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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, New Biography by Jan Swafford

51mBQbHwtGLI’d not come across a good, thorough biography of Beethoven (at least not currently in print). It’s good to see this huge (1,100 page) book just out by Jan Swafford, whose biography of Charles Ives I found very interesting. I’ve ordered it, and I’m looking forward to dipping into it to learn more about Beethoven and his times; a fascinating man, in a pivotal period for music.

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  1. Yes! Beethoven requires a special skill to understand his complexity and genius. I once read and still own Thayer’s ‘Life of Beethoven’ written by an American about 40 years after Beethoven died.
    Another essential book about Beethoven is this gem;
    Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Vintage Book V-100 ) by J.W.N. Sullivan
    It aligns Beethovens own spiritual struggle with his compositions, a fascinating little book it’s not a biography though.
    I’ll check this new one out…thanks Kirk.


  2. I’ll be interested on your take. Like the previous comments, I’ve read Thayer. Another recent option is Barry Çoopers bio that has been well received. It’s sitting on my shelf waiting for some dedicated time. Cooper is the editor of a recently published edition of the complete piano sonatas, which many pianists now consider to be the definitive edition. Interestingly, it’s published as a set of 35 sonatas, not just the 32 that we all think of.


  3. Hi Kirk, coming back to this article afterwards, I would be interested to know what you thought of it after you read it. Around the same time as the post I read John Suchet’s biography and was very disappointed. There was a lot about the mundanities of Beethoven’s life, his friendships and family dramas, but no real connection to the amazing music. Maybe it is too hard to write a biography which connects the life to the music but I wanted to know more about how B revolutionised so many musical forms and less about his nephew.


    • Unfortunately, it did turn out to be a slog after a while. Just like you say about the Suchet – which I haven’t read – it gets into too much detail about non-esential things.


  4. Not sure anyone re-visits these older posts; I found this discussion very interesting. I tried the Sullivan. Thanks for the recommendation but it did not work for me — too caught up in his own theory of creativity, which occupies nearly a third of the text without discussing Beethoven.

    Today I read excerpts from an interview with Simon Rattle about his new Beethoven Symphonies cycle, reproduced on the Presto Classical website ( Wonderful website, BTW. Brief though the article is, there is much insight and multiple quotable gems embedded throughout:

    Sir Simon Rattle’s first ascent of what he calls the ‘Everest’ of the complete Beethoven symphonies took place twenty years ago, in Birmingham; seven years later he recorded the works to great acclaim with the Wiener Philharmoniker, not long after arriving in Germany to take over musical directorship of the Berliner Philharmoniker. But it wasn’t for another thirteen years, in October 2015, that he embarked on his first continuous cycle with the Berliners themselves: the performances on this recording were captured at their home-ground, the Philharmonie, just before a major international tour with the works and shortly after Kirill Petrenko had been announced as Rattle’s successor (exact details very much TBC, but he’ll take the helm in the wake of Rattle’s departure for the London Symphony Orchestra next autumn).

    The recordings, released as a sumptuous boxed set on the orchestra’s own label in April, were hailed as ‘a decidedly distinguished affair’ (Gramophone) and ‘intensely alive and immensely invigorating’ (BBC Music Magazine), while our in-house reviewer James Longstaffe remarked that ‘I lost count of the number of times I was staggered by the transparency and balance achieved. I could hear absolutely everything in the score’.

    In collaboration with the Berliner Philharmoniker, we bring you an in-depth exploration of Sir Simon’s perspectives on Beethoven, compiled by his team at the Digital Concert Hall using excerpts from interviews with Shirley Apthorp. (You can find out more, and subscribe to the Digital Concert Hall, here).

    It’s just over twenty years since your first live Beethoven cycle, and fifteen since your first recorded set of the complete symphonies: how much has your overall vision of these works changed over the past two decades?

    Maybe there are just some basic ground rules or ground problems that everybody faces with these pieces – apart from the fact that they are such a colossus, really the centre of the repertoire for any orchestra. And I suppose the first two important things to talk about would be how many people are playing and what speed they play at. They may seem to be easy questions, but with Beethoven, this is very, very thorny. Each piece (symphony) has its own problem to deal with. My solution that I have refined over the years is to gradually increase the size of the orchestra.

    At the very start, these two symphonies are still very much under the sway of Haydn, who had previously been his teacher; they are for a relatively small orchestra. This doesn’t mean that they are not very powerful or not very punchy, but we use three basses, ten first violins, ten second violins – the kind of orchestra that they would instantly have recognised in that classical time. As the pieces grow in length and size and ambition, you need more. The Eroica Symphony, which is certainly a completely new world – even for Beethoven – simply needs more weight in a modern concert hall than the first two symphonies. But still, we use a relatively small orchestra all the time, based on five double basses, on twelve first violins. The only occasion I use the entire panoply of the modern orchestra is the Ninth Symphony.

    Of course, it’s not the only way to do it. It could work in a very different way with a smaller ensemble. My very first performance was with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra -a wonderful, small orchestra which had a lot of experience playing Beethoven’s symphonies but which, like myself, had never played the Ninth. What is fascinating to realise is that this is maybe the only symphony I know that starts with gigantic weight and becomes lighter and lighter as it goes on. It is absolutely no problem to play the final or even the great third movement, adagio, a benediction which speaks of the world of the late string quartets. And the final is undoable with a small ensemble, because it is simply looking out so far to another world. We are not only talking Beethoven: all the beginnings of Mahler and Bruckner and much beyond is contained in there, and it seems to require a weight and energy which is almost inhuman. Everything I say is my opinion, and it’s my opinion now. It certainly wouldn’t necessarily have been my opinion 20 years ago – let alone 20 years in the future. One of the things Beethoven does is to give you a mirror into yourself, where you are now. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important. But there is absolutely no doubt that there is nowhere to hide for conductor or musicians, and one is making decisions at every moment.

    We all learn from it. But every few years, it will appear different. You take the basic structure of a piece like this and try to be as true to it as you possibly can. Because I’m a conductor who tends to do too much to things, hopefully, as time goes on, I’m learning to leave him well alone when he needs to be left alone. You can make Beethoven too sophisticated or too elegant, you can clean him up too much. You can try to make him agree with himself when often he’s fighting with himself. I have the feeling that probably the more plain-spoken this music is, the better it is.

    Beethoven’s Symphonies together are a kind of Everest for all of us to climb. And they also keep us all very, very honest. Because they were inventing a new type of music as they went along. And they were inventing music of a type of honesty and directness that had never been created before. And so for us, it’s always a matter of coming back and, as Samuel Beckett said, “Try. Fail. Try again. Fail better”. You do what you can to do justice to these astonishing pieces.

    On a related note, to what extent have the individual characteristics of the different orchestras with whom you’ve explored the cycle influenced your respective readings?

    I think they are such entirely different orchestras that it’s hard to know. The refinement which is the birthright of the Vienna Philharmonic made for one type of wonderful experience. The energy and the drama and the sheer fierceness of the Berliner Philharmoniker are an extraordinary match for the Beethoven Symphonies and fascinating to hear now.

    Which were the first Beethoven recordings you owned, and who (on disc, in live performance, or one-to-one) has particularly influenced your thinking on any or all of the symphonies?

    I grew up as a lover of two diametrically opposed conductors: Furtwängler and Toscanini, who played these symphonies as differently as it is possible to play – Toscanini very, very intense, very, very rhythmic, basically one tempo but tight, like a vibrating steel wire. Furtwängler, from the ground up a typical composer’s way of looking at the pieces: very free, very mystical, extraordinary in another way. No musician who loves these pieces would be without either of them. They are also a very good reminder that there are many ways to pack this suitcase, and that you can only be true to what your own time is. To try to reproduce a Furtwängler performance now would be postmodern. There are atmospheres and a grasp of the overall structure which is almost unearthly. He had such a grasp of this, that he could improvise – particularly with his orchestra that he knew so well – in a manner whereby he could go anywhere without losing the basic shape of a piece.

    Obviously there’s an extensive and very impressive recorded legacy when it comes to this orchestra and these particular works: how do you go about engaging with that?

    We all wanted to do the symphonies. This is a very democratic orchestra, and they said “we need to do this again and we need to do it in a concentrated way”. It’s great to play Beethoven Symphonies every now and then, but there is something about living with the language again and again and again which makes an enormous difference. You can say all kinds of general things about what was the Karajan sound. He was obviously the emperor of legato – but what I find absolutely fascinating is the idea of how he worked. And it’s a way that is probably not available any more. He worked in terms of colours, and he had very, very specific sounds in mind. He would simply work and work and work until he got it, and it didn’t matter somehow if it wasn’t finished. He always felt that it was a holistic process which would affect the orchestra – and because he worked like that, he created an orchestra that relied on each other, that listened to each other. And sometimes you really wish that you could just put a stick down and know what was going to come out. But this is not the way the orchestra was set up by Furtwängler either, but by Karajan in particular. He set them up as a gigantic chamber group, and we reap the benefit of this all the time, even though there are now relatively few people who remember what it was. Great orchestras keep these personalities up within them. And there is something about this long, flexible, fluid line with an immense pulse underneath which was also from Karajan, and which – thank God – remains. The sound, the long breath, the idea of the architecture – this remains. That is absolutely timeless. Stylistically it’s changed.

    Do you lean more towards the view of Beethoven as a late Classical figure or an early Romantic one – or does that balance shift throughout the cycle as a whole? How does this play out in terms of making decisions about historically-informed performance techniques?

    People ask, “Is Beethoven a Classical composer? Is he a Romantic composer? What is he?” and with Beethoven the answer is always “Yes, of course, he is. Whatever it might be”. He himself was consciously taking music into a new area, of that there is absolutely no doubt.

    You’ve spoken at length elsewhere about the ordering of the symphonies in live performance – is the sequence in which they appear on this set driven by artistic factors or by more prosaic reasons such as fitting the cycle onto a certain number of discs?!

    You could programme them (the symphonies) chronologically, but they’re quite like Beethoven himself: they don’t quite fit into an easy pot. We’ve all played round with so many ideas. I mean, the only way to play them chronologically without anything else is to play the first three symphonies in one concert. I’ve heard it, and I don’t want to hear it again because by the time you get to the Eroica, you are already just so exhausted. The First and the Second Symphonies are not so long – it’s only an hour of music, “only”! – but then it kills the Eroica stone dead.

    I’ve tried different orders. There is a personal thing that I particularly dislike: the Eighth leading into the Ninth, because they’re from such different worlds, they’re a decade apart. The Eighth deserves to be somewhere else. I also hate having the Pastoral at the beginning of a concert. It is one of the most profound of all the symphonies, and although it has this pictorial and story element to it, the idea that the storm has anything to do with weather is always something that horrified me. You can see that it is a kind of psychological destruction, or it has to do with the terror in the time of the revolution, and somehow people have survived; or it has to do with Beethoven’s own rage at his physical infirmity and his thanks to God that somehow he was able to get through it. There is absolutely no doubt that the whole symphony is saying something very profound about the violence of nature and the healing of nature, and it doesn’t deserve to be in the first half. In concerts 150 years ago, the symphony was always in the first half because it was considered that people could concentrate better. The second half was concertos, arias and often an overture at the end. So we’ve got used to something else. But I think you deserve to go out into the night having experienced the end of the Pastoral Symphony and this type of benediction. It often forms part of a benediction for whatever is with it, just as with the Seventh Symphony. If you’ve played the Seventh Symphony properly, you shouldn’t be able to do anything else except stagger to the bar. I gave what was without doubt the worst performance of The Rite of Spring of my life in Los Angeles, when we played it in a concert after playing the Seventh Symphony in the first half, because somebody – probably me – thought it was a good idea. The orchestra had given so much in the Beethoven, from the first moment, we couldn’t even cope with the Stravinsky.

    The revolutionary nature of the very first chord of the First Symphony, which starts exactly where you would not believe a C major Symphony should start, marries very well with the Eroica. The Second and the Fifth work very well together; the only problem is that they are rather short. In fact, I decided early on that I would do the least played of all, the Leonora-Overture, which actually was written between the two Symphonies – more or less the time of the Fourth Symphony – simply to give the concert enough length, and as another way for the concert to open. Again, with the Fifth Symphony, it’s only half an hour long, but you come out of it feeling as though you have been wrestling with a herd of rhinos, it’s so powerful. Also, because up to this point, no symphony had been written based basically not on any kind of anything melodic but just a motto, just on this famous “Ba-ba-ba-ba”. But it then repeats it in a hysterical way, hysterical and obsessive. There is something elementally dangerous about it, and it is even more extraordinary that there is just one point where it stops and the oboe tries to wander to another place, and it is simply smashed away.

    It’s also quite interesting that, in this way, you are in a sense putting together the symphonies which are more lyrical with the symphonies that aren’t. Then there’s the Fourth, a very warm, loving, lyrical kind of mixture of a Haydn and a Mozart symphony, even though it starts with the kind of “trying to find your way through the darkness”, that no composer other than Beethoven could have come up with before that time.

    The more lyrical symphony, the very compact, ironic, extraordinary Eighth makes a wonderful pairing with the “Pastoral” Symphony. They seem to make a sense for the evening. Certainly, I once heard John Eliot [Gardiner] do wonderful performances of the Seventh and the Eighth together in the order they were written. But I found myself completely disorientated during the Eighth, because I was still recovering from the Seventh. You also simply have to take the experience of generations and generations of people of what can work. Maybe in some kind of ideal universe, each of them deserves a concert of its own. They are each very particular journeys, but Beethoven didn’t worry, and he would do these “monster concerts”. Who’s to say what is right? Maybe we’re a little bit precious about what’s necessary, but I have the feeling that they make a kind of logical sense like this. In some way, there is a feeling that going from 1 to 9, at least you’ve been on a journey together. And also, hearing these pieces over five consecutive evenings is very important, very unusual and mind blowing – when you think that the same composer could have written Number One and Number Nine.


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Writings about Macs, music and more by Kirk McElhearn