I’ve read Beethoven biographies before, but Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is in a different category altogether. For one thing, it’s a thousand pages long. But despite its length it maintains an analytical coherence that can mark the best biographies, regardless of their length, whereas the worst just muddle through anecdote after anecdote. Swafford, who’s also written about Brahms and Charles Ives, sketches two distinct threads—the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and his precarious health—and examines how those two things had an impact on Beethoven and his work.
That examination benefits from the book’s length and Swafford’s perspective on Beethoven’s entire life (rather than a specific work, say the Ninth). Beethoven’s encroaching deafness is often related to his work with no real insight; he was, in fact, plagued with a number of illnesses, mostly due to lead poisoning and alcoholism. And it’s impossible to understand the political and philosophical core of the Ninth Symphony without understanding how Beethoven grew up in and related to the Aufklärung, the Napoleonic Wars, and the increasing political repression of Metternich-era Austria that led to the Biedermeier period.
Swafford is a composer himself and spends considerable time—whole chapters, for some pieces—analysing Beethoven’s music in considerable detail. If you’re not a musical sort you can skip past these sections, the way that a lot of readers might gloss over the songs and poetry in The Lord of the Rings, but I found his analyses quite illuminating when they covered a piece I’d studied and knew very well.
More importantly, he’s better able to describe what the hell Beethoven was doing, particularly in relation to the trends of the time and his peers. It is, in other words, valuable to have a composer’s perspective, rather than a classical music devotee’s—all the difference between the perspective of an oenophile and a winemaker.
It makes the book much more about the music and less about the personality. Yes, it’s a biography, and as such has to be about the personality, but we wouldn’t be reading about a violent and unhygienic misanthrope if he wasn’t producing some of the best music in human history.
I’m not at all surprised it took Swafford twelve years to write this thing; he’s produced something very close to the authoritative biography on the man.