Ask anyone to name the archetypal genius, and chances are it will be Ludwig van Beethoven. This is hardly surprising, as Beethoven largely created the image of what genius should be. When he was young, he was compared to Mozart; when he was old, to Shakespeare. His music could be loftily spiritual, blazingly dramatic, sweetly domestic, suavely aristocratic and rudely demotic, often within the space of a single work. It embraced much of music’s past, and even foreshadowed the future. What other composer born in the 18th century looked back to Palestrina and anticipated Chopin, Schumann, Wagner and even boogie-woogie?
A giant reach, combined with common humanity: this is what Beethoven shares with other candidates for the title of “exemplary genius”. Then there are those qualities that mark him out as special: his determination to strike out on new paths, whatever the professional cost (as Roland Barthes put it, “Beethoven won for artists the right to reinvent themselves”). His scorn of high-born patrons, however much they revered him. His difficulties in love, which pointed to the impossibility of genius ever finding a true soulmate. His dreadful catalogue of illnesses, which he bore with stoic fortitude. Above all, his deafness. As a symbol of the tragic and tormented creator, it’s almost too perfect.
Such a figure was bound to be mythologised, a process that started even before his death. We know now that Beethoven’s factotum Anton Schindler made things up in his memoirs. The earliest biographers and critics such as E T A Hoffmann vied with each other in hymning the world-changing nature of Beethoven’s music.
Once he’d been lifted into the realm of myth, Beethoven could be remade to suit each new world view. For romantics he was the arch-romantic; for communists he was the great revolutionary artist; for modernists he was the great radical. More recent critics have tried to cut Beethoven down to near-human size, by revealing the mythmaking process at work. Tia DeNora in her Beethoven and the Construction of Genius went further. She argued that Beethoven’s pre-eminence was due to the scheming of certain Viennese aristocrats, who “created” Beethoven to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Not all of these efforts are crudely reductionist, and some have been illuminating. Scott Burnham in his book Beethoven Hero showed how the image of Beethoven as perfect romantic genius was put together piece by piece. Maynard Solomon’s 1977 biography took a psychoanalytic approach, arguing that Beethoven lived out what Freud called a “family romance”. This explained many puzzling aspects of Beethoven’s character, such as his attraction to the idea that he was of noble birth. Lewis Lockwood’s biography seemed definitive when it appeared in 2003, gathering up all the recent thinking on Beethoven’s life and works, and offering a nuanced and sympathetic discussion of both.
Which makes one wonder: why the need for this new, 945-page biography? Jan Swafford disclaims any startling new insights, and in his preface has a dig at the ideologues who have tried to co-opt Beethoven. “I am not a post-modernist any more than a modernist or neo-romantic; I am neither conservative nor liberal… I try to look at things with as few preconceptions as possible,” he says, and adds that he prefers to tell a straight story, leaving interpretation to the reader.
He protests too much. Swafford does indeed tell a wonderful story, but he also has a coherent hypothesis about the wellsprings of Beethoven’s character. This is revealed early on, so it must surely influence the choice of illuminating detail. And there’s much to the book beyond a Life. Swafford wants us to understand the parallels and asymmetries between the life and the work, so he discusses many key works, with a mix of keen analytical insight and evocative prose. He weaves these discussions into the biography, rather than corralling them into stand-alone chapters distributed through the narrative, as Lockwood did in his book.
Swafford sets Beethoven in the context of the Enlightenment, and later the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon. This, together with the detailed scene-setting of Viennese life, and potted biographies of Beethoven’s intimates and family, makes for a wonderfully rich but also unwieldy account.
This isn’t an easy read but, Swafford would probably retort, so what? Beethoven isn’t easy either. It’s almost as if Swafford wants to make his book a strenuous ride, so that we share at one remove the strenuousness that was the hallmark of Beethoven’s life.
That quality reveals itself early in Beethoven’s career in Bonn, the city where he was born and raised. Like his father, he worked as a musician at the Elector of Cologne’s court. Unlike him, he had vast ambitions for himself and for music. “Only art and science can raise man to the level of the gods,” he said, and this cultural striving went hand in hand with an ethical striving, a turning away from fleshly instincts. Beethoven was a prude by 18th-century standards, and, though he often resorted to prostitutes, he despised himself afterwards (but not always. There was a rumbustious side to Beethoven that Swafford doesn’t neglect.
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