The bittersweet symphonies of Beethoven’s life

Beethoven’s life was a series of disappointments, recurring conflicts, worsening illness and increasing financial worries, but, says Eamonn Lawlor, nothing could diminish his genius    

The bittersweet symphonies of Beethoven’s life

Beethoven Anguish and Triumph

Jan Swafford

Faber & Faber, ebook €18.19

IF YOU saw him in Vienna in the 1820s, he would have been shabbily dressed, dishevelled, and making gruff comments about people as they passed, and you might have moved to the other side of the street — before you noticed that others were bowing low in deepest respect to the unfortunate man.

Upon inquiring, you would have been told that this was the great composer Beethoven, the acknowledged successor to Haydn and Mozart, one of the Austrian Empire’s most honoured citizens. If your informant was one of the discerning few, you would have learned, moreover, that, despite appearances, the revered composer was at the very height of his powers, creating a succession of works (the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, the late quartets) that not only redefined what music could do but proclaimed a new vision of what it means to be human.

“What it means to be human”: that phrase closes Jan Swafford’s captivating account of Beethoven’s life and music. Swafford is hardly the first to sum up the man’s achievement with those words, and neither in its prose nor in its research does his book break new ground. Where it succeeds admirably, however, is in drawing together the two apparently conflicting sides of the composer’s life: the constant quarrels, the paranoia, the disastrous search for love and the hopeless inadequacy in human relationships are balanced by the almost superhuman qualities of the artist, the ideals that fired his genius, the all-conquering will that drove him, and the musicianship that enabled him to triumph.

It is difficult not to be reminded of Mike Leigh’s recent film, Mr Turner, and Timothy Spall’s virtuosic and visceral portrayal of the great English painter. Beethoven and Turner were born within five years of each other, and both were artists of shocking originality who were social misfits. Today, we might describe each of them as having an autism spectrum disorder, but no glib diagnosis can do justice to either — and Beethoven’s latest biographer knows better than to attempt one.

Mr Turner, for all its merits, fails the artist by dwelling on his weaknesses and dealing only superficially with his paintings. Swafford’s Beethoven is different: the author is himself a composer, and his narrative weaves its way between the life and the works, never losing itself in the details, ever mindful that it is the music that makes the tale worth telling.

By the time we get to the Eroica symphony (300 pages in), we have lived with Beethoven through his difficult childhood in Bonn; we know the grandfather whose memory Beethoven revered, the alcoholic father whose duties as breadwinner Beethoven had taken over, and the mother who taught him that without suffering there is no struggle, without struggle no victory, without victory no crown.

We have followed Ludwig the young piano virtuoso to Vienna and seen him grow rapidly in fame, learned something of his relationship with Haydn (whose influence he underplayed). We have followed the rise of French military general Napoleon, an inspiration to any young man with only his talent to rely on if he is to realise his destiny.

Then comes the Eroica, and Swafford hits his stride, drawing on his own experience of composition as he takes us through the score of the symphony, imagining Beethoven’s thought processes as he goes: the decisions he was making to realise his great plan for the work.

The effect is exhilarating: it places us at the composer’s elbow as he works, as he becomes “a new kind of composer writing a new kind of music... To discover new means of expression”, the author reminds us, “is to discover new territories of the human”.

Any writer on music must be mindful of Schumann’s dictum that the music we love expresses thoughts that are too precise for words.

With Beethoven, however, we can take courage from his own great belief in the written word; he believed poetry to be the highest form of art and would later call himself a Tondichter — tone poet — rather than a composer.

Writers on Beethoven have long described his music as though it were a great poem that told a story of spiritual development, from the hero’s victory in the Eroica, to the inner heroism of the Fifth Symphony, to the vision of a higher destiny for humankind in the Ninth.

In Swafford’s telling, the story (or the poem) reaches a climax in the Ode to Joy, in which “Beethoven erected a movement of transcendent scope on a humble little tune that anyone can sing”. When the bass soloist at the start of the movement calls for a song full of joy, it is as though Beethoven “..greets us person to person, with glass raised, and hails us as friends”.

The Beethoven who emerges from these pages raised many glasses to many friends — and fell out with most of them, sooner or later. Noble patrons who supported him financially were rewarded with his resentment of their hereditary privileges; his brothers felt the brunt of his disapproval for their moral conduct or their choice of wife.

In the Fifth Symphony we can hear dramatised the great effort of will by which he defied the onset of deafness and found his way as a composer. But his quest for fulfilment involved more than music, and no amount of willpower could bring him the idealised love and happy marriage for which he yearned. The strangeness of his behaviour was one handicap; his unprepossessing looks another. Above all, though he believed himself the equal of the noble ladies whom he taught and who came to hear him play, his lowly birth precluded marriage with them.

Imagine the distress of his friends when, having failed to find a wife, Beethoven set out to gain a son. After the death of his brother, Carl, he became guardian to his nephew, young Karl, and spent years fighting bitter legal battles with the boy’s mother to secure custody.

So his life went on, through successive disappointments, recurring conflicts, worsening illness and increasing financial worries: the composer allowing himself to be distracted from his art for a time, but finding his way back to undertake new and more ambitious projects.

It is as though the apparent contradiction between his disastrous life and his sublime music becomes itself part of the music, part of the poem. In the late piano sonatas and string quartets we encounter, as Swafford puts it, “shifting ideas and shifting emotions, approaching, at times, the effect of a stream of consciousness”. Tender lyricism, broad farce and deepest sorrow will follow each other in a single work.... as they do in a single life. Towards the end of the book, before the harrowing description of the composer’s last illness, there is an account of him wandering the fields on his brother’s estate, shouting and singing and waving his arms as usual, as he conducted the music he was composing in his head — and twice stampeded a herd of oxen, oblivious to the protests of an exasperated drover.

Jan Swafford gives a clear account of the failings and eccentricities, as well as a masterly overview of the genius and the triumphs. He illuminates the paradox that Beethoven, with his limited understanding of people, could be the great teacher of what it is to be human.

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