Magazine January 26, 2015, Issue

Beethoven’s ‘Languages’

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, by Jan Swafford (Houghton Mifflin, 1,104 pp., $40)

So much has been written about Beethoven that we might approach Jan Swafford’s new biography of him with a what’s-left-to-say skepticism. That would be a mistake. This book offers an unusual richness of detail concerning both Beethoven’s life and his works.

A writer of music when he is not writing books, Swafford analyzes Beethoven’s major compositions with an X-ray ear for thematic, motivic, rhythmic, and key-signature relationships. Many score excerpts support these discussions, and musically trained readers will appreciate Swafford’s sundry insights.

Perhaps for the benefit of untrained readers, who will be skimming these passages anyway, Swafford largely eschews analysis of harmonic

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