Jan Swafford's Essential Beethoven Biography

Written by
Jan Swafford, author of Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

“What Beethoven wanted from pianos, as he wanted from everything, was more: more robust build, more fullness of sound, a bigger range of volume, a wider range of notes. As soon as new notes were added to either end of the keyboard, he used them, making them necessary to anyone wanting to play his work. From early on, piano makers asked for Beethoven’s opinion, and they listened to what he said.”—Jan Swafford

Jan Swafford's Beethoven
Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph is a must-read for any Beethoven or classical enthusiast.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Beethoven crowns classical music as the most prodigious of all the classical composers, immortalized for unleashing, as in the case of his Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 otherwise known as Sinfonia Eroica, his unbridled vehemence upon the keyboard in an electrifying battery of acoustical assault, consequently breaking hammers and piano strings at times. And yet, within the very same breath, he could also cast his hypnotic spell upon rapt listeners, delicately tracing out sustained legatos for works like the “Moonlight Sonata” that provide us a glimpse into the psyche of a man (as opposed to the monster), trapped by the weight of his creative genius and titanic persona, tormented by the emotional suffering of his mortal yearnings.

Beethoven was tremendously frustrated by the inability of the fortepianos of his day, with their wooden frames and limited span of five octaves—versus today’s seven—to emote the dynamics and nuance that his compositions required. Modern pianos are constructed of steel frames, which, along with other improvements, are much stronger and can deliver a more robust sound. It wasn’t until 1817 that British piano maker, Broadway, finally produced a grand piano with dynamic range designed to Beethoven’s satisfaction, only by then, he had already lost most of his hearing. Nevertheless, Beethoven set himself to composing and improvising for his new beast.

“Once he began to revel in the infinite world of tones, he was transported also above all earthly things—his spirit had burst all restrictive bonds… Now his playing tore along like a wildly foaming cataract…and anon, he sank down, exhausted, exhaling gentle plaints, dissolving in melancholy. Again, the spirit would soar aloft, triumphing over terrestrial sufferings.”

Beethoven was at the peak of his career when he began to suffer the effects of hearing loss, a few years prior to composing the Sinfonia Eroica. Listen and you’ll hear the development of the four movements as a reflection of his inner turmoil: confusion, despair, and trepidation as he grew increasingly isolated and depraved by his condition. In 1802, he penned the Heiligenstadt Testament, a suicide note written to his brothers that was published following his death in 1827.

Beethoven & PianoforteFortunately, Beethoven’s depression soon soared to new creative heights as his untamed imagination abounded and overcame his hearing loss. Just as he had been so moved in his original dedication of the Sinfonia Eroica to the Napoleon and the French Revolution’s ideals of freedom and heroism, so too, did Beethoven manage to triumph over his deficit. By sawing off the legs of his piano, the composer would sit or lie prostrate on the floor, in order to feel his piano’s vibrations, relying upon the internal resonance of his own impassioned memory and imagination, which afforded him his almost supernatural ability to compose some of the greatest works of all time.

“For us, what better way to imagine the late music, its sense of an interior singing, its uncanniness that seems to transcend the actual instruments. That spirit, too, ultimately rose from the hard hammers and cold metal strings of the mechanism that Beethoven had done so much to shape…”

Composer and author Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, is an intriguing must-read for any Beethoven or classical enthusiast. His definitive tome on the greatest composer to have ever lived mines historical documentation—personal letters, press clippings, reviews, memoirs, etc.—to portray both the anguish and the triumph of this singular musical giant.

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