Music Makers

Ask Us Anything About Beethoven

Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1818.

Portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1818. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons

What do you know about Beethoven? He wrote the Fifth Symphony (da da da dummmm ...) and he became deaf.

There's obviously a lot more to the man and his music, and one person who surely knows is composer and writer Jan Swafford. He's just published a new 1000-page book on Beethoven. Swafford is also well-regarded for his biographies of Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms, his own music and teaching at the Boston Conservatory.

Swafford will join me Thursday at noon ET for an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on the social networking site Reddit. Get your Beethoven questions ready and join us!

We asked Swafford to list a few unusual things about Beethoven he discovered while writing the book. It turns out that Beethoven was a paranoid, surprisingly generous, politically minded pain in the rear — who admitted failing at almost everything but music.

Jan Swafford On Beethoven

  • No Revolutionary

    The young Beethoven.
    Wikimedia Commons

    I maintain that Beethoven was actually not a musical revolutionary at all, never claimed to be, never intended to be. That was, however, his reputation from his own time to this. He was a consummate musician in every respect: one of the greatest of all composers, before he went deaf one of the handful of greatest pianists of his time, and quite astute in promoting and marketing his work.

  • Immortal Beloved?

    A portrait of Beethoven by Christian Horneman, from 1803. i i
    Wikimedia Commons
    A portrait of Beethoven by Christian Horneman, from 1803.
    Wikimedia Commons

    Beethoven fell seriously in love at least three times, two of them to young, beautiful, and aristocratic women, and all of them turned him down. (The "Immortal Beloved" we can't identify.)

  • Political Junkie

    Ludwig van Beethoven, ca. 1804. i i
    Wikimedia Commons
    Ludwig van Beethoven, ca. 1804.
    Wikimedia Commons

    Beethoven's politics were not revolutionary and not the least democratic, but they were republican — his favorite existing political order was the British parliamentary system. He didn't like to talk shop — people who knew him said politics was his favorite subject. He admired Napoleon, and his epochal Third Symphony was originally titled "Bonaparte," but when he heard Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor of France, he instantly understood that that meant the man had always been a fraud, and he tore up the title page. That's why the symphony ended up being called the Eroica, "in memory of a great man." Meaning a man who was still alive but no longer great.

  • The Exploding Beethoven

    A portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1819. i i
    Wikimedia Commons
    A portrait of Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1819.
    Wikimedia Commons

    Playwright Franz Grillparzer, who knew Beethoven, said that when he exploded in wrath Beethoven "was like a wild animal." And he exploded a lot.

  • The Grand Abstraction

    Older Beethoven.
    Wikimedia Commons

    Beethoven was massively suspicious and paranoid, more so as he got older, but at the same time massively sympathetic to people's suffering. What that meant in practice is that one day he might call you a villain who deserves hanging and, if he found out next day that you were broke, give you everything in his pocket. In short: He lived and worked to benefit this grand abstraction Humanity, but most people in the flesh he didn't like so much.

  • A Pain In The Rear

    A portrait of Beethoven by W. J. Mahler, ca. 1815.
    Wikimedia Commons

    Between 1802, the year of the famous "Heiligenstadt Testament" (it was a statement of near-suicidal despair over his hearing and his health) and 1809, Beethoven wrote a string of historic masterpieces that are perhaps unprecedented in history for that length of time. We should talk about 1806, when his production was unbelievable, especially coming as it did on top of chronic illness, the depressing failure of his opera, and a terrible romantic bustup. In so many ways he was a pain in the ass, absolutely incompetent at the usual business of life and friendship and love, but he had the most incredible resilience and courage. As he once said: "I'm bad at everything but music."

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