As I continue to read the Swafford Beethoven biography, I’m listening to Beethoven almost exclusively. The author’s passion for the composer’s music is intense, and he imparts in me a desire to listen to all of it. The biography presents works as they appear in Beethoven’s life, mostly chronologically, with an occasional hint about things to come or remembrance of things past.
I’m also learning a lot about musical criticism as I go. Over the years, my explorations of Wikipedia articles on various pieces I’ve encountered and reading symphony concert notes have provided a sense for what criticism can look like – there’s quite a variety. I also had a college course way back when. But Swafford’s “notes” on Beethoven go far beyond anything in my former experience. For the major works, he goes on for many pages, excerpting details of the music and spending time connecting the music to Beethoven’s life and times. I admit that the details are sometimes beyond my ability to grasp. I read anyway – the prose is engaging, and I do think I’m learning by plowing through, even if I can’t take it all in stepwise.
Immersion as a way to learn about music is a new experience for me. I’ve never engaged this deeply in a concerted effort to study one person’s work before. Swafford’s passion for Beethoven and the way he explains the life of the composer engage me on multiple levels; I’m quite hooked. The power of Beethoven’s music to inspire and manifest ideas is significant and fascinating to me. I’ve always been moved by his music, and as with the rest of the music I’ve enjoyed in my world I’ve never been able to say what it is about it that’s so special. I love it because….well…just listen to it!
Swafford draws out connections between the zeitgeist of Beethoven’s moment – the German Enlightenment, Aufklarung, and the music. Especially in his formative years, the composer was deeply influenced by the writings of Goethe and Schiller, German philosopher-artists who had a strong impact on the tenor of thought of the age. Humankind’s triumph through reason was a primary trope, as were ideals equating the aesthetic with the profound. Coupled with Napoleon’s revolutionary iconoclastic success, the old institutions of Court and Church could not contain the new order.
Beethoven occupies a place alongside the philosophers and the revolutionaries as a manifestation of the zeitgeist. The music is imbued with the personal – the composer’s life, deafness, loves, and loss – to be sure, but he’s working with and helping create much bigger ideas all the while.
After pages of technical description of the powerful third symphony, Eroica (The Heroic), Swafford writes:
“The Eroica reframed what a symphony, and to a degree what music itself, could be and achieve. It would stand as one of the defining statements of the German Aufklarung and of the power of the heroic leader, the benevolent despot, to change himself and the world. No less is its exalting of such an individual a prophecy of the Romantic century, whose cult of genius would declare Beethoven the true hero of the Eroica.”
I’m about a third of the way through the very big biography, and I continue to be enthralled. I’m grateful for Youtube, which enables me to listen to almost any work by Beethoven on a whim, and without having to break the bank. I doubt I will have listened to it all by the time I’m done with the book, but I can’t deny that I’ve already made an impressive dent in the oeuvre!
Thanks for reading.