Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford

Way back when I was on Booklikes, I picked up this book from Audible.  It’s one of the very rare times when I had to put down the audio in favor of the print edition.  In this case, the narrator wasn’t that great, and the material itself, it turns out, was structured in such a way that the audiobook was actually detrimental.  I could not have foreseen that.  Sometimes that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

As it was, it also turned out for the best.  Had Swafford written a “mere” biography of Beethoven, that would have been impressive enough.  But the author also decided on a course that was, for me, the primary reason to pick up this book in the first place.  You see, Beethoven is a giant.  Some might say that, musically speaking, he is the closest thing there is to a mortal god.  I would number myself among those who would say such things, with the understanding that he was still human and struggled for every note, for every chord, for every phrase.  He demanded more of himself than anyone has a right to, and in his quest for perfection, he gave everything he had and more besides.  It’s self-evident in his music.  The problem is that his music has become so famous that the revolutionary aspects — the very challenges that set him so high among us apes — are easily lost.  Swafford places the maestro’s music in context of his life and traces the development of his works through the lens of Beethoven’s own heart and mind.  In short, it’s the closest thing we’ll ever have to a personal conversation with Beethoven himself.

It’s not an easy book, especially for one such as myself who has the ears to hear but very little of the technical expertise.  Even so, I was willing to make that effort and, to my everlasting delight, I discovered that if you’re willing to meet the author halfway on music theory and composition, the reward is to discover Beethoven on his own terms.  That’s what took me so long with this book.  It’s a mammoth tome clocking in at over 1000 pages, and it is filled to capacity with detailed biography and illuminated commentary on the evolution of Beethoven’s musical genius.

What I’m saying is that I sat down with this book and, where a piece of music was mentioned, I listened to it.  Where it was explained, I listened deeper.  And before it was over I laughed, I cheered, and I wept.  I have always contended that Beethoven represents the pinnacle of human musical expression on our planet.  Swafford has given me new insights into how to validate and renew my sentiment.

Without Beethoven, there is no modern music.  Before this book, I thought I understood that well enough.  I might as well have said space is vast or the sun is bright.  Both statements are true and equally meaningless without some grasp of what that really means.  Beethoven pushed down walls and bridged new understandings for us in humanity and enlightenment.  He fought for every inch of it, and we are all the richer for it.  For the novice or for the advanced enthusiast, this book is a treasure worthy of the maestro’s name.

5 stars

4 thoughts on “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford

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