I usually avoid thousand-page biographies, but I’ll make an exception for Beethoven. Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph is excellent on Beethoven’s life but truly superb on the music itself. I didn’t think there was much new to say about his Third Symphony (the world-changing Eroica), but Swafford’s thirty pages of analysis and musical examples not only draw fascinating conclusions from early sketches but propose a revelatory view of how the entire work fits together. The last movement, which can sound trivial and even anticlimactic after the energy and drama that come before, Swafford claims is based on a dance form that, to Beethoven, represented a true ideal society, a dance of equals. Long after I finished the book I was digging out recordings of other Beethoven pieces just for the pleasure of rediscovery. And what more can you ask of a composer biography than that?
Antal Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight (recently reissued by NYRB) was my fiction discovery of the year, a remarkable combination of luminous Italian atmosphere, haunting thoughts of suicide, and perhaps the funniest, most tumultuous baptism in fiction—a baptism that also, unexpectedly, saves a life.