- - Thursday, October 9, 2014

By Jan Swafford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $40, 1,1007 pages, illustrated

Just as Schubert lamented, “Who can do anything after Beethoven?” readers of this biography can speculate as to whether author Jan Swafford has had the last word on Beethoven, at least for a while. Mr. Swafford is himself a composer, and he claims that this is “a composer’s-eye view of a composer, written for a general public.” More than 12 years in the making, this combination of gripping biography and readable analysis of Beethoven’s compositions is a book for all Beethoven enthusiasts, full of insights and memorable vignettes, old and new.

Beethoven’s father recognized his son’s talent early and sought to profit from it much as Mozart’s father had done, though with less success. Music was “beaten into” Ludwig from the age of four or five, but he took comfort from his adored mother until her death in 1787. At about age 10, the boy acquired a new teacher, Christian Gottlob Neefe, a composer, organist and writer who, Mr. Swafford says, became Beethoven’s most important mentor. Neefe had come to Bonn from Leipzig, where J.S. Bach’s music was still studied, and Neefe taught “The Well-Tempered Clavier” to Beethoven, “imprinting that music in his fingers and his heart and his very sense of music.” When at age 27 Beethoven began to lose his hearing, that musical imprint helped him to continue composing what, in the end, he could no longer hear.

By 1783, when Ludwig was entering his teens, he was already the main support of his family as a court organist, theater rehearsal pianist and orchestra violist. (He never mastered the violin.) He also became a tutor to a prominent Bonn family, where he encountered court officials, artists, intellectuals and “books and ideas that stayed with him.” He soon became a virtuoso, championing the newly designed piano over the harpsichord, and astonishing audiences with his daring improvisations. He set to work on compositions such as piano trios, where he was in less direct competition with Mozart and Haydn than in the more iconic string quartet. (Beethoven studied with Haydn, but downplayed Haydn’s influence on him.)

Even Beethoven had to accommodate promoters and publishers. When a Scottish publisher asked Beethoven to arrange some regional folk tunes “playable by amateurs,” Beethoven responded, “I will take care to make the compositions easy and pleasing as far as is consistent with the elevation and originality of style, which, as you yourself say, favorably characterize my works and from which I shall never stoop.” However, Beethoven added, “I cannot bring myself to write for the flute, as this instrument is too limited and imperfect.” Incidentally, Beethoven similarly denigrated the double bass until he heard it played by a virtuoso and thereafter improved the symphonic parts for “the orchestra’s basement.”

Mr. Swafford credits Beethoven’s youth in Bonn with teaching him that “to be a first-rate artist, you must be a first-rate fellow. The essence of both is duty to humankind.” A Salzburg physician who knew Beethoven when he was in his 40s wrote, “Never in my life have I met a more childlike nature paired with so powerful and defiant a will; if heaven had bestowed nothing upon him but his heart, this alone would have made him one of those in whose presence many would be obliged to stand up and do obeisance. Most intimately does that heart cling to everything good and beautiful by a natural impulse which surpasses all education.”

Beethoven’s chronic ill health is a constant theme in the book. For example, “At the time he was composing the Third Symphony he was suffering from recurring fevers, painful and frightening abscesses, headaches that assaulted him for months, on top of his long-standing episodes of vomiting and diarrhea,” not to mention his increasing deafness and tinnitus. Doctors speculated that Beethoven may have been poisoned over time by ingesting a good deal of lead from adulterated cheap wines, lead cooking utensils, or spa waters, but the root cause of his loss of hearing may have been typhus or smallpox in childhood.

Mr. Swafford allots substantial space to Beethoven’s despair in 1802 at Heiligenstadt, when he wrote his famous testament about having considered suicide in response to his increasing deafness. “For everyone in that era, death was all around, everyone’s life like a battlefield. But for Beethoven this new threat was different, a decay from within: a slow death, the mind watching it, helpless before the grinding of fate. Fate would become an abiding theme for him, its import always hostile.” (My English granddaughter, upon listening to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth when she was five, caught the essence, asking her mother, “Why is Beethoven always so cross?”)

Ever egotistical, Beethoven surmounted the crisis by contemplating how far he had yet to go before he had produced all that he was capable of doing. When his dying brother Carl willed his son to Beethoven, Beethoven had another reason to live, but his relationship with nephew Karl was always fraught, as were Beethoven’s famously unrequited infatuations, particularly those with his aristocratic pupils.

Mr. Swafford says that the composer was a generally competent businessman — which is surprising, given that he never learned to multiply or divide. For example, the author writes, “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.”

In summarizing the evolution of Beethoven’s music, Mr. Swafford emphasizes that Beethoven “pushes every envelope, makes his models his own partly by doing everything 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, a more individual personality than in the past.”

Beethoven, who always envied Haydn for having created what became known as the Austrian national anthem, would have taken immense pleasure in the fact that his own hymn tune setting for Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the Ninth Symphony was selected as the European Union’s anthem. Says Mr. Swafford, “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 extraordinary and boundlessly generous men our species has produced — greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.”

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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