Jan Swafford offers a sympathetic take on Ludwig van Beethoven the man, someone who didn’t understand the world beyond music. (Associated Press)
Anguish and Triumph

By Jan Swafford

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 1,077 pp. $40

From his first encounter, as a teenage boy, with Friedrich Schiller’s “An die Freude,” Ludwig van Beethoven knew that he would one day set its verses to music. That the young Beethoven would be drawn to Schiller’s 1785 ode seems only natural: With its invocation of universal brotherhood, its celebration of joy and freedom as the essential qualities of life, “An die Freude” was representative of the enlightened era in which Beethoven came of age. The Bonn of Beethoven’s youth was governed by a fervent belief in the rational, the secular, the primacy of nature and science — ideals the composer would carry with him all his life. When, decades later, Beethoven wrote his titanic Ninth Symphony, using Schiller’s poem as the basis of the choral final movement, he bequeathed to the world a piece of music that exalted humanity like nothing before. In this vision of an earthly Elysium, “alle Menschen werden Brüder” — all men will become brothers. And yet, as Jan Swafford writes in this hefty yet eminently readable biography, Beethoven “never truly learned to understand the world outside music. . . . Nor did he ever really understand love. He could perceive the world and other people only through the prism of his own consciousness, judging them in the unforgiving terms he judged himself.”

The image of the irascible Beethoven is almost a cliché, yet it is true that he responded with defiance and hostility to almost every impediment life presented. He fought with his friends and resented his teachers (especially Haydn). He loathed most of his aristocratic patrons, as well as the Viennese musical public. For Beethoven, then, universal brotherhood was always an elusive ideal, something to be realized in art if not in life.

Only in solitude, Swafford writes, did Beethoven experience temporary peace: “Part of his gift was the raptus, that ability to withdraw into an inner world that took him beyond everything and everybody around him, and also took him beyond the legion of afflictions that assailed him. Improvising at the keyboard and otherwise, he found solitude even in company.” This isolation became ever more vital as his many ailments worsened, the cruelest of which was his loss of hearing. Beethoven’s deafness began with a bewildering episode at the age of 27 that left him with “a maddening chorus of squealing, buzzing, and humming that raged in his ears day and night.” As his hearing steadily declined, his career as one of the most dazzling piano virtuosi of his time came to an end. Other serious health issues plagued him, as well: chronic fevers and gastrointestinal distress, headaches, abscesses. But it was his descent into an increasingly soundless existence that led to the great spiritual crisis of his life.

"Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph" by Jan Swafford (HMH/HMH)

Seeking respite in the village of Heiligenstadt, Beethoven flirted with suicide. In the letter known famously as the Heiligenstadt Testament, he addressed his brothers, Johann and Caspar, explaining the causes of his misery, how he had to live “almost alone like an exile” without any joy at all, but how he had decided to prolong his “wretched existence” for one reason only: his art. He had not yet created what he knew he could, and he left Heiligenstadt in defiant spirit, ready to compose, in a splendid flurry, the many masterpieces of his middle period: the Eroica Symphony, Piano Concerto No. 4, the Violin Concerto and the Op. 59 string quartets, among others.

The fiery aggression that characterized so much of his life ultimately died away. As his health continued to erode, as his financial situation became more precarious, as he failed repeatedly to win the sustained love of any woman (it didn’t help that he was both unattractive and slovenly), Beethoven assumed a tone of resignation in his dealings with the world. His only source of joy was his music. a joy gained only through supreme personal anguish.

Beethoven’s musical achievement, then, seems all the more astounding. In the sense that he expanded upon — but did not explode — the symphonic tradition he inherited from Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven was no revolutionary. Yet before him, no one could have imagined anything like the composer’s Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh or Ninth Symphony, each expanding in different ways the possibilities of the genre. In his concertos, sonatas and string quartets, he pushed the boundaries of sonority, expression, harmonic structure, color and form. Especially in the works of his final period, Beethoven achieved a profound depth in music that is possessed of an otherworldly, cosmic beauty. The sense of expanded time and space conveyed in the final piano sonata or the slow movements of the late quartets was matched only, I think, by the symphonies of Anton Bruckner many years later.

Not surprisingly — given that he is a noted composer, as well as the author of biographies of Brahms and Charles Ives — Swafford’s writing on Beethoven’s music is perceptive and illuminating. But just as impressive is his sympathetic portrait of Beethoven the man. Swafford’s book, which should be placed alongside the excellent biographies by Lewis Lockwood and Maynard Solomon, does not diminish any of the composer’s flaws. Instead, it suggests that these flaws were inconsequential compared with the severity of the composer’s anguish and the achievement of his music.“

So much of what we know about Beethoven,” Swafford writes, “we best forget when we come to his art. The limits and the pettiness of humanity held up against the illusion of the limitless in art were never more pointed as with him. He understood people little and liked them less, yet he lived and worked and exhausted himself to exalt humanity.”

Bose is the managing editor of the American Scholar.