Swafford’s ‘Beethoven: Anguish and Tragedy’

Thoughtful Christmas gift of Jan Swafford’s recent Beethoven biography made an interesting read; still in progress but it is a brisk read. A module on Beethoven was part of my first year of undergraduate studies (taught by David Wyn-Jones, author of The Life of Beethoven) and I recall his warning that anything about the composer could come up in the examination. It’s early fifteen years ago now and I don’t recall the precise details of the lectures but reading Swafford’s book has brought a great deal back.

I had forgotten how much Beethoven (according to Swafford’s reading of his life) was such a business man with regards to publication; critiquing the critics too in the publisher’s journals too. I never recalled him being so conscious of his talents and his conscious control of being different and leading a new path; Swafford highlights Beethoven’s letters to his various publishers and occasionally he made a point of the newness in certain works. I had never recognised the obvious attempts of composers to not only connect with a broader historical trajectory but one that was so recent; Beethoven seemed highly concerned with his connections with Haydn and Mozart. As well as his concern for surpassing his recent forbears and I had never considered the less successful parts of Beethoven’s career and Swafford weaves these honest details in well.

Thought I’m not finished with the book, and despite some repetitive points (which are rather helpful as I feel like I’m really getting to know the biography through such repetitive passages) it seems like an honest account of a life that can’t really be untangled from his output as a composer. Swafford doesn’t sensationalise (entirely) the aspects of Beethoven’s biography that have fallen into popular conscientious, but helps paint a broad picture of a composer that I had always respected as a significant figure in musical history. I had just never recognised how much he worked to ensure that would be the case during and after his lifetime.

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