Beethoven was considered one of the most formidable improvisers of his time. In a wonderful story Swafford describes an improvisational duel, something akin to the battle of the bands that occurred in the 60's, when a bunch of young rock bands would duke it out in succession. In this case Beethoven's adversary had memorized his performance. Beethoven followed by taking a piece of the gentleman's music from a stand, turning it wrong side up, excising a theme and then ripping off the most gorgeous improvisation imaginable. His opponent, realizing what he is witnessing, slinks off in the middle of Beethoven's performance, acknowledging his defeat.

Swafford tracks this extraordinary ability into the compositional realm. He opines that Beethoven composed in two ways. Swafford makes the case that in the context of variation form in particular, Beethoven excelled so greatly at improvisation that he could whip out many variations, remember and write them down verbatim and then choose those that he thought best (and in this process, as in all of his writing, he was ruthless). It is Swafford's contention that the Diabelli Variations and other lesser works (one hesitates to use such a modifier) in this "form" were composed in this way.

Then there is the Beethoven of the worked-over sketches. He would start this compositional process with improvisation at the keyboard and writing down his ideas on the paper at a table beside the piano. He would then work an idea over and over until he finally got to its essence. And then he is off. Whole movements are often forged first though the unfolding of a single line. Swafford surmises that Beethoven knew the accompanying harmonies and would write them in latter.

But let us remember that this presupposes certain aspects of Beethoven's style that made this possible. The first is sonata form, less a form than a procedure of dramatic narrative that he imbibed from his forbears -- a way of imagining the entire flow of the work. And then there is the matter of common practice language, which suggests at any one time a proscribed world of harmonic possibilities. But as Swafford notes, and as any musician knows, Beethoven took this world and pushed it into places it had never gone before, taking the inherent possibilities of the classical world into the realm of Romanticism, to make his, and music generally, more individual, more singular, more grand. In many ways he made the music about a quest, rather than a tight little package ready for delivery by FedEx.

Finally, walking was a great part of his compositional practice. Beethoven would take one or two walks a day, gesticulating wildly on his way. What was he doing? One can surmise that he was feeling the physical quality of the music, not just what it sounded like, but what it felt like, how it "moved". Music, even when not meant for the Dance, is inherently of the mind and the body. It takes place over time, or moves through time. Thus, in a way, it is fundamentally about movement, and for us humans that is tied to the physical gestures of movement itself. Beethoven was literally creating those gestures of the music as he walked, feeling its journey. He was also, I am sure, allowing the subconscious to take over, to provide answers to questions that the conscious mind can never find.

He started off as a journeyman in genres where he felt himself in the shadows of Hadyn and Mozart, like the symphony and piano concerto respectively. Thus his first symphony, while original and unique, is clearly in the Haydnesque mode, with its slow introduction of the first movement. Swafford suggests a certain awkwardness in moments of the orchestration. His first piano concerto is a virtuoso vehicle for himself, one that he tinkered with over time; it is decidedly Mozartian in provenance and again an apprentice's work. Swafford mentions "its rough transitions, stolid block scoring in the winds and a drifting quality." In other genres, like the cello sonata or piano trio, which were virgin territory, his contributions were from the start unique and revelatory.

His difficulties with Fidelio are even more instructive of his compositional approach. Beethoven was not a particularly gifted writer for the voice (his song output is not performed much for good reason), nor a man of the theatre, two aspects that surely help in writing an opera. He was enamored of Cherubini and Rossini, and in a time of the ascendancy and ultimate victory of Italian opera, Beethoven longed for their kind of recognition. After the first not completely successful performance (not all due to the music it must be said, as the audience was comprised mostly of French soldiers who had recently overrun Vienna), and finally being convinced by his friends that there were indeed major problems of pacing and drama, Beethoven went off on a search and destroy mission to make his opera really work on the stage. His multiple attempts at an overture are only one example. He sliced out arias, reconfigured materials, and tightened and tucked. He desperately wanted this opera to work. And in its own fashion it does, in part because of the heart that Beethoven displays in the piece, which overwhelms some of its dramatic and musical failings. It also works because it contains some breathtakingly gorgeous music, and while this isn't the fashion today, gorgeous music trumps production values and libretto problems every time, because the former endures and the latter qualities are quicksilver, transitory and finally, trivial. It also contains great examples of that "sustained intensity of which few composers other than Beethoven were capable."

Some of Beethoven's innovations were startling. With the third symphony, he makes the exposition, usually a place to introduce the motivic characters and of relative stability, into an unstable terrain of a searching and seeking, if not a seething, quest. He begins to backload his pieces, so that pieces only reach their culmination or "answer" in the final movement. Which is to say that rather than perceiving a work as a nice balanced entity of independent movements with a proscribed form -- think of just about any of Haydn's 106 symphonies -- his movements are often interlocked motivically and, by their hierarchical relationship, heading towards a triumphal arrival at the end. He also altered the shape and balance of a piece, by creating codas of gargantuan proportions.

Swafford argues that towards the end of his life Beethoven was working in almost a stream-of-consciousness manner; that he moved from narrative to associational relationships; that his forms became the overlaying of numerous forms on top of each other proceeding simultaneously; and that in the last quartets, written for himself and God, that the conversation is one of many voices proceeding at the same time. In works like the Hammerklavier Sonata or the Grosse Fugue his music became the first Avant-garde, as it went into the realm of music about music and the possibilities of musical form that broke asunder any previous models.

The book is rife throughout with analyses of significant pieces. But since this is not a theoretical book per se, as Swafford's intention is to provide a cogent context and a way of engaging these works. While brief sections of scores are included for illustrative effect, it is the elegant, evocative and even provocative prose that leads one into a way of active listening and serves as a guide to what one is actually hearing. In its attention to emotive content, matters of structure, provenance, as well as the revealing of motivic relationships both of pitch and rhythm, it is useful for the novice as well as the sophisticate. Helping achieve this result is Swafford's straightforward writing style, which is never academic or dry, but rather like hearing a great bard regaling truthful mysteries around the fire.

Like many of Beethoven's best pieces, this book is also back loaded, which is to say that the endnotes are a mother lode of insightful comments, queries, ponderings and interactions with the previous literature and the contents of this book. Swafford has read and thought widely, and it is all displayed in this section of probings and discussions.

As with music, after all is said and done, parsed and analyzed, what really matters is where this book takes you emotionally and spiritually. I am not the sentimental type, but while reading Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, I periodically ended up in tears. About how many biographies, musical or otherwise, can this be said?