Which IPR Stream Would Beethoven Listen To?

Aug 9, 2014

He would have cranked up his radio louder and louder as his hearing got worse, but there's no doubt that if public radio had existed, Beethoven would have been an addict. And according to Jan Swafford, "People who knew Beethoven said politics was his favorite subject." So in addition to IPR Classical, I'd bet LvB would have had a preset for IPR's News/Talk stream. Do you seriously think this man would have missed an episode of All Things Considered?

Swafford, author of the new biography, Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, was in fact a guest on Weekend All Things Considered last Sunday. He talked with host Arun Rath about the symphony that changed the world - Beethoven's Third, the Eroica [Heroic]. Swafford discussed the work's connections to Beethoven's political ideals and to his struggles with "the full weight of a disability [deafness] hitting him in the face." It's a great interview, and you can listen to it here.

The quote about politics came from later coverage of the book, when NPR's Deceptive Cadence classical-music blog hosted a Reddit session with Swafford. NPR's Tom Huizenga announced the session with a page called "Ask Us Anything about Beethoven." From that page, here are some notable Swafford quotes:

  • "I maintain that Beethoven was actually not a musical revolutionary at all, never claimed to be, never intended to be. That was, however, his reputation from his own time to this." [At Reddit, Swafford added, "Beethoven based everything he did on the past and never claimed to be a revolutionary. Yeah, he brought a new intensity of personality and so on to music, but he stayed true to his roots in Haydn, Mozart, Bach, et al. I ended up calling him a "radical evolutionary."]
  • "Beethoven's politics were not revolutionary.... his favorite existing political order was the British parliamentary system. He didn't like to talk shop — people who knew him said politics was his favorite subject."
  • "[He was] absolutely incompetent at the usual business of life and friendship and love, but he had the most incredible resilience and courage. As he once said: 'I'm bad at everything but music.'"

But wow, that music. In a New York Times review of Swafford's new book, pianist Jeremy Denk gives what may be the clearest and most penetrating analysis I've yet read of how that music works and what makes it unique. It's worth reading in full, but first here's Denk's conclusion, which gets to the core of why Beethoven still matters to us - no matter which IPR streams are on our presets:

I found myself aching to replace the “Triumph” in Swafford’s subtitle with “Consolation.” Of course we love Beethoven’s movements of triumph: the C major fanfares that conclude the Fifth Symphony, the lust for life in the dances of the Seventh Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.” They are a crucial part of his persona, but not the center. As Swafford enumerates the endless romantic unfulfillments, the fevers and headaches and close shaves with death, you realize how much Beethoven needed the strength and consolation that he poured into his music. The pianist Leon Fleisher observed that Schubert’s consolations always come too late; his beautiful moments have the sense of happening in the past. Generally, Romantic consolations tend to be poisoned by nostalgia and regret. By the modern era, consolation is mostly off the table. But Beethoven’s consolations seem to be in the now. They are always on time — maybe not for him, but for us.

PS: This afternoon (Sunday), I'll be broadcasting the work that was the seed of the "Eroica" symphony - the piano variations that were to evolve into its finale. Join me from 12 to 4PM.