Binging on Beethoven: Biographer takes the ‘radical evolutionary’ off his pedestal

Jan Swafford is the author of a biography of Beethoven.

Writing a biography about Beethoven takes a certain amount of chutzpah. The composer is iconic, larger than life, an artist for the ages. But Jan Swafford tackled him nonetheless.

“Part of it is that I don’t do messages and I don’t do grand agendas; I don’t do a book with any agenda at all.

“As soon as I start a book, I declare that I know absolutely nothing about the subject. My goal is to write a good, readable, book, if that’s radical, I don’t care.”

Taking on a giant gets one thinking though.

“I end the book with a comparison to Shakespeare. In a way they (Shakespeare and Beethoven) have been the victim of their own successes. Here is something that I think about a lot: I was in the Quai d’Orsay Museum (in Paris) 10 years ago with my brother and the place was crammed. You could barely move. My brother said, ‘The art is being appreciated to death’.”

Swafford believes that people like Beethoven and Shakespeare are ‘appreciated to death’ and the way to fight that is to take them off the pedestal and look at them as human beings. Swafford is the author of the 2014 biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). He is a composer and writer. He’s also written biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms and is working on Mozart. He is in Ottawa to talk about Beethoven on Wednesday evening before a performance of the composer’s Pastoral Symphony as part of NACO’s fall festival.

“Beethoven … certainly was an interesting human being operating at a very high level,” Swafford said.

“He was one of the best pianists in the world. He was most famous for his improvisation. His performances were so emotionally powerful that people were left gasping and weeping while he played.

“I think that improvisation was his creative engine even after he started to go deaf. When he was completely deaf he would still improvise on the piano for hours.”

But, Swafford says, he doesn’t think Beethoven was a musical revolutionary.

“That’s the old image of Beethoven as the man who freed music and all that. I think it is absolutely nonsense. He never claimed to be a revolutionary.

Revolutionaries are people who despise the present and past and want to overthrow the existing order and establish something new.

“Beethoven never had any intention to do that,” Swafford said. Beethoven based everything he did on the past especially on Haydn, Mozart and Bach.

“He never did anything that contradicted what they achieved. I ended up calling him a ‘radical evolutionary’ because he took what they gave him and creatively expanded and explored and developed it to a tremendous extent. Of course, add to that the force of his personality, but he was not revolutionary at all.”

The composer grew up in Bonn, in one of the most liberal principalities in what would become Germany 100 years later. The Enlightenment was his intellectual home. He was part of the first generations of Europeanists and he grew up with an idea that was quite new, Swafford said: “that you could write music that was part of a permanent repertoire. You could be immortal.”

That he achieved what he did even while he was constantly ill through his entire life. Not only did he go deaf, he was constantly battling complications of the gut, perhaps caused by lead poisoning.

“He had to be one of the most courageous people you can possibly imagine,” Swafford said, for what he endured. No wonder he was cantankerous.

And going deaf made him crankier.

“People who knew him said the effect of deafness on his sociability was devastating. It just changed him. He was already paranoid. It made him more paranoid. He was already touchy, it made him more touchy.” By the way, Swafford doesn’t believe Beethoven went deaf because of syphilis because he didn’t frequent prostitutes until much later in life.

He was, despite all his personal quirks, very popular.

That doesn’t mean he was a rock star. It’s likely that only 3,000 to 4,000 people total ever heard him play the piano. His fame spread through the sale of his sheet music.

“He was admired and women were interested in him even though he was massively ugly and gross. He was not a particularly attractive person. He was absolutely solipsistic … the most self-centred person on earth. He didn’t really care about other people; he couldn’t understand them.”

Beethoven had a stage father as Mozart did. His father wanted his son to be the next Mozart. He had reason to think that, Swafford said.

“When Beethoven was 10 he was this little, grubby kid who played the piano” exceedingly well. The boy genius was seen by a sophisticated composer who ended up writing that young Ludwig was the next Mozart.

“Beethoven never doubted that. He absolutely knew it,” Swafford said. “Which is not to say he wasn’t self-critical, he was terrifically self-critical, less when he got older. But early on, if felt he had insulted somebody, he would abjectly apologize. and he was brutally self-critical about his music.”

In many ways, Swafford noted, Beethoven was also a political musician.

“I think his music was more involved with the world and current politics maybe than any composer before him.”

An example is the Eroica Symphony, originally named after Napoleon until the French leader declared himself an emperor.

“I think Beethoven wanted to attach his music to the Enlightenment ideals he grew up with and to the ultimate benevolent despot. Germans of the day liked strong men who would impose the Enlightenment from the top. I think he had planned to take the Eroica Symphony to Paris to give a copy to Napoleon.”

It is said that Beethoven’s favourite topic of conversation was politics. His ideal government was England and the parliamentary system. He didn’t believe in democracy, Swafford said, he believed in meritocracy.

“I don’t think he was a Romantic. I think he was a product of the revolutionary 1780s. He stayed there but his audience became Romantics.

“There are three things about being an artist in the public eye: What you think you are doing? Then there is what public thinks you are doing which may be very different. Then there is the effect of public response to your art on you. I think the Romantic response to Beethoven is one of the sources of his lifestyle.”

Beethoven had a simple formula as a composer …”It is my habit to keep the whole in view.” And he wanted to do something with each symphony he wrote, Swafford said.

For example, the Sixth is the ant-Fifth.

“The First is very Hadyn-esque. He wrote it very quickly for a concert. Four years later he wrote Third and that is a larger artistic journey than all but a handful of artists go through in a lifetime. It was incredible.”

The Ninth represents something new again with the Ode to Joy and the incorporation of a choir and solo singers into the mix.

Swafford said that Beethoven had planned to set the poem by Schiller since he had been a teenager.

“Schiller was a product of the 1780s. It was set to music many times. Young radicals sang it in the street in the 1780s.”

After starting his biography with a blank slate, Swafford finished “with a deeper understanding of him as a person and his music. One of things I set out to do in terms of the music is to address that there had not been enough appreciation of the fact that, for Beethoven, a whole multi-section piece is the product of a single idea.”

He thinks Beethoven learned that from Haydn and Mozart.

He picked up those ideas and did them more and bigger.

“That was a trait. His pieces were longer, more intense and in more shaded keys. He created stronger dissonances that last longer. That is one of the secrets. He took what the past did and did it more. He pushed every envelope in every direction.”

Was he the greatest composer?

“For me it is Bach, but the three greats are Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. One reason I like that trinity is that these are three completely different composers. Bach was very much as conservative in technique; Mozart was very much au courant of his time, writing for his time. He didn’t think about the future; Beethoven was some kind of radical.”

Musically Speaking with Jan Swafford
Peter A. Herrndorf Place
When: Sept.19 at 7 p.m.
More information:

NACO Presents the Pastoral Symphony
Where: Southam Hall
When: Sept.19 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.