Monday, August 11, 2014

New Beethoven Biography

The other day I put up a link to an interview with composer Jan Swafford, the author of a new biography of Beethoven. Here is a link to a review of the book. Here is a sample of the review:
The fiery aggression that characterized so much of his life ultimately died away. As his health continued to erode, as his financial situation became more precarious, as he failed repeatedly to win the sustained love of any woman (it didn’t help that he was both unattractive and slovenly), Beethoven assumed a tone of resignation in his dealings with the world. His only source of joy was his music. a joy gained only through supreme personal anguish.
I am not hastening to buy the book, even though it seems it might be a good one, because I fear that it might contain an admixture of the celebrity bio psychohistory approach that has rendered so many other recent biographies, like that of Maynard Solomon on Mozart, both unreadable and reprehensible. As for an explanation of Beethoven's anguish and solitude, I think my little comment of yesterday is apt:
I prefer music to reality because rhythmically it is better organized and has a clearer tonal center.
I haven't talked about Beethoven a lot lately and I certainly haven't been listening to him very much as I have been working my way through the complete Mozart, Pettersson symphonies, Debussy, Scarlatti and a bunch of other stuff. I did a lot of posts on Beethoven a while back, here and here and here. Unfortunately, quite a few of the YouTube clips I embedded in these older posts have gone missing. So you need to find equivalent ones. Shouldn't be too hard.

But today, let's just refresh our memory of how really great a composer Beethoven is with some new clips. First, a piano sonata. Here is Artur Schnabel, the greatest Beethoven interpreter on the piano of the first half of the 20th century. He refused for many years to record the piano sonatas for fear that, as he said, "someone, someday, might listen to my recording while eating a ham sandwich." Here is the Sonata in E major, op. 109:

Here are Leonard Rose and Glenn Gould with the first movement of the Cello Sonata, op 69:

Here is the Alban Berg Quartet with the first movement of the String Quartet op. 74:

Here is Daniel Barenboim conducting the Symphony No. 4 at the Proms a couple of years ago:

Well, the point of all this is that Beethoven is a transcendentally great composer. Not every piece by him is a masterpiece, but about 80% are! None of the clips above is of a piece that is as well known as the Eroica Symphony, the Moonlight Sonata, or the Great Fugue. But they are all terrifically good pieces.



Rickard Dahl said...

I don't know if you've seen this (at 5:00 onwards):

Either way, it's Bernstein doing some bashing of Beethoven. Basically Bernstein thought that Beethoven wasn't good on specific elements such as melody and harmony but was good at putting it all together. Well, this guy does a refutation:

Anyways, I don't agree with Bernstein but I thought I would share this video with you.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Rickard. I'm sorry to say that I haven't watched much of Bernstein's educational or interview videos. But I will have a look at this one with interest.