Jan Swafford’s biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms have established him as a revered music historian, capable of bringing his subjects vibrantly to life. His magnificent new biography of Ludwig van Beethoven peels away layers of legend to get to the living, breathing human being who composed some of the world’s most iconic music. Swafford mines sources never before used in English-language biographies to reanimate the revolutionary ferment of Enlightenment-era Bonn, where Beethoven grew up and imbibed the ideas that would shape all of his future work. Swafford then tracks his subject to Vienna, capital of European music, where Beethoven built his career in the face of critical incomprehension, crippling ill health, romantic rejection, and “fate’s hammer,” his ever-encroaching deafness. Throughout, Swafford offers insightful readings of Beethoven’s key works.
More than a decade in the making, this will be the standard Beethoven biography for years to come.
In this brilliant, exhaustive story, biographer and music historian Swafford (Johannes Brahms) brings new life to Beethoven, animating the composer's immersion in music and his tenacious grip on his ideas related to music's ability to deepen the world's beauty, tragedy, and comedy. Drawing on never-before-seen sources, Swafford chronicles year-by-year Beethoven's life and music from his birth and childhood in Bonn, his earliest compositions at age 12 to his deafness at age 27; his struggles to distinguish himself from his teachers and models, such as Haydn; and his composition of the great Ninth Symphony. By the time he was 20, Swafford points out, Beethoven was a "splendid young talent flexing his creative muscles, showing off a precocious knowledge of harmony, the orchestra, and operatic-style expressiveness." Swafford wonderfully describes Beethoven's going deaf: "For Beethoven, this was a decay from within: a slow death, the mind watching it, helpless before the grinding of fate. Fate would become an abiding theme for him, its import always hostile."