The musicians’ platform became the stage of an invisible drama, the temple of a sonic revelation.Above all, Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music.
Already in his own lifetime, the hyperbole was intensifying. “We ourselves appear to become mythologized in the process of identifying with this music,” the scholar Scott Burnham has written.
Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory.
is a singularity in the history of art—a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force.
He not only left his mark on all subsequent composers but also molded entire institutions.
And the music was the butt of withering self-criticism.
On the subject of his late string quartets, which generations of listeners have hailed as a pinnacle of Western civilization, Beethoven once remarked to his publisher, “Thank God, there is less lack of imagination than ever before.” The comment remains staggering after nearly two hundred years, not merely because of the radical understatement—it would be like Shakespeare saying, “ ‘The Tempest’ is not as trite as my earlier plays”—but because of the implicit challenge to contemporary musical life. These books, all from the past three years, join a library of thousands of volumes, going back to Johann Aloys Schlosser’s biography of 1827, which, just a few months after Beethoven’s death, designated him the ne plus ultra: “His art reached a level far above what others will attain.”Swafford’s book is intended not as a specialist study but as a comprehensive introduction to Beethoven’s life and music.As Swafford recognizes, too much is made of the hoary anecdote of Beethoven striking Napoleon’s name from the manuscript after hearing that the leader had crowned himself emperor.He did indeed erase the phrase “titled Bonaparte,” but kept the words “written on Bonaparte,” and referred to the symphony as his “Bonaparte” even after Napoleon had taken an imperial title.No composer labors so hard to stave off boredom, to occupy the mind of one who might be hearing or playing a particular piece for the tenth or the hundredth time. Hoffmann, celebrated for his tales of the fantastical and the uncanny, published an extraordinary review of the Fifth Symphony: Beethoven’s instrumental music unveils before us the realm of the mighty and the immeasurable. Beethoven’s music went some ways toward fulfilling the colossal role that Hoffmann devised for it.And so Beethoven assumed the problematic status of a secular god, his shadow falling on those who came after him, and even on those who came before him. Here shining rays of light shoot through the darkness of night, and we become aware of giant shadows swaying back and forth, moving ever closer around us and destroying within us all feeling but the pain of infinite yearning, in which every desire, leaping up in sounds of exultation, sinks back and disappears. Epoch after epoch, Beethoven has been the composer of the march of time: from the revolutions of 18, when performances of the symphonies became associated with the longing for liberty; to the Second World War, when the opening notes of the Fifth were linked to the short-short-short-long Morse code for “V,” as in “victory”; and 1989, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth near the fallen Berlin Wall.The professional orchestra arose, in large measure, as a vehicle for the incessant performance of Beethoven’s symphonies. The modern piano bears the imprint of his demand for a more resonant and flexible instrument.Recording technology evolved with Beethoven in mind: the first commercial 33⅓ r.p.m.To perform Beethoven to the exclusion of the living is to display a total lack of imagination. It is the heftiest English-language Beethoven biography since the multivolume work undertaken in the nineteenth century by the American librarian Alexander Wheelock Thayer—a project completed and revised by others.The continuing strength of the cult is evident in the accumulation of Beethoven books. Swafford, in his introduction, declares his fondness for Thayer’s Victorian storytelling and belittles modern musicological revisionism.Hoffmann, in his 1810 essay, appropriated Beethoven for the Romantic movement.Swafford concurs with the more recent tendency—adopted by, among others, Solomon and the pianist-author Charles Rosen—to see the composer as a late manifestation of the Enlightenment spirit, an artist who prized free thought within rational limits.