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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph Hardcover – August 5, 2014
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A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
A Christian Science Monitor Top 10 Book of the Month
"Swafford’s craftsmanship shines...The 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."
–Jeremy Denk, New York Times Book Review
"Impassioned and informed...Swafford’s exuberance is infectious, prompting the reader to revisit works both famous and obscure."
–The New Yorker
"[T]he stately rhythm, carefully etched detailing and oceanic sweep of this ambitious book mirror the complexity and richness of Beethoven's revolutionary Romanticism...surrender to it and it’s easy to be swept away...Swafford comes marvelously equipped to take on the enormousness of Beethoven's life and work – his heights of inspiration, depths of suffering, the roots and range of his masterworks...Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph doesn't drown in its musicology so much as achieve a buoyant balance of technical and human detail."
–Matt Damsker, USA TODAY
"Compelling...Despite the wealth of historical detail, this is no dry academic tome, but a biography full of colorful descriptions of the composer and his milieu...Comprehensive, detailed, and highly readable, this is an entertaining biography that should find favor with music lovers and history buffs."
"Swafford creates the perfect blend of a historical person and musical genius...Monumental...A truly remarkable biography."
–Christian Science Monitor
"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."
"Swafford has a knack for bringing in the reader wholly unschooled in the technical vernacular of classical music. That skill is in evidence in this blend of biography and musical assessment. Even if you don't know the difference between a leitmotif and a lighthouse, don't sweat it, for this is, more than anything, a saga of a man at odds with so many things: convention, social mores, himself, women, his family ... If this isn't exactly the Beethoven that Schroeder of 'Peanuts' fame worshiped, it's a more believable characterization, and, more than that, one gets a better sense of how this roiling personality produced works to roil the human soul."
"An immersive, comprehensive view...The book has a biopic feel...Lively"
–The New York Review of Books
"This combination of gripping biography and readable analysis of Beethoven’s compositions is a book for all Beethoven enthusiasts, full of insights and memorable vignettes, old and new."
"Magisterial, warm, and engaging...A triumph of scholarship and musical affinity... Jan Swafford is to be saluted."
"Swafford traces the life and art of Beethoven in eye-opening, rational detail and gives you a more human, more fascinating portrait of Beethoven the radical evolutionary than even the Beethoven the Romantic of legend...When Swafford writes about Beethoven's raptus–the trance-like state friends remakred upon when he was most lost in his musical world–you feel as if you were there, listening to the improvisations flowing from the virtuoso's fingers...For those who cannot read music, Swafford's published excerpts can look daunting, but with a little work and a good CD collection, anyone can follow Swafford's journeys through Beethoven's journeys. The payoff is more than worth it."
"Magnificent...Some of the most enjoyable segments of his book are the spirited and knowledgeable readings of Beethoven’s various compositions. These passages are so passionate that they virtually propel the reader across the room to the CD collection, to play the pieces being so smartly described...A stunning tour de force, a Beethoven biography to shine for a lifetime."
–Open Letters Monthly
"Monumental...Engaging and entertaining...Beethoven aficionados and lovers of classical music will want this book, as will readers interested in biography and the artistic milieu of late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe."
–Library Journal, starred review
"A thorough, affectionate, and unblinking account of the life of the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)...Due to the author’s unsurpassed research and comprehension, we stand in the presence of a genius and see all his flawed magic."
–Kirkus, starred review
"In this brilliant, exhaustive story, biographer and music historian Swafford (Johannes Brahms) brings new life to Beethoven."
–Publishers Weekly, starred review
- Publisher : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition (August 5, 2014)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 1104 pages
- ISBN-10 : 061805474X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0618054749
- Item Weight : 3.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.11 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #30,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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Now, Jan Swafford writes biographies of musicians (I have another one, set to drop in December, on Mozart and it is amazing). The books, however, are huge. I mean, HUGE. He writes 1000 page explorations of the lives of such individuals as Brahms and Beethoven, Mozart (coming soon) and the like. Swafford is a composer and writer, and I believe (don’t quote me on this) he has also taught music theory. The guy comes to the game with a lot in his arsenal, and it shows. Biographies can be hard, especially when the figures are infamous, because sometimes it feels as though the individual being written about somehow supersedes the author and directs the book from his/her place in history. However, Swafford retained complete control over Beethoven throughout the book, which is no small feat, considering how large the man looms in history.
"At one point when she had lost a child, Beethoven invited her over, sat down at the piano, and said, “Now we will converse in music.” For more than an hour he improvised for her. “He said everything to me,” Ertmann later told Felix Mendelssohn, “and finally gave me consolation.” It must have been a heartrending scene, Beethoven making music for a bereaved woman who played and understood his work as well as anybody alive. He gave voice to her grief and offered her hope. Here was a microcosm of what all his music does: it captures life in its breadth of sorrow and joy, spoken to and for the whole of humanity. Beneath the paranoid, misanthropic, often unbearable surface, Beethoven was among the most generous of men."
I will say that a background in music is not necessary for enjoying this book, but it is helpful. I have played the piano for thirty years, and the French horn for just under that. Music put me through college via scholarships. I’ve played in more symphonies than I can possibly ever even attempt to remember. I know music, and still, some of these deep dives describing Beethoven’s various music could be, at times overwhelming. It does help to listen to the pieces as Swafford describes them, so you can kind of follow via audio what he is detailing in the books, but I anticipate that this might be the part of the book that will either make or break the reader. Now, before you freak out and say “I don’t want to read this” understand that Beethoven was as much a man as a musician, and to understand his life, you really do have to understand his music because that was how he communicated with the world. And yes, you can skim lengthy musical discussions.
An example of some of the musical lingo here:
"In a long-unfolding melody of various phrasing, without hurry it drifts down from B-flat to D below the staff, then over the next twelve bars slowly wends its way up to B-flat above the staff, then sinks down an octave."
Swafford, as I’ve said, holds mastery over his subject. While everyone seems to know at least one thing about Beethoven, Swafford seems to know everything. The book is filled with details, with nuances, with all those things that makes the man feel like less a looming historical figure, and more a human who actually existed in the world. Furthermore, while I do think he lingers a bit long on some of the musical analyzation, Swafford never really gets bogged down by any one part of the story as a whole. He tells a very well-rounded story of his subject, painting him as a sort of misunderstood genius, a man who was chronically out of place, just enough of a step away from the social “norms” to make him feel utterly and completely out of sync most of the time.
Perhaps one thing I took away from the book more than almost anything else was how incredibly sad Beethoven’s childhood was. His father, determined to make the next Mozart out of his son, basically drove Beethoven to eat, drink, sleep, and dream about music, forcing him to spend hours at the piano, sometimes in the middle of the night. Punishments were brutal, involving beatings and being locked away. While he had siblings he played with, and friends of a sort, he never really learned how to be a human in the world. Everything he did was focused on music, and so he never really learned how to communicate, how to interact with others. A harsh judge of himself, he imposed that same eye to the rest of the world, often finding that the world fell short of his expectations.
"Music was the one extraordinary thing in a sea of the disappointing and ordinary. Reared as he was in a relentless discipline, instinctively responsive to music as he was, the boy never truly learned to understand the world outside music. Nobody ever really demanded that of him until, disastrously, near the end of his life. 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."
I also didn’t know that Beethoven was really one of the very first actual piano players of the world. Up to his day, most everyone who played, played on the harpsichord, and then moved over to the piano as it became more popular. Beethoven, however, started on the piano and stayed there.
So much of the music Beethoven created was a reflection of not only his inner turmoil (I’d argue, the man was rarely, if ever, truly happy), and the political upheavals around him. Living in a time of the Enlightenment, Napoleon, and all the political and social changes that ensued, life was not short of such influences from which to base his music off of. While Swafford can go a bit deep in on the music, it was fascinating to read about a lot of these compositions and set them against the backdrop of such tumultuous times, health problems, mental health, and depression. It truly helped me understand what Beethoven was trying to say when he crafted some of his most recognizable, powerful pieces, which helps me appreciate his mastery of the musical language in a way I never truly did before reading this book.
Some of the problem with Beethoven is that he’s larger than life, nearly mythologized, and that started happening even when he was alive. Doubtless, that made the man, who had always struggled with being part of the human animal, feel that much more an outsider. I also think it’s likely why I’ve always wanted to read a biography of Beethoven, but never quite got around to it. It’s hard to take someone so large and grand, and make them both human and understood, and yet somehow Swafford managed it, showing not just the musical genius that was Ludwig van Beethoven, but also the man behind the mask, the often tortured, darkly feeling, judgmental, out of sync human who seemed to be somewhat akin to the outsider looking in. And yet, despite all of that, he still managed to retain a generosity of spirit and hope for something greater that was always hinted at in even his darkest pieces.
“There’s something singularly moving about that moment when this man—deaf and sick and misanthropic and self-torturing, at the same time one of the most extraordinary and boundlessly generous men our species has produced—greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends.”
This is not a small book. It weighs in at slightly shy of 1000 pages. It’s a beast, but I will honestly tell you, I’d sit down to spend ten minutes reading, and before I realized what happened, half the day would be gone. This biography sucked me in. I lost so much time to it, and I didn’t regret that at all. The only other biography that has managed to captivate me so thoroughly was the one I mentioned at the start of this review, on Van Gogh.
I can truthfully say, I will never hear another Beethoven piece the same again. This is, hands down, one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.
Top reviews from other countries
But - this review is primarily intended to draw attention to the disaster area that is the index. It does not detract from the five star rating, as I'm giving the author the benefit of the doubt, but I do hope it may come to the attention of Messrs Faber.
For a magisterial musical biography, to which one will constantly refer, there is no systematic index of works mentioned in the text. The way in which the works are listed in the index is a complete shambles. For example:
Two piano concertos are listed upder P - Piano Concerto Nos 1 and 2. Their keys are given, but not the Opus numbers. Piano Concertos nos 3 and 4 are listed under T, for Third, and F, for Fourth, respectively - with neither key nor Opus number. The Fifth is listed under E for Emperor, again with neither Opus number nor key. This is hopeless!
Piano sonatas: those with names are listed under ther name - A for Apassionata, W for Waldstein, etc. Several are listed under P for Piano Sonata, but are referred to only by their key (whereas in my experience Opus number is more usual, and helpful). Where a group of sonatas appear under one Opus number (Opus 2, Opus 31), these are referred to by their opus number. If you wish to search for Opus 110, you have to remember that it is the Sonata in A-flat Major. Remembering that it is Piano Sonata no. 31 won't help you.
String quartets: it gets worse. The Razumovsky Quartets Opus 59 Nos.1-3 are listed under R, for Razumovsky. The Serioso Quartet Opus 95 is listed under S for Serioso. Just two (out of 15) string quartets are listed under S for String Quartet, and then only with their keys, not their Opus numbers.
And so it goes on. Ninth Symphony under N for ninth, Eighth under E for eigth, Sixth under P for Pastoral, Third under E for Eroica - none with Opus numbers or keys.
The upshot of all this is that whilst just about every work is mentioned in the text, some are impossible to find again, short of re-reading the book. Some aren't in the index at all. Bagatelles (several Opus numbers), Andante favori - forget it. Once you've turned the page, they're lost.
This is not the only otherwise great composer biography marred by a nightmare index - see also David Cairns's biography of Berlioz with its hopelessly unclassified index. For an example of what an index should look like (Faber and Faber please note) have a look at Alan Walker's 3-volume biography of Liszt, or his recent biography of Chopin.
I am not totally convinced by the editing and even less by the printing which you can examine for yourself by running a finger over some text and considering the smudge that appears. Is all well with Faber?