As Swafford recognizes, too much is made of the hoary anecdote of Beethoven striking Napoleon’s name from the manuscript after hearing that the leader had crowned himself emperor.
He did indeed erase the phrase “titled Bonaparte,” but kept the words “written on Bonaparte,” and referred to the symphony as his “Bonaparte” even after Napoleon had taken an imperial title.
Already in his own lifetime, the hyperbole was intensifying. “We ourselves appear to become mythologized in the process of identifying with this music,” the scholar Scott Burnham has written.
Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory.
To perform Beethoven to the exclusion of the living is to display a total lack of imagination. It is the heftiest English-language Beethoven biography since the multivolume work undertaken in the nineteenth century by the American librarian Alexander Wheelock Thayer—a project completed and revised by others.
The continuing strength of the cult is evident in the accumulation of Beethoven books. Swafford, in his introduction, declares his fondness for Thayer’s Victorian storytelling and belittles modern musicological revisionism.At a time when Napoleon was overturning the old order, Beethoven seemed to launch a comparable coup, and he nurtured an ambivalent fascination for the French Revolutionary milieu, to the point of contemplating a move to Paris.Swafford plausibly suggests that the “Eroica” is a tribute to the “power of the heroic leader, the benevolent despot, to change himself and the world”—an Enlightenment document with revolutionary trappings.Weber sees an 1807 Leipzig performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the titanic, turbulent “Eroica,” as a turning point: the work was brought back a week later, “by demand,” taking a place of honor at the end of the program.Likewise, a critic wrote of the Second Symphony, “It demands to be played again, and yet again, by even the most accomplished orchestra.” More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible.Swafford is hardly the first author to observe how fortunate Beethoven was to come of age in such an environment: his grandfather, the Flemish-born musician Ludwig van Beethoven, had served as Kapellmeister in Bonn, and Christian Gottlob Neefe, his principal teacher, instilled in him progressive literary influences.When Beethoven was in his early twenties, he was already thinking of setting to music Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” with its call for universal brotherhood.In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center.As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph: in Leipzig, the percentage of works by deceased composers went from eleven per cent in 1782 to seventy-six per cent in 1870.Although he expected that posterity would take an interest in him—otherwise he would not have saved so many of his sketches—he did not picture himself in the magniloquent terms employed by Hoffmann and others.“Everything I do apart from music is badly done and stupid,” he once wrote.