Ludwig van Beethoven (born c16 December 1770 - 26 March 1827) was a great composer and pianist. He remains one of the most famous and influential of all composers, with his best known compositions including 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas and 16 string quartets. His Ninth Symphony is my single most favourite piece of music, but it is time for me to move beyond the symphonies into his other works. I remember learning a little about Beethoven during my compulsory music classes at high school. I remembered feeling great sympathy for him: I’d suffered periods of intermittent deafness myself as a consequence of infection, and thought how much more tragic a loss of hearing must be for someone whose life was music. But I never really took the time to learn much more about Beethoven until I fell in love with his Ninth Symphony about twenty years ago.
In this book, Jan Swafford, himself a composer and author, has tried to present the facts about Beethoven, without the romanticised myths that started growing about him while he was still alive. While Beethoven was a great artist, it seems that he had a very limited capacity for life outside music. He was idealistic and irascible, and at times quite petty. He quarrelled with his friends and benefactors, and spent many years in a bitter custody battle with his sister-in-law over his nephew Karl. He fell in love with women who were unattainable, and he never married.
‘For well and ill, what Beethoven had been in his teens had not fundamentally changed. He had never grown into social maturity. He was never able to understand anything through another person’s eyes, could see the world only though his own lense.’
For me (a non-musician) the most interesting parts of the book were those that provided biographic detail, and properly set Beethoven’s life in the history of the times (which quickly moved from the Enlightenment to revolution and war across Europe). Was Beethoven a revolutionary? Mr Swafford portrays him as a composer whose work evolved, whose work drew from earlier composers including Mozart and Hayden. Intriguing. I felt sorry for Beethoven as he battled his progressive deafness, his ill health, his increasing paranoia. I may not understand the technical aspects of his music, but I love listening to it. Especially the Ninth Symphony.
‘The gulf between Beethoven’s music and his life, the exaltation and the darkness, only widened in his age.’