Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford

John O’Conor hails a great portrait of a musical genius

Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph
Author: Jan Swafford
ISBN-13: 978-0571312559
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £30

I had not previously come across the observation of Schopenhauer: "talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." Jan Swafford quotes it in his biography of Beethoven, Beethoven – Anguish and Triumph, and goes on triumphantly to prove why Beethoven is worthy of joining the elite whose presence in this world is something for which we should all be thankful.

This is probably the most profound book on Beethoven that I have ever read. It is written by an expert who is steeped in knowledge of the man, his times, his character, his music, his triumphs, his failings. I do not mean to take away from the effect that Romain Rolland's book Beethoven the Creator had on me when I first read it when very young, or from the admiration which I will continue to have for Maynard Solomon's biography (which I must now re-read). But Swafford writes with a passion and enthusiasm which is completely infectious.

The most revealing part of the book to me is Swafford’s depiction of Beethoven in his teens. Most people who know something of Beethoven’s life will be able to say that he studied first with his father and then went to Vienna to study with Haydn, which was not a success. Some will know that he then studied with Johann Albrechtsberger, who was helpful. But few will know the name of Christian Neefe, with whom Beethoven studied in Bonn from the age of 10. I knew the name but it is Swafford’s book that made me realise how important Neefe was to Beethoven’s development. I know that everyone remembers the teachers in secondary school who had most influence on them. Looking back it’s easy to realise that often the subjects we liked most were those taught by the teachers we most admired. It is through Swafford’s biography that I came to know Neefe best and understand how Beethoven developed under his influence.

Neefe was very much interested in the Freemasons and the movements that were escalating in Germany and Europe at the time: the Aufklärung, the Schwärmer, the Illuminati. Beethoven never fell fully under the influence of these groups but could not have failed to become aware of their aims and ideals, and I have to agree with Swafford that it may have coloured his thinking for the rest of his life.

Hotbed of agitation

Europe was a hotbed of agitation at the time. It is a very illuminating observation of Swafford’s that Beethoven grew up between the American and French Revolutions, both of whose influence was immense on all nations in Europe. I had never thought of how that must have affected Beethoven’s views on life. Certainly he was a supporter of equality of opportunity for all and not very enamoured of the nobility – except when they were giving him money on which to live.

There was a lot to worry the ruling dynasties of Europe at the time. In 1793 (the same year that Louis XVI was guillotined in Paris with his Austrian wife Marie Antoinette), Emperor Franz II of Austria banned the Freemasons and turned Austria into a police state complete with secret police and informers everywhere. Beethoven had just moved to Vienna at the time.

All through this fascinating book are insights into the complexity of Beethoven: his admiration of poets – he liked to call himself a tondichter (tone poet) rather than a composer; his clever perception that it was better at first to stay away from publishing symphonies and quartets – which had been so successfully done by Haydn and Mozart – until he was more established; his idea of publishing piano and string trios and in particular solo piano works, as he was one of the first composers to explore the possibilities of the piano rather than stay under the influence of the harpsichord; his hatred of music critics; his careful cultivation of rich patrons – and his relentless pursuit of them when they delayed payments; his constant financial worries; his endless, unsuccessful pursuit of women; the tragedy of his deafness and how he overcame it (the Heiligenstadt Testament, which he wrote in 1802 when he was only 32, and which was in effect a suicide note, was an example of this); his love of Greek, Latin and Shakespeare; his kindness (yes, indeed – despite his perceived gruffness); his constant arguments with his publishers and his frustration with proofreaders that have dogged the so-called Urtext editions to this day.

In his biography Swafford portrays Beethoven as far more than a mere composer. His practicality comes across too. As he said, “an artist has to be to a certain extent a businessman as well”. His love of nature and the countryside was a huge influence on his inspiration and his character. Swafford also emphasises that no musician can be interesting if they can only talk shop by elucidating Beethoven’s interest in talking politics, literature and ideas.

Steel knitting needle

Not that Beethoven was always the ideal teacher or companion. One of his students ran home crying from a lesson after Beethoven whipped his fingers with a steel knitting needle – a practice he probably learned from his father. Julie Guicciardi recalls that he was “very ugly” and mostly “shabbily dressed” but it didn’t stop her being interested enough in him that it is said he proposed to her but “her parents squelched it”, as Swafford describes it. As Swafford writes, “standing between Beethoven and the women he yearned for were his health, his high-mindedness, their social position, his eccentricity”.

It is impossible to do justice to this wonderful biography in a review. It is a book that once I had finished it (it is no easy read at over 1,000 pages, including the footnotes) I felt the need to start reading it all over again.

Although I would quibble with some aspects – I don’t feel Swafford gets the humour in the Piano Sonata in F Op 10 No 2, and I wish he had stressed even more the intensity of Beethoven in all his works – there is only one thing that annoyed me about this book and that is the index. When the next edition of this book happens (and it must – it deserves it) someone must provide a more comprehensive index. By about page 200 I was making copious notes for myself of references that impressed me so much.

When I was performing the Third Piano Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra which was going to be broadcast live on RTÉ. I was asked for any stories about the concerto which would help the commentator and I went back to this book to verify my story but there was no reference in the index, which I found extremely frustrating. There is a listing for Piano Concerto No 1 and Piano Concerto No 2 but none for the other three under that heading. The 5th concerto reference is under “Emperor”.

If I had not made my own notes to the referenced 3rd Concerto (it’s on page 316) I would never have found it. I am still trying to find the exact page of the Schopenhauer quotation with which I opened this review.

Despite this I want to start reading this book all over again and I would encourage every lover of Beethoven and of classical music to rush out and buy it. I now have to rush out myself and buy Prof Swafford’s biography of Brahms, which I am sure will be equally fascinating.

John O’Conor is a pianist, teacher and artistic director of the Dublin International Piano Competition