Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph

By Jan Swafford (2014)

Beethoven had little grasp of the world at all. In childhood he did not truly comprehend the independent existence of other people. He never really did. He reached maturity knowing all about music, from writing notes to selling them, but otherwise he did not know how to live in the world. In the ideals he lived by in his solitude, instead of human beings there would be an exalted abstraction: Humanity.

My Notes

Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein:

Dear Beethoven!

You are now going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. Mozart’s genius still mourns and is weeping over the death of its pupil. In the inexhaustible Haydn, it had found refuge but no occupation; through him it wishes to form a union with another. Through uninterrupted diligence you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.

Your true friend, Waldstein

Czerny reported that Beethoven could not for the life of him keep time while dancing, any more than he could sing or play the violin in tune.

As with Haydn, Beethoven’s motifs are the simplest and most common things in music: an interval between two notes, a scrap of scale, an arpeggio, a note out of key, a turn figure, a rhythmic figure.

His creative rhythm was set. Day after day, year after year: improvise, sketch at the table, go out and walk. Walking was as much a part of the process as the rest of it.

Beethoven told an admirer that there were always stories or images behind his music. Unusually in one case, he admitted the inspiration when somebody guessed it. He played over the slow movement of the F Major String Quartet for Amenda. His friend said it sounded like the parting of two lovers. It’s based on the ending of Romeo and Juliet, Beethoven said. Sketches for the last part of the movement show a close attention to the story: with a dramatic fortissimo “he enters the tomb”; a sweeping figure is noted as “despair”; at “he kills himself,” the music sinks to empty single notes; descending figures represent “the last sighs.” But in the final version of the movement, Beethoven took out all those pictorial gestures in the sketches. What remains is a mood, a sense of encroaching threat: the rushing figure he called “despair” became a whirlwind that appears in the middle of the movement and rises to the end like doom.

“I’m not satisfied with what I’ve composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.”


In the op. 35 Variations, Beethoven took up the bass line and englische melody from the end of the Prometheus ballet (by then also used as a theme in a set of contredanses). The unique idea here, as he labeled the first sections in the score, is to start the piece with only the naked bass line of the theme: Introduzione col Basso del Tema. Then follow a series of variations adding a voice at a time, labeled a due, a tre, a quattro, until we arrive in variation 4 at music under the heading Thema (aus dem Ballet “Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus”).

Here again in pieces of summer 1802, the nature of the form poses a fundamental question: what actually is the theme—the bass line, or the treble englische melody that does not turn up until the fourth variation? Or to put it another way, this is a singular set of variations that amounts, in the beginning, to a bass line searching for its melody as a kind of fulfillment. The rest of the piece proceeds with a sense that the abiding, generating presence is the basso that flaunts its elemental simplicity. For Beethoven, that blunt and ingenuous little bass theme already seemed to possess an iconic significance, not just in its structure but in its character—not just a dance but some kind of ethos.

The next variations spin Bachian counterpoint around the bass theme, which rises an octave on each iteration. A neo-Bachian flavor turns up again in the canonic variation 7. When the englische melody turns up it is presented straightforwardly, as a lilting dance with oompah accompaniment. As with op. 34, the tone of the set is generally cheerful; Beethoven gets some high comedy out of the thumping B-flats in the theme’s refrain. The pianism is as brilliant and imaginative as anything he had done. It ends with a grand Bachian fugue on the Prometheus theme. In the middle of the last section, the unadorned englische theme puts in a final, nostalgic appearance before the bravura finish.

The qualities musical and humanistic that Beethoven found in the englische are manifest in its being the foundation of two major sets of variations, one for piano and now this one for orchestra. After the rise and victory of the Hero, the burial of the dead, and the scherzo’s return to life and joy, the music arrives at the gift the Hero has given to the world.

Friedrich Schiller:

I can think of no more fitting image for the ideal of social conduct than an English dance, composed of many complicated figures and perfectly executed. A spectator… sees innumerable movements intersecting in the most chaotic fashion… yet never colliding… It is all so skillfully, and yet so artlessly, integrated into a form, that each seems only to be following his own inclination, yet without ever getting in the way of anybody else. It is the most perfectly appropriate symbol of the assertion of one’s own freedom and regard for the freedom of others.

Here is the meaning of the simple contredanse that underlies a heroic symphony: the englische as image of the ideal society, the conquering Hero’s gift to humanity.

In nearly the whole of an issue with Beethoven’s picture on the cover, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung hailed the publication of the Prometheus Variations in these kinds of terms: “inexhaustible imagination, original humor, and deep, intimate, even passionate feeling are the particular features…”

Late Period

Beethoven was not a Romantic, and he was not mainly concerned with “expressing himself.” As in all his music, even if there were echoes of his own life the goal was not autobiography but a larger human statement. The Eroica exalts a benevolent despot as a human ideal. The Fifth Symphony makes that heroic ideal individual, inward, but no less universal. The Eroica exalts the conquering hero as bringer of a just and peaceful society. The Fifth proclaims every person’s capacity for heroism under the buffeting of life, a victory open to all humanity as individuals. The later course of Beethoven’s music amplified that journey inward. As he would put it one day: through suffering to joy.

Here then is his Poetic style. As with the Heroic style of his middle years, “poetic” describes some but not all of the music of the period, but it can be called the central current. In the Eroica Beethoven gave the responsibility for creating a new world to the conquering hero. Now in his mind the road to happiness, to Elysium, to the perfected society, has become inward, within the heart and soul of each man and woman.