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Originally published Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 6:06 AM

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‘Beethoven’: standout biography of a mercurial genius

Jan Swofford’s new biography “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” vividly chronicles the life of the musical genius, who despite legions of difficulties, including deafness an early age, became one of our greatest composers.

Special to The Seattle Times


‘Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph’

by Jan Swofford

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1077 pp., $40

Music lovers who are familiar with Jan Swafford’s earlier biographies of Brahms and Charles Ives will need no further incitement to read this mammoth but compelling biography of a composer arguably greater than either of those two: Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827).

The man, the milieu and the music are all woven together in Swafford’s narrative, which delves into Beethoven’s correspondence as well as commentary from the time and ample historical context. Composer and pianist Carl Czerny (his student, and later his assistant) was among those astonished by Beethoven’s amazing ability to improvise movingly at length in concert: “ ... he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out in loud sobs.” Beethoven’s famous temper (Swafford calls it “episodes of rudeness, petulance, and scorn”) only contributed to his celebrity.

There was much to be cranky about, too: publishers who cheated him, copyists who stole his music, inadequate appreciation at the box office, unrequited love, frustrating relatives, insufficient money, rival composers like Haydn who didn’t always accord Beethoven the respect he craved. Far worse was the impending deafness that first became evident when the composer was only 27, not long after he had moved from his birthplace in Bonn to Vienna. He concealed it as long as he could — his “head in the clouds” air of habitual abstraction helped. But the gradually worsening deafness he described as “Fate’s hammer” was a cruel and ironic torment.

Swafford, an American writer/composer who teaches at the Boston Conservatory, steers a careful path between colloquial/anecdotal and scholarly/literary, starting out with Beethoven’s problematic forebears (and his dismal, ineffectual father, who tried to promote him as a second Mozart by reducing Beethoven’s actual age to make him seem more precocious). His later relationships with friends, servants, and the “high and mighty” (including giving three-hour daily composition lessons to the former Archduke, now a Cardinal) are delineated so fully that you almost feel what it’s like to know this brilliant, irritable, tormented man, who never married and was dependent upon noble patronage and concert/teaching income.

Among many other Beethoven biographies, Swafford’s tome stands out for its comprehensive approach and profuse detail, including diary entries and letters from Beethoven’s contemporaries about the composer’s life and times and his place in the world around him. Swafford also assesses Beethoven’s major compositions and their importance to his career and development, their influences, their reception at the time, how and when they were performed, and whether the concerts sold a lot of tickets (usually, not enough of them).

Despite the wealth of historical detail, this is no dry academic tome, but a biography full of colorful descriptions of the composer and his milieu. Swafford describes the mature Beethoven as “the most volatile of spoiled children.” The adult Mozart looked like “a fat little bird, with bug eyes and aquiline nose and a formidable head of hair that he had dressed daily. He was always on the move, fidgeting or tapping his feet.” One noble patron was “annoyingly worshipful, bowing and scraping and following him around”; others were insufficiently respectful. Beethoven’s friends worried about his hearing, his eye infection, even his diet (“he was eating too much of his favorite fish with eggs and macaroni”).

Comprehensive, detailed, and highly readable, this is an entertaining biography that should find favor with music lovers and history buffs.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (

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