Review | Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph – Jan Swafford

About the Book

Jan Swafford’s biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms have established him as a revered music historian, capable of bringing his subjects vibrantly to life. His magnificent new biography of Ludwig van Beethoven peels away layers of legend to get to the living, breathing human being who composed some of the world’s most iconic music. Swafford mines sources never before used in English-language biographies to reanimate the revolutionary ferment of Enlightenment-era Bonn, where Beethoven grew up and imbibed the ideas that would shape all of his future work. Swafford then tracks his subject to Vienna, capital of European music, where Beethoven built his career in the face of critical incomprehension, crippling ill health, romantic rejection, and “fate’s hammer,” his ever-encroaching deafness. Throughout, Swafford offers insightful readings of Beethoven’s key works. More than a decade in the making, this will be the standard Beethoven biography for years to come. 

992 pages (kindle)
Published on August 5, 2014
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I’ve never read a biography of Beethoven before. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested, it was more that there were just so many other things to read, so I kept forgetting. The thing is, Beethoven is the ultimate tragic story. He had a pretty horrid life, and his experiences hugely informed the music he wrote. I think my favorite biography in the history of biographies is one I recently-ish reviewed on Van Gogh, who likewise lived a pretty tragic life which hugely informed his art. Reading that biography got me thinking about Beethoven, so I looked up a book and let it rip. 

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. 

5/5 stars