The life of an economics student is easier if he keeps in mind such things as substitution, arbitrage, opportunity cost, and indifference at the margin. But the dissertation does not write itself. And one cannot pretend that spacing the interior linemen further apart and pulling the guards will enable a football team to run the Lombardi Sweep.
In like manner, there is more to writing a symphony than intervals, chords, sequences, modulation, and augmentation or diminution. That's the message of Jan Swafford's Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, a Book Review No. 5 for a cold day. I finished my reading about the same time that National Review's Jason Lee Steorts published his review. Many of my impressions square with his, although I find Professor Swafford's weaving of the musical and the world-historical more useful.
Start with the world-historical. Beethoven, the author argues, is a child of the German Enlightenment (Aufklärung), a different strain of intellectual thought than the Scottish version more familiar in the United States and in political economy. It's useful to understand both traditions, as the Wise Expert approach to governance characteristic of the self-styled progressives might have the German reliance on benevolent despots (perhaps including the early Napoleon) in its intellectual pedigree. And thus when Napoleon becomes just another despot, Beethoven does not have the intellectual ammunition to respond in a more Jeffersonian fashion. What comes after is not fun: the long peace established by the Congress of Vienna, in Professor Swafford's interpretation, is a century of repression, with enforcers against any deviationism that would be the envy of a Stalin. That's an unexplored piece of historical reading for me, perhaps for another day, the underlying question being how it took a century for that peace to fracture.
The main focus ought to be the music. Beethoven, before his hearing went, was well gifted at improvising, and remembering what he improvised well enough to jot it down later. (One way he had of dealing with annoying rivals was to turn a sheet of their music upside down, select some notes, and create.) There's enough discussion of the structure, particularly of the piano sonatas and string quartets, that it might be useful to have recordings handy to play along whilst reading, or the sheet music for the adept. And the symphonies are often made up of what looks like the simplest of material, think of the Eroica as 45 minutes of elaboration on an E-flat major chord. Yes, I'm simplifying, but Professor Swafford points out common structural elements (sometimes these might be forced?) among the movements. He offers a similar demonstration for the Choral Symphony, and several of the other major works. And he's got probably the best explanation for composers choosing the keys for their work. It's part technological, as there are more opportunities to use open strings or the full column of air in some keys than in others, and it's part mathematics, as there is no such thing as fully equal temperament, something that Beethoven learned through intensive study of an obscure (at the time) work titled Das Wohltempierete Klavier.
And yet, can anyone explain how Beethoven could write the best musical expression of a fast train ripping through town, whilst dying well before any Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe, and never getting to England where there were primeval railroads during his lifetime.
On the other hand, Beethoven suggests that the theme of the final movement of the op. 92 Symphony in A is of Scots origin, not Irish, not Croatian, not Italian. The evidence: to supplement his income, Beethoven wrote arrangements of vernacular tunes for English musical publishing houses. Apparently parents of the early nineteenth century engaged in positional arms races to get their children recognized for their musical talent -- that's behind Beethoven's father Johann pushing his son to practice, practice -- and there was a market of sorts for training pieces, and it helped to have some easy enough for the less talented children of the aristocracy to learn on. But Ludwig van Beethoven might have been the first recipient of a genius grant ... he invested a lot of effort in getting various of his patrons to provide him with a stipend in order that he could demonstrate greater creativity ... and did he have the greater certainty to be able to produce a Missa Solemnis and a Choral Symphony and the late quartets, or did the slower rate of publication signal that a sinecure is a narcotic?
The final message to take away from Beethoven is that human beings are pretty robust. Imagine an era before the germ theory of disease, or any knowledge of anaesthetics, and a lot of infant mortality. Beethoven was almost always ill, whether his deafness was collateral damage to some other affliction or to an excess of lead in the wine remains an open question, and yet he somehow persevered. As did the controversy over the proper form of an Enlightenment.
(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)