Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2014

Beethoven, Triumph and Anguish (2014), by Jan Swafford

Beethoven Triumph and AnguishI don’t usually review books I haven’t finished reading – and I’ve barely scratched the surface of this one – but I know that there are music lovers out there who would love to have this book for Christmas so I’m breaking my own rules so that you have time to get a copy of it for the one you love.

I have been in love with Beethoven since I was just into my teens. My mother’s favourite symphony was the 8th, but we had them all on LP (the von Karajan recordings) and my friend Ruth and I would play them every weekend, one after the other in order, following along with the scores that we had between the two of us.  Sometimes I would take the train into the State Library and flop down on the floor beside the Beethoven books and read everything there was on open access.   I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Beethoven but I was wrong…

I did not know, for example, how strategic Beethoven was in planning his career.  In the chapter entitled ‘Generalissimo’ Swafford tells us how he crafted the progress of his first opus numbers because only the pieces with opus numbers were going to be ‘serious’ ones.  And he was very careful which genres he published. Mozart and Haydn were unassailable rivals that he had to manage in his early career if he were to avoid comparisons that he wasn’t ready for.  Since Mozart and Haydn owned the territory with string quartets and Haydn was ‘the Father of the Symphony’ to boot, Beethoven played instead to his strengths, making the piano trio his own.  This worked well for him because unlike his rivals, he had grown up with the piano:

Both his predecessors had spent much of their careers composing for harpsichord, while Beethoven was a pure pianist and piano composer. … When it came to idiomatic piano writing – exploiting the full range of touch, articulation, volume, texture and colour available to the piano as opposed to the harpsichord – one of his prime models was Muzio Clementi, who wrote one of the first substantial bodies of work for piano. At the same time, as a composer in general Clementi posed no threat to Beethoven.  Clementi wrote attractively and idiomatically for the piano, Mozart and Haydn beautifully in general, but as far as Beethoven would have been concerned , the first truly significant repertoire for the piano was waiting to be written.  He intended to write that repertoire. (p. 167)

Beethoven as we all know was a rather cranky fellow, and apparently even in his youth he was firmly convinced of his own genius, but – well, why not?  He was a genius.  It’s fascinating to read the little snippets that illustrate his contrariness, and this is a very well researched book that sustains reader interest from the get-go.  So, for example, it tells us that Beethoven never really resolved the tension between the artistic debt and the veneration he owed Haydn and the jealousy he felt, so he refused to put ‘pupil of Haydn’ on the cover of his first published opus as other students routinely did with pride.   It tells us that he was very cross with the publishers Artaria for pre-emptively publishing his ‘Se vuol ballare Variation as Opus 1.


And there you see the reason why it’s taking me so long to read this beautiful new biography….

It’s not because it’s a whopper (thought it is, at 1100+ pages) it’s because I keep stopping to source and listen to various compositions that Swafford refers to.  As well as tracing the events in Beethoven’s life he also goes into detail about how and when his compositions were created.  Let me give you an example…

In the chapter ‘Virtuoso’, we learn that Beethoven in 1797 published his cello sonatas, a four-handed piano sonata Op 6, and Twelve Variations on a Danse Russe.  He dedicated this last to Countess von Browne, who gave Beethoven a horse as a token of thanks. He rode this horse a couple of times and then forgot about it (!), so the enterprising stable-hand rented it out, pocketing the profits.  (Beethoven was not best pleased to subsequently receive a huge bill for feed).  Swafford then goes on to write about  a work that took Beethoven two years to write but became one of the abiding successes of his life, the song Adelaide.  In four stanzas conjuring up images of the beloved inspired by nature, this song is derived from the sentimental verses of a poet called Friedrich von Matthisson (to whom Beethoven dedicated it, along with a plea to write another such poem).  Swafford explains, as only a composer can, how this work fits into this period of Beethoven’s life, not only conjecturing about whether there was a woman behind his enthusiasm for romantic songs, but also placing the work in the context of his creative life:

…he created a singular style, limpid and direct, thought with far-roaming modulations.  Like the cello sonatas and other works of his early maturity, it is a style if note quite “Beethovian”, not derivative either.  (p. 201)

Now, who could read this, and not scamper off to You Tube to find a version of Adelaide, eh?


And the work that led to his troubles with a horse?!


Sometimes, even when I’m familiar with the music Swafford is referring to, I still want to hear it so that I can really absorb what he’s saying about it.  So reading this book is a work in progress, and will bring me hours of pleasure for a long time as I make my way through it.

Highly recommended, not just for Beethoven enthusiasts but for anyone who loves music.

Vienna, Beethoven's grave (3 weeks after my first ankle op!)

Vienna, Beethoven’s grave (3 weeks after my first ankle op back in 2001!)

BTW I love the handsome picture of my hero on the dust-jacket, and there are lots of other full-colour illustrations of various composers, family members and Beethovian pilgrimage sites as well.

PS Jan Swafford has also written a bio of Brahms, and a Vintage Guide to Classical Music.   Santa, are you listening?

Update: Easter 2015

I’m still reading this: Swafford has traced the progression of the symphonies and how they relate to his political disillusionments, but the 9th is yet to come.  I have discovered numerous compositions new to me, and have ransacked You-Tube to hear them before succumbing to iTunes as well.   I have read about Beethoven’s painfully intemperate would-be relationships with women, his ambitions to win beautiful aristocrats never in tune with his lowly status as an impoverished musician who was none too good-looking either.  I have read about the torment of his encroaching deafness; I had not known that it came with the misery of tinnitus too.  It is excruciating reading about the quack remedies he suffered for his ill-health…

As I write the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is about to put on a four-hour marathon reproducing the 1808 concert at which Beethoven premiered the Sixth and Fifth Symphonies (in that order), and the Choral Fantasy; Swafford explains that this indulgence was because Beethoven (yes, Beethoven!) could not get a theatre venue in Vienna for years.  His music was of course played there, mostly in private performances for princes of one sort or another, but Beethoven needed to be promoter, conductor and concert pianist in order to make badly needed money from his genius.

But in the chapter titled ‘We Finite Beings’ I suffered a moment of scepticism about the veracity of the extensive discussions about political events which impacted on Beethoven.  After Napoleon’s first exile on Elba, there was a grand Congress of Vienna (Sep 1814-Jun 1815) which was supposed to achieve great things in Europe:

Citizens across Europe hoped the congress would bring peace, reform, a return to old borders and empires, a new age of liberté, égalité, and fraternité under the rule of enlightened monarchs.  The people, including Beethoven, had not yet understood the implacable hostility of Metternich and many others to the least hint of democracy or constitutional government… The ruling class wanted its power, its privileges and fun secured forever.  (p. 636)

However, as the congress wore on, more notable for the excess of entertainment (balls, banquets, theatricals, operas, gala concerts, ballets, hunts, staged medieval jousts, picnics, sleigh rides and tableaux vivants by aristocratic ladies) Napoleon (the cause of Beethoven’s most profound disillusionment) had escaped from Elba in March 1815 and was regrouping.  As everyone knows, the allied armies marched towards France to deal with him, where to my astonishment, I read on page 650, that

After beating the Prussians at Ligny, Napoleon attacked Wellington’s outnumbered forces at the village of Waterloo, near Brussels.  The battle was tipping towards the French when the Prussians appeared and gave the victory to the allies.

Well.  Who knew that it was really the Prussians who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, and not Wellington, the English leader of the allied forces and Commander-in-Chief during the subsequent occupation of France? I guess it’s a good thing we’ve got an American music biographer to set the record straight…

Update 19/4/15

It’s taken some months to finish this book – it is, after all, 936 pages not counting notes, and as I’ve said above, I’ve been diverted by wanting to listen to the music so often that I took to reading the book just at the weekends so that The Spouse could download the music onto our sound system instead of my own iPod or YouTube.  (The Missa Solemnis sounds superb on a proper sound system – and not quite so deafening, even when played at volume.) But I realised as Beethoven’s music grew more complex and Swafford’s analyses became more complicated that it may be that people without a background in music may find it a bit overwhelming.  There is a helpful appendix at the back which explains the forms that Beethoven used (e.g. sonatas form, theme and variations, fugues and so on) and I think that Swafford writes with clarity, but, still, it might be a bit demanding for some readers.

But for me, it’s been like a wonderful gift to read this.  Through these pages I have found so much beautiful music that I didn’t know, and I know I’ll be referring to it again and again.

Author: Jan Swafford
Title: Beethoven, Triumph and Anguish
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2014
ISBN: 9780571312559
Source: Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin


Fishpond: Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph


  1. If Santa subscribes to your blog I’m sure he’s taken note! 1100 pages. Wow!

    Like you, I’m a big Beethoven fan. I think my favourite Symphony is No. 7. I love the Razumovsky Quartets. But everything he wrote seems to reach deep into one’s emotions I feel.I love Mozart, Bach, and so many others BUT Beethoven, really, he gets to you!

    We went to his birth house in Bonn last year and did the little Beethoven trail in the town. The audio guide in the birth house was pretty good. The most poignant parts dealt with his deafness and the fact that he was distressed that so many saw him as curmudgeonly when he saw his moodiness as depression due to his failing hearing which I gather started when he was a young man. They played bars of, as I recollect, his Fifth as he would have heard it at that time in his life. It was muffled but recognisable. Then they played bars of the Ninth as he would have heard that when it was first performed, and we could hear little more than a muffled bass. Just so astonishing that he could produce such gorgeous work with such deficient hearing – it was clearly all inside his head and he could hear it there.

    He didn’t live in his birth house for long, as his parents moved. Apparently he lived in something like 22 houses (am I remembering correctly), about 17 of which were in Vienna. I may have the numbers a little wrong but this is roughly what I remember.


  2. Oops, how big is the print? I’m thinking about it for my octogenarian aunt who did piano at the Sydney Con and is, of course, a Beethoven fan.


    • It’s normal size print, looks like Times New Roman to me.
      I think that if she studied at the Con she would love it.
      Tell me, do I remember seeing photos of your Bonn trail on your blog?


      • Hmm … I think I’ll need to try to see it to decide. Will check our independents here.

        Yes, I wrote a section on it and there are a couple of photos – on the second last post of the blog. Will email you the link.


  3. I haven’t read the biography of a composer since I was a child. Those 1970s children’s biographies were hagiographies so in my sceptical adult life I have avoided reading lives of the composers. Who could not admire Beethoven’s talent? But having a spectacular talent does not automatically mean that the holder is a great person. Of course that does not mean that we have to go to opposite extremes and trash a person unfairly.

    Do you reckon that this book is sufficiently fair and level-headed for people like me?


    • Sorry about the late reply. For some reason this comment went to moderation, where I didn’t find it till today. (Why didn’t I get an email about it waiting there, WordPress??)
      Anyway, re the book: as I’ve said, I’m only 25% through it. But it doesn’t seem like a hagiography to me. There’s a keen sense of Beethoven’s ego and ambition, and several references to his temper.
      But *smile* I reckon we could have an interesting conversation over coffee one day about what we might mean by a ‘great person’.


  4. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  5. […] music.  He obviously didn’t know that Beethoven had severe, brain-curdling tinnitus. (See Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph by Jan […]


  6. […] explains something of what it was that made the subject special.  From that wonderful biography of Beethoven by Jan Swafford which I reviewed some time ago, I have learned not just about the chronology of Beethoven’s […]


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