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My early memories of classical music are of scratchy wool pants and of throwing up before — and after — my violin lessons. Then we moved to another state. My violin teacher gave me a book — a biography of the violinist Fritz Kreisler — as a farewell present. Somehow it ended up in the car with me as we drove to our new home, hundreds of miles away. There were no other books handy, so I read it. Twice. And I grasped that Kreisler’s fascinating life was not so very unusual; like great athletes and statesmen and inventors, famous musicians could be interesting people.
That realization helped me get over my allergy to classical music. In time, I came to love it — and to believe, with the 19th-century essayist Walter Pater, that “music is the art to which all other arts aspire.” Why? Because while music may enter through the ears, it quickly permeates the soul. The beat makes our feet move. The emotion makes our tears flow. The ideas make us see pictures. More than any other art form, music reproduces the magical structure of the universe — it strings concepts together in a pattern that suggests an eternal order. In the beginning was not the word. It was sound….
So it would make sense, don’t you think, to know something about music.
They don’t teach music history in many high schools these days, and colleges don’t require it, and once you’re out in the world, very few of us go to the symphony. Why bother? They’re going to play some old warhorse of a classic — or, worse, some atonal piece recently commissioned from a composer who couldn’t find a melody if you presented one to him with a handle.
Jan Swafford’s book — all 550 pages of it — is the answer. Not to read all at once, though the storyline is compelling. But in chapters. One composer tonight. Another when you feel like it. Over time, you will know and understand classical music (which, for Swafford, includes George Gershwin and Duke Ellington). And, as a bonus, you will accumulate all sorts of cool facts and anecdotes — did you know Beethoven kept a bust on Bach on his desk? — which you can trot out at parties, the better to dazzle your friends and dates and, not least, colleagues, interviewers, and employers. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]
The book begins with Renaissance composers. It took me decades to appreciate this music; I would have come to it faster had I read Swafford when my taste was still developing. For he not only tells the life story of the composer, he explains the composer’s music in non-technical terms. (Example: “This is not the serene, heavenly choir of Palestrina, but rather a glory-blazing heaven flashing with gold and jewels.”)
The book gathers strength as it reaches the 17th and 18th centuries, when the lives of composers began to be closely chronicled. Let’s take, as an example, the life of Beethoven. I never knew until I read Swafford that Beethoven studied with Haydn, who thought him brash. Or that, as he was going deaf, he wrote a letter to his brothers that he never sent (but kept all his life): “Oh Providence, grant me one pure day of Joy.” Or his resolve: “I shall seize Fate by the throat.”
And how about this moment: Beethoven, now totally deaf, stood by the conductor at the premiere of his Ninth Symphony. When it ended, there was a storm of applause. He was still facing the orchestra. A soloist turned him around “to see the acclaim, which mounted louder and louder in a futile attempt to break through to him. It may have been the most glorious moment of Beethoven’s career. Locked in his silence, he seemed hardly able to understand or acknowledge it.”
Swafford is equally terrific in assessing a composer’s work (“Beethoven’s Symphony number three, the Eroica, may be the greatest of the nine”) and of explaining it (“Beethoven took the classical symphonic form of Haydn and Mozart and expanded its proportions, filling the larger space with more contrast, more themes….With him, music became for the first time a revelation of individual personality — and therefore a revolution of musical democracy”).
Swafford is a witty tour guide: “Wagner secured a new mistress. One can only wonder how he did it.” He’s no snob: “I am among those who at age fourteen thought the ‘1812 Overture’ was the swellest thing ever written.’ And he is an enlightened listener, who gets the point of great music: “Bach wrote for Christian services, but his music is broader and deeper than that tradition; It touches the wellsprings from which all religions draw, the universal verities of the body and heart and soul.”
Unless you come from a home in which classical music was played and discussed, you’ll need a guide in order to school yourself. This book is that and then some — it’s a reference book that turns into a friend. If my apartment were on fire and I could take only ten books, my dog-eared, heavily underlined copy of Swafford would surely be among the saved.
Beethoven was in some ways a hard man. The troubling parts of his personality, the squalor he lived in, his growing paranoia and delusions of persecution, his misanthropy, and later his double-dealings in business will be on display here roughly in the proportion that they were on display in his life. Likewise the plaintive history of his deafness and illness and his failed love affairs. Still, I believe that in the end there was no real meanness in Beethoven. He aspired to be a good, noble, honorable person who served humanity. At times he could be entirely lovable and delightful in his quirks and puns and metaphors and notions, even in his lusty sociopolitical rants. There was something exalted about him that was noted first in his teens and often thereafter. He was utterly sure of himself and his gift, but no less self-critical and without sentimentality concerning his work.
To the degree that I have a conscious agenda, it is this: I am myself a composer, both before and after being a biographer, so this is a composer’s-eye view of a composer, written for the general public. When I look at Beethoven I see a man sitting at a table, playing piano, walking in fields and woods doing what I and a great many others have done: crafting music one note, one phrase, one section at a time. I hear the scratch of a quill pen on lined music paper. I see a work coming into focus in page after tumultuous page of sketches. I see a man in the creative trance all of us work in—but Beethoven’s trance deeper than most, and the results incomparably fine and far-ranging.
In Beethoven I see, in other words, a person leading what is to me the familiar life of musician and composer, and so he will be viewed here. Like many composers of his time and later, he cobbled together a living from this and that, and he was deeply involved in the skills and traditions of his trade. The main difference is how thoroughly he mastered those skills, on the foundation of a gigantic inborn talent. In the course of my work I came to realize that Beethoven was in every respect a consummate musician, whether he was writing notes, playing them, or selling them. The often shocking incompetence of the rest of his life was familiar to history, to his friends, and to himself. That too was the incompetence of a man, not a myth.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.
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