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BEETHOVEN by Jan Swafford Kirkus Star


Anguish and Triumph

by Jan Swafford

Pub Date: Aug. 5th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-618-05474-9
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A thorough, affectionate and unblinking account of the life of the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

Swafford (Music History, Theory and Composition, Boston Conservatory; Johannes Brahms: A Biography, 1997, etc.) brings a lifetime of study and passion to this remarkable work. Rich in biographical detail, the volume contains revealing excerpts from many of Beethoven’s letters and from the written observations of his visitors and family; it also contains detailed analyses of many of his most notable works, analyses that will no doubt puzzle readers unversed in music theory and/or unable to read music (Swafford includes numerous examples from the composer’s scores). Although the music remains prominent here, Beethoven’s life and personality are also downstage. We learn about his contentious relationships with his family—especially with his nephew Karl, whom Beethoven took into his home when the composer’s brother Carl died. Rigorous and unyielding, Beethoven had a difficult time with the young man, who eventually learned to play his uncle artfully. We also see Beethoven’s enormous talent at the piano, an instrument on which he could endlessly improvise—and an instrument he had to gradually surrender as his hearing worsened. We see the composer, too, as a homely man (his face scarred), often slovenly in his appearance and personal habits, an extremely proud man who considered himself the equal of all, a man who had a horrible time managing money and who never did find a woman who would accept him. (He invariably chose far younger women or women above his social standing.) Swafford highlights Beethoven’s ferocious work ethic and his emergence from the substantial shadows of Haydn and Bach (he failed to acknowledge the influence of the former until Haydn’s death).

Due to the author’s unsurpassed research and comprehension, we stand in the presence of a genius and see all his flawed magic.