Immortal Beloved: Book Review: ‘Beethoven,’ by Jan Swafford

Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

In the show “30 Rock,” there was a running joke about tragedy. A character appears, reveals her tearful past, then brightly adds, “They made a Lifetime movie about me” — the credential of an absurdly pathetic story with a redemptive payoff. Of all the great composers’ lives, Ludwig van Beethoven’s seems the most made for Lifetime. The curtain opens on a difficult childhood: an abusive alcoholic father, a boy genius mocked for his dark skin. He survives, makes his way to Vienna for fame and fortune — only to be stricken by (gasp) deafness. In addition, we have impossible passions for mysterious beloveds, side themes of class struggle, freedom, individuality, the backdrop of Napoleonic conquest and a score (what a score!) surging with alternating storminess and tenderness. Beethoven’s story is almost too good to be true, and almost too bad to be television.

Jan Swafford’s new biography of Beethoven, a personal and loving contribution to the literature, even has a Life­timeish subtitle: “Anguish and Triumph.” The triumph, of course, is the triumph of will through artistic creation; the anguish is copious failures of the body: “deafness, colitis, rheumatism, rheumatic fever, typhus, skin disorders, abscesses, a variety of infections, ophthalmia, inflammatory degeneration of the arteries, jaundice and at the end chronic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver.” When Beethoven’s body wasn’t betraying him, he was destroying himself, sabotaging his most important relationships, succumbing to destructive obsessions. Between these willful and fateful destructions, he squeezed out the miracle of his music. (Lazy readers, I just saved you 1,077 pages; you’re welcome.)

Swafford’s voice is genial and conversational, that of a friend who loves to tell you about his fascinations: the foibles of court life, logistical problems of the musician. He supplies a generous chapter on the German Enlightenment, connecting threads of the 1770s and ’80s, opposing currents of rationalism and expressive release: Schiller, Kant, Goethe, the American Revolution. He nods toward Beethoven’s unhappy childhood, but emphasizes “the golden age of old Bonn’s intellectual and artistic life” and “the town’s endless talk of philosophy, science, music, politics, literature.”

The narrative acquires momentum when Beethoven reaches his darkest hour (Heiligenstadt, 1802). In one of the best chapters, Swafford considers the tune of the last movement of the Third Symphony, an englische, a dance connected to democratic ideals (according to Schiller, it was “the most perfectly appropriate symbol of the assertion of one’s own freedom and regard for the freedom of others”), then heads off to the wider European stage to watch a dubious moment in democracy: Napoleon being proclaimed first consul for life. Swafford’s craftsmanship shines in the meeting of these contrapuntal lines: Beethoven’s personal heroism against illness and adversity, Napoleon’s world-conquering heroism, both seemingly servants of broader freedoms.

This book is two books: a biography and a series of journeys through the music, a travelogue with an excitable professor. Readers will want to have a recording playing, so they can match metaphors to sounds. I found myself engaged by his imagery, sometimes delighted and surprised, often bewildered, and occasionally furious. The descriptions include the clinical, but trend Romantic: A climax of the “Waldstein” Sonata is like “a gust of wind that shocks the listener into a sense of the joyous effervescence of life.” There is silliness: The last movement of a sonata “begins with a couple of can’t-get-started stutters followed by sort of a sneeze.” When Swafford described the middle movement of the “Appassionata” as “somber,” I threw the book on the floor, Beethoven-style. The piece is the opposite of gloomy; its gesture, its reason for being, is to reach up in a gradual arc toward elation.

Swafford repeatedly points out the way Beethoven cunningly derived pieces from a single, simple idea. This is not news — but it’s worth meditating on. Beethoven preferred musical ideas of almost unusable simplicity, things that seem pre-­musical, or ur-musical, like chords, or scales — not music, but the stuff music is made of. Imagine a building constructed of blueprints, or a novel based on the word “the.” To demonstrate this, Swafford focuses on a magical aha moment: Beethoven has just figured out how he’ll begin the Fifth Symphony, with a motif we know all too well. “Then something struck him,” Swafford says. “He jotted down an idea in G major . . . the melodic line, virtually intact, of the opening piano soliloquy of the Fourth Piano Concerto.” This other melody is built on the same rhythmic DNA, the same da-da-da-dum, but in place of agitation, you have the most gorgeous benediction, a melody of unbelievable tenderness. There they are, on facing pages: two of the greatest musical works of all time, born from the same piece of Morse code, a single unit of rhythm that was turned in Beethoven’s mind (at the moment of creation!) to utterly opposing ends.

In Mozart and Haydn, these same units, these triads and scales, are lurking behind the surface; but generally there is a film or veil concealing the girders from view. In Mozart, the ends of phraselets are often decorated with little dissonances, elegant deflections; in Haydn, the same role is often played by witty cross-accents, or unusual figurations. But you can notice, more and more, in later Beethoven — for example the slow movement of the last violin sonata, or of the “Archduke” Trio, both of which should be on any essential listening list — the way he purges his music of these artifacts of elegance, and prefers having harmonies on the main beats without decoration or deflection.

There is a danger in relying on rudimentary materials. They can be felt as an emptiness, a skeleton, a mere outline — Beethoven sometimes uses this expressive effect, calling our attention to the flesh that isn’t there. But more often they are felt as a strength, a frame, something to hold on to. By the late years, an uncanny duality develops: On the one hand, the sense that Beethoven might do anything, harmonically, that he would venture to the far ends of the musical earth; on the other, always there, rock-solid, the triads, the tonic and the dominant, the familiar landmarks of classical harmony. The sense of the world dissolving into the modern, the ground disappearing beneath your feet, and yet . . . the ground reassuringly remains. Beethoven somehow gets to have it both ways — absolute liberty and total control.

I found myself aching to replace the “Triumph” in Swafford’s subtitle with “Consolation.” Of course we love Beethoven’s movements of triumph: the C major fanfares that conclude the Fifth Symphony, the lust for life in the dances of the Seventh Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.” They are a crucial part of his persona, but not the center. As Swafford enumerates the endless romantic unfulfillments, the fevers and headaches and close shaves with death, you realize how much Beethoven needed the strength and consolation that he poured into his music. The pianist Leon Fleisher observed that Schubert’s consolations always come too late; his beautiful moments have the sense of happening in the past. Generally, Romantic consolations tend to be poisoned by nostalgia and regret. By the modern era, consolation is mostly off the table. But Beethoven’s consolations seem to be in the now. They are always on time — maybe not for him, but for us.