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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.
As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “ emblazoned on the proscenium arch. For this conundrum—an artist almost too great for the good of his art—Beethoven himself bears little responsibility.
There is no sign that he intended to oppress his successors from the grave.
This summer, the composer and critic Jan Swafford published a nearly thousand-page biography, titled “Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph” (Houghton Mifflin). He writes, “Now and then in the course of an artist’s biographical history, it comes time to strip away the decades of accumulated theories and postures and look at the subject as clearly and plainly as possible.” He also distances himself from the psychological approach of Maynard Solomon, who, in his 1977 biography, attempted to place Beethoven on a Freudian couch.
Though Swafford does not look away from the composer’s less attractive traits—his brusqueness, his crudeness, his alcoholism, his paranoia—the portrait is ultimately admiring.
LP, in 1931, contained the Fifth Symphony, and the duration of first-generation compact disks was fixed at seventy-five minutes so that the Ninth Symphony could unfurl without interruption.
After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. To follow Beethoven’s dense, driving narratives, one had to lean forward and pay close attention.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.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.More mundanely, Bonn’s connections to Vienna helped to establish Beethoven in the imperial city, to which he moved in 1792.Swafford colorfully evokes Beethoven’s first years in Vienna: his initial triumphs as a composer and a pianist, his canny manipulations of patrons and critics, the terrifying discovery of early signs of deafness, his apparent thoughts of suicide, and his defiant emergence, in the first years of the nineteenth century, as the creator of the “Eroica” and the Fifth, the “Appassionata” and Waldstein Sonatas, and the Razumovsky Quartets.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.Weber sees an 1807 Leipzig performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the titanic, turbulent “Eroica,” as a turning point: the work was brought back a week later, “by demand,” taking a place of honor at the end of the program.Likewise, a critic wrote of the Second Symphony, “It demands to be played again, and yet again, by even the most accomplished orchestra.” More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible.