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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph; a biography

Jan Swafford

Faber and Faber

ISBN 978-0-571-31255-9

£30.00 (eBook, £16.99) 945 pp.

Wally Fawkes

Beethoven had been noticed in the world of music by the age of 10. When he was 11 the composer was described as a youthful genius, who could read music at sight very well, though one is surprised to read that the great Carl Czerny reported that Beethoven couldn't sing or play the viola in tune, and that the boy was 'poor at numbers'.

Beethoven moved to Vienna in 1792, at the age of 22, travelling the 550 miles from Bonn - with overnight stops at inns - at three miles per hour - that is, at walking speed! A British visitor of the time wrote of the German pre-eminence for badness of roads and the most tormenting construction of vehicles. Beethoven would never travel that far again.
Contrary to legend, not all of Beethoven's manuscripts look like a battleground. Beethoven was no churchgoer, although Vienna was at that time the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and the epicentre of German music. "Music," wrote a visitor to Vienna in the 1780s, "is the only thing in which the nobility shows good taste."

In the city a great amount of prostitution and libertinage could be observed. Beethoven himself used prostitutes. Swafford observes that most bachelors in those days put off marriage until they were settled into a career; they patronized whores as a matter of course. When it was suggested to Joseph II that brothels be licensed, the Emperor's ironic answer was that: "The expense of roofing would be ruinous, for it would be necessary to put a roof over the whole city." Swafford tells us that ten percent of the Viennese were full- or part-time prostitutes. In the composer's depressed years before 1813 Beethoven began frequenting brothels more often, usually with his bachelor friend Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall, an official of the Hungarian chancellery, composer and competent amateur cellist - who was also a a deft hand at cutting quill pens!

Swafford writes well, with pace and passion. A reviewer would be churlish to carp at the occasional Americanism such as 'gotten tired' or 'conviviate', or the rare omission of the definite article, as in "Beethoven played piano", for this is a fascinating account if, at 945 pages, not a quick read.

Music examples are given in short score. There are 100 pages of notes and references.

John Robert Brown

First published in Classical Music magazine; included here by kind permission of the editor. Reproduction forbidden.
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