Historisches Museum der Stadt, Vienna/Bridgeman Images

Willibrord Joseph Mahler: Ludwig van Beethoven, 1804

Nine hundred and thirty pages into Jan Swafford’s new biography of Beethoven, there is an interesting juxtaposition. After the composer died, in March 1827, his funeral was “one of the grandest Vienna ever put on for a commoner.” Schools were closed. Some 10,000 people crowded into the courtyard of the building where he had lived, then followed the coffin to the local parish church—not, as Swafford has it, to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. (Among the torchbearers was Franz Schubert.) Franz Grillparzer, the leading Viennese writer of the day, wrote a funeral oration. But later that year, when Beethoven’s effects were auctioned off, a lifetime’s worth of manuscripts and sketchbooks fetched prices that Swafford calls “pathetic.” Beethoven’s late masterpiece the Missa Solemnis went for just seven florins. By comparison, his old trousers and stockings sold for six florins.

Beethoven’s last years are rich in anecdotes of neglect. The late works were too abstruse for the public, and he told a visitor (exaggerating somewhat) that even earlier ones were out of fashion and never performed in Vienna. When Rossini, then Europe’s most popular composer, paid a visit, he was appalled at the squalor in which the great man was living and left in tears. He appealed to aristocratic contacts to do something, but they refused, considering Beethoven crazy and beyond help. Even Beethoven’s successes in these years were partial: the ecstatic reception of the Ninth Symphony is well known, but Swafford suspects that the audience at the premiere had come to cheer “the man and his legacy” rather than the music.

But if Beethoven’s late music was a minority taste, the fame of the deaf, defiant genius was a public fact. The reverence accorded him in death was unprecedented for a composer. Some thirty-five years before, Mozart had been buried in an unmarked grave—not unusual for ordinary Viennese of the time, but so out of keeping with his fame that it fueled a popular legend of unappreciated genius. By the time Beethoven died, the status of composers had radically changed. Whereas music in the eighteenth century had been largely funded by aristocratic courts, now it was embraced by an urban bourgeoisie who invested it with new ideas of the sublime. Beethoven was a beneficiary of this shift, but he was also an important driver of it. “Only art and science can raise men to the level of gods,” he wrote.

Wagner recognized this aspect of Beethoven’s achievement and applauded his “tendence to emancipate his art; as he himself could be no lackey in the pay of Luxury, so should his music, too, be freed from every token of subjection to a frivolous taste.” More recently, some critics have seen this emancipation in a more equivocal light. Richard Taruskin has written that Beethoven, as the “creator spirit of classical music as we know it,” is the source of “the ritualism of our smug, dull concert life.” German critics of the Romantic era, notably E.T.A. Hoffmann, ensured the dominance of Beethoven. This both marginalized other approaches and placed classical music on a pedestal that, as audiences dwindle, it has been making tentative attempts to dismount. For Taruskin, it is to Beethoven and his mythmakers that we owe the idea of the “lonely artist-hero whose suffering produces works of awe-inspiring greatness.” The potency of the Beethoven myth is undeniable, and yet simple biographical fascination is bound to persist. After all, Beethoven’s works really do inspire awe, two centuries after they were written, and, as Rossini saw, he really was very lonely.

In outline Beethoven’s life is a simple one. It is a tale of two cities, three periods, two famous unsent letters, no wife, countless ailments—gastric, hepatic, and auditory—and a large number of hopeless crushes on well-born, unavailable women. The cities were his birthplace, Bonn—parochial but galvanized by Enlightenment liberalism—and Vienna, the sophisticated but intellectually frivolous cosmopolis where he settled at the age of twenty-one. The periods—early, middle, and late—were first proposed soon after Beethoven’s death, and, though sometimes challenged, they seem to accord with his conception of his career, which featured two self-conscious changes of direction.

The first occurred in 1802, when Beethoven, then in his early thirties and having made his name as a performer-composer, spoke of taking a “new path.” His style, modeled on that of Haydn and Mozart, acquired new drama and concentration. The second shift was more gradual. Starting around 1813, Beethoven, having apparently exhausted the potential of the middle-period innovations, became depressed and unproductive. In 1816, he made a note in his diary: “Write only in your manner. And then a cowl to end this unhappy life.” By then he was groping his way toward a style as inward and mercurial as the previous one was heroic and direct.


Both these shifts followed personal crises. In 1802, encroaching deafness had led him to consider suicide, as he confided in a letter (the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament) that he addressed to his two brothers but did not send. The second crisis is bound up with his other famous unsent letter, to an anonymous woman addressed as “Immortal Beloved.” The letter, from 1812, records a split, and it was around this time that Beethoven apparently gave up hope of ever getting married. From 1815 on, he transferred his desire for a family onto the son of a recently deceased brother. Fighting a bitter, complex custody battle with the boy’s mother, Beethoven, in his loneliness, managed to secure all the strife of family life with none of the happiness.

There are times when it seems as if the events of Beethoven’s life had no impact on his music. Even at the height of the custody dispute, he managed to write the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, most of the “Diabelli” Variations, and half of the Missa Solemnis. But at a deeper level, Beethoven continually drew on life as he experienced it, and his sense of personal struggle fed intimately into his work. The connection can at times be dismayingly direct. What the late Joseph Kerman called the “celebrated mystic aura” of the slow movement of the late A-minor quartet Op. 132—with its heading “Holy song of thanksgiving to the Godhead, from a convalescent, in Lydian mode”—hardly prepares us for the details of the convalescence it charts. Beethoven wrote while recovering from a severe bout of vomiting and diarrhea.

As far as the simple outline of Beethoven’s life goes, all biographies tell the same story and all are founded on the nineteenth-century spadework of Alexander Wheelock Thayer. Where accounts differ is in emphasis. Thayer made the odd but inspired decision to confine himself to documentary fact, omitting all discussion of music. In the twentieth century, both Theodor Adorno and the British musicologist Donald Francis Tovey planned biographies that would ignore the life, the better to concentrate on a purer narrative of notes, themes, and structures. Modern biographies fall between these extremes, but they tend to lean in either a biographical or musicological direction. Those of Lewis Lockwood, William Kinderman, and Barry Cooper devote most energy to the music. Maynard Solomon in his Beethoven concentrates on the life: he places Beethoven under a Freudian lens, perhaps solves the Immortal Beloved riddle, and isolates his discussion of the music in a handful of brief chapters.

Swafford’s ambition is to give both Beethoven’s life and his work the fullest possible treatment in an approachable narrative for the general reader. “This book is a biography of Beethoven the man and musician, not the myth,” he writes. “I want the book to stay on the ground, in his time, looking at him as directly as possible as he walks, talks, writes, rages, composes.” Apart from some rummaging in Bonn archives, he doesn’t present new research; rather he consolidates work from across the literature to present an immersive, comprehensive view.

A composer, a teacher at the Boston Conservatory, and an occasional music journalist, most frequently for Slate, Swafford makes use of most of the techniques of narrative journalism. At its most extreme, the book has a biopic feel. It opens with an elaborate scene of Beethoven’s baptism: “The mother Maria, the father Johann shift on their feet in the cold as the priest drones on.” The scene edges close to historical fiction and tells us nothing about Beethoven. Probably any Bonn baptism in December 1770 would have been like this—cold, Latin, parents who had lost a previous child, and so on. The desire for narrative immediacy is understandable, but the results are often overblown, as when Beethoven’s presumed thoughts are rendered in breathless italics: “The C Minor Symphony will be more unified in its narrative and in its material than any symphony before, beyond anything I or anybody else has done.

Despite the populist tone, Swafford does not hold back when it comes to detailed musical discussion. He quotes many scores, and analyzes nearly every major composition. As with the biographical narrative, the material is usually not new, but Swafford is judicious in what he chooses to draw on and scrupulous about giving credit. The most interesting analysis is that of the Third Symphony, the “Eroica,” whose genesis he tracks through Beethoven’s preparatory sketches. Swafford relishes the main theme’s inherent propensity to modulate far from its E-flat major home—for Wagner, the surprising C# in bar 7 was “the first note of modern music.” He foregrounds the political aspect of the piece, referring to it throughout as “Bonaparte,” the working title that Beethoven deleted only at the last minute.


Sometimes Swafford comes up with a straightforward phrase that describes Beethoven’s music exactly. The A-Major Piano Sonata Op. 101 “begins as if in the middle of a thought.” But many descriptions are more elaborate and less apt. Of the second movement of the Ninth Symphony, we read: “With the briefest of transitions, the music slips into D major for the B theme—lilting, liquid, meandering, like trailing your hand in water beside a drifting boat on a summer’s day.” It’s a shame to apply such a clichéd image to such unique music. What’s more, the reach for accessible imagery has not enabled Swafford to eliminate technicalities from the sentence. This problem is fundamental to the book, which aims simultaneously at two very different readerships. Anyone who can understand the more technical passages will find the fulsome prose distracting, while readers for whom the drifting boat on a summer’s day is a genuine help will never get through the twenty-five-page analysis of the Missa Solemnis.

Swafford, of course, is up against a fundamental difficulty of music writing: music affects us almost instinctively, but becomes recondite when explained. Still, coating the pill of specialist material with the sugar of lively language can take one only so far. Hyperbole and buzzword-laden sentences betray an anxiety that the reader may be flagging:

He had never juggled so many balls at once, in the moil of offering works large and small to a smorgasbord of publishers at the same time that he kept an eye out for others, and meanwhile composing at something close to his old heat.

Swafford does better in lively retellings of famous Beethoven anecdotes. There is Beethoven the pianist, demolishing a rival in an improvisation competition and terrifying a young musician who turns pages for him at the premier of the Third Piano Concerto: a tight deadline means that Beethoven has not had time to write out the solo part and the page turner finds himself confronted with pages that are blank except for a few indecipherable but perhaps crucial aide-memoire. There are stories of Beethoven the man. In 1821, the police commissioner in Baden is informed that his cells contain a tramp noisily insisting that he is Beethoven. A local musician is called out and duly identifies the enraged celebrity. In 1797, a countess, to whom Beethoven dedicates various pieces, gives him a horse. He tries it out a couple of times, then simply forgets about it. A stable hand starts renting out the animal on the side. Eventually, Beethoven receives a large bill for the stabling of the horse and is furious.

Another success is Swafford’s evocation of Beethoven’s era. It is sobering to hear that it was customary for all court musicians and artists in Bonn to be dismissed when the reigning elector died and rehired only if his successor felt like it. The quelling of Enlightenment ideals in Austria after the French Revolution comes across strongly, especially the repressive environment of Metternich-era Vienna. Beethoven’s decision to use Schiller’s Ode to Joy in the Ninth Symphony can be seen as a reference to the ideals of a previous era. (One remarkable Vienna detail: an estimated 10 percent of the city’s population in 1812 worked at least part-time as prostitutes. Beethoven visited prostitutes and also accused his two sisters-in-law, whom he hated, of selling sex.)

The book’s great length means that there is room to flesh out minor characters. We meet Adolph Bernhard Marx, a critic and Beethoven devotee, whose influence was crucial in enshrining Beethoven’s style as a kind of acme for quality. There is a splendid portrait of the mesmerizing Bettina Brentano, described by her brother, the Romantic poet Clemens Brentano, as “half witch, half angel.” Both Beethoven and Goethe fell for her and she engineered a meeting between them that neither man seems to have enjoyed. Swafford clearly loves Brentano, who was brilliant as well as attractive, and even slightly favors her in the quest for the identity of the “Immortal Beloved.” (Since Solomon’s biography, her sister-in-law Antonie Brentano is generally considered the most likely candidate.) Perhaps the most poignantly charming character is Christian Gottlob Neefe, Beethoven’s main teacher in Bonn. A minor composer and a quixotic idealist brimming with Enlightenment notions, he wrote works including Song in Praise of Potatoes and Song for Those Looking for a Job. He had a proto-Romantic enthusiasm for folk poetry and Swafford quotes a lyric he set—“A Bonn maid alone will make me tarry”—before deadpanning, “Neefe’s actual wife was a singer from Leipzig.”

Beethoven was such an intimidating presence for later composers—“Who can do anything after Beethoven?” Schubert asked—that it can come as a surprise to see how wary he was of his own predecessors. Swafford stresses Beethoven’s elaborate preparation when attempting forms in which Mozart and Haydn had excelled. His first symphony was laboriously rewritten and, before he risked producing a string quartet, he practiced by writing five string trios. He had also copied out one of Haydn’s quartets in full. After arriving in Vienna for lessons with Haydn, Beethoven learned from everyone he could. He studied counterpoint with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and took lessons in vocal writing (something he never mastered) with Salieri. When working on his first set of string quartets, he sought advice from Emanuel Aloys Förster, a very minor composer who happened to be a specialist in the genre.

Copying out the work of other composers was a standard way of learning at the time, but the habit stayed with Beethoven throughout his career. Even when writing his final piano sonata, Op. 111, he wrote out passages from Mozart and Haydn, and he copied parts of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier while working on the “Hammerklavier” sonata. For the Missa Solemnis, he studied not only musical precursors (Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach, Palestrina) but also the correct pronunciation of the Latin text and its subtleties of meaning.

Such a cautious approach might seem at odds with the sheer boldness of the Beethoven sound, but methodical study was crucial for channeling what was in fact a somewhat chaotic talent. Growing up, Beethoven’s most singular gift was for keyboard improvisation. It was this, rather than his compositions, that impressed Mozart when they reputedly met, in 1787. Even after his deafness became severe (it was never quite complete) he would often start to compose by improvising at the piano, and he claimed to be able to remember every improvisation he had ever played. Improvisation was his forge: material created there was then beaten into shape in successive manuscript sketches, more than eight thousand pages of which survive. It’s no accident that so many of Beethoven’s early works were sets of variations, or that he was able to adapt this simple format to higher purposes throughout his career—from the Third Symphony to the Ninth and to the “Diabelli” Variations. Once, for a visiting portraitist, Beethoven sat down at the piano to play the variation finale of the Third Symphony. When he got to the end, he kept on playing and extemporized two more hours of variations.

We actually have a reasonable idea of what Beethoven’s improvisations might have sounded like. Early on, he covered pages with patterns and figurations to be used extemporaneously. He also wrote cadenzas to piano concertos and a few pieces that are known to have begun as improvisations, such as the opening piano solo of the Choral Fantasy and his Polonaise Op. 89, which he wrote when he needed something to present to the Empress of Russia during the Congress of Vienna. (He improvised several dances at the piano and asked a friend to pick one.)

The Fantaisie Op. 77, a more significant piece than the Polonaise, also probably began as an improvisation. It is a forward-looking kaleidoscope of disjunction—with motifs, keys, and tempos constantly slamming into one another. It opens in G minor and ends in B major. The interesting thing about Beethoven’s improvisatory mode is that, although it sounds like Beethoven, it doesn’t quite feel like him. It lacks cumulative effect—his characteristic sense of narrative, direction, and inevitability. In this sense, Beethoven’s innate improvisatory skill was perhaps less crucial to his achievement than his hard-won structural expertise. His aim when composing, he said, was “always to keep the whole in view.”

Keeping the whole in view involved various techniques. Beethoven’s ability to derive entire works from tiny cells of material is well known. In addition, as Swafford discusses, there was his increasing emphasis on endings. Before Beethoven, the most substantial movement of a symphony, sonata, or chamber work was generally the first. Beethoven gradually learned to shift weight to finales, so that tension was maintained throughout the piece. Comparison of the “Pathétique” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas furnishes a good example. Both have stormy first movements followed by pensive slow movements. But whereas the “Pathétique,” finished in 1798, ends with a rondo that doesn’t sustain the tensions of the first movement, the “Appassionata”’s relentless, tragic finale is even more powerful than what came before, and it ends with a coda that is more intense still.

Eventually, Beethoven’s last movements became so extreme that they could barely be contained within a piece. The Grosse Fuge was originally the culmination of the Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130, but it was replaced by a more manageable last movement and published separately. Beethoven at various times considered splitting off in a similar manner the hypertrophied last movements of the “Hammerklavier” and the Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven also pared down the decorative surface of the classical style he had inherited—stringently rationing purely melodic elements, such as passing notes, turns, and appoggiaturas, in a way that throws the listener’s attention toward the structure of what is happening. Again the “Pathétique” and “Appassionata” sonatas provide good examples. In the slow movements, the beginning of each theme is chordal—that is, with a change of harmony for each note of the top line. (In the later work, the effect is more exaggerated: the radical simplicity of the top line is intensified by a wandering bass that does melodic things without sounding remotely tuneful, as if the two hands are debating what melody really is.) Only in the second half of each theme does Beethoven deploy ornament—passing notes and appoggiaturas, respectively—to achieve a brief emotional heightening.

This resistance of ease is a quintessential sound in Beethoven slow movements, the inward counterpart of his louder heroic mode, and it is something that comes into focus early in his career. It’s already there in the A-major piano sonata, Op. 2, no. 2. If the slow movements of Mozart, a far more natural melodist, feel like song, Beethoven’s often feel more like speech, or perhaps like thought itself.

Listening to Mozart we often feel the naturalness of the inspiration. Moments of unexpected ravishment produce a sense that he has genially pointed out with a minimum of effort something that was really quite obvious. But Beethoven wants us to hear effort, and above all struggle. He wrote to one of his publishers that “what is difficult is also beautiful, good, great and so forth.” Ambition, which in Mozart manifests itself in moments of audacity, is in Beethoven a sustained program of aggrandizement—of difficulty in search of greatness. The aspiration of the composer is dramatized and made heroic. It becomes, in fact, the meaning of the music.