By Jacob Stockinger
By most polls and surveys, the most popular composer of classical music remains Ludwig van Beethoven (below). The surly, willful and influential musician bridged the Classical and Romantic eras, and his music retains much of its power and universal appeal even today.
All you have to do is mention the names of works in virtually all the various musical genres and forms — solo sonatas, chamber music, symphonic music, concertos, vocal music — that Beethoven mastered and pushed into new realms of expression:
The “Eroica” Symphony.
The Fifth Symphony.
The “Pastoral” Symphony.
The Ninth Symphony with its “Ode to Joy.”
The “Emperor” Concerto for piano.
The “Razumovsky” and “Late” String Quartets.
The “Ghost” and “Archduke” piano trios, and the “Triple” Concerto.
The “Moonlight,” “Pathetique,” “Tempest,” “Appassionata,” “Waldstein” and “Hammerklavier” piano sonatas.
The “Spring” and “Kreutzer” violin sonatas.
The “Missa Solemnis.”
And on and on.
Such nicknames and so many! Talk about iconic works!
What more is there to be said about Beethoven?
Well, quite a lot, apparently, according to the acclaimed music historian Jan Swafford (below), who did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and his graduate work at Yale University and who now teaches composition and music history at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Swafford, who has also written biographies of Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives, has just published his 1,000-page biography of Beethoven with the subtitle “Anguish and Triumph.”
It is getting some mixed or qualified reviews. But before you look into that, better check into the pieces that NPR (National Public Radio) did on Swafford and his takes on Beethoven, some of which defy received wisdom and common sense.
Here is a summary of some common perceptions about Beethoven that may -– or may NOT –- be true, according to Swafford. It i s an easy and informative read.
And here is another piece on NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog that deals with how the powerful Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” reveals Beethoven’s personality. (You can hear the opening, played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, in a YouTube video at the bottom.)
Some critics have questioned whether the book (below) is too long, whether it repeats things that are already well known and whether the writing style is accessible to the general public.
But nobody is ignoring it.
Here are two reviews by reputable media outlets.
From The Wall Street Journal:
From The New York Times:
Have you read Jan Swafford’s other work?
What do you think of his music histories and biographies?
Or of his new Beethoven book, if you have read it?
And what is your favorite work by Beethoven?
The Ear wants to hear.