Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Was Beethoven great? If so, should we care?

Alex Ross wrote a piece in the New Yorker recently in which he raises the question of whether Beethoven's greatness was actually good for the history of music. Might it be possible, he asks, that his towering stature actually stifled the creativity of his successors.

The piece is actually a book review, and it makes for interesting reading on several counts. In the course of it, Ross revives the debate whether Beethoven was actually a Romantic composer at all, rather than a culmination of the Enlightenment spirit.

On the one hand,  E.T.A. Hoffman, writing a review of the Fifth Symphony in 1810, argued that "Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain." That sounds like romanticism to me.

However, a few decades ago Alfred Einstein suggested that Beethoven was the most "romantic" of the Classical composers (whereas Schubert was the most "classical" of the Romantic composers).

In so far as the distinction carries meaning at all, I tend to agree with Einstein. Beethoven never abandoned his attachment to form, structure, repeats, variations, and all the rest of the Classical floor plan and furniture. He never fully embraced the notion of the fantasia, the caprice, the ever-flowing expression of emotion that feels no need to adhere to a logical, recognizable pattern. To judge from the record, the reason is that he wasn't very good at constructing melodies. He didn't have that flow. He needed the structures.

A careful listener might arrive at the conclusion that the awe, fear, terror, and pain of which Hoffman speaks is largely an expression of Beethoven's frustration and rage at not being able to come up with WHAT COMES NEXT.

The first movement of the Fifth Symphony, hackneyed though it has become, is still referred to as a fine example of thematic "development." Yet the theme doesn't develop. At a certain point it comes to a halt with some pounding chords, and then starts all over again, having found nowhere new to go. 

The same could be said of the first movements of the Pathetic and Moonlight sonatas, to take two hardly less familiar pieces. On the other hand, the opening movement of Mozart's 39th Symphony (to take a contrary example) rolls from strength to strength, opening up the way a flower opens, coherent, lovely and ever-interesting, never turning back, yet still all of a piece.

It's obvious that Beethoven's music has qualities that Mozart's somewhat lacks: gravity, outrage, unprocessed or sublimated emotion, brute force. It will be argued that the last scene of Don Giovanni has all of these things, and we can find them elsewhere in Mozart's works, no doubt. But Beethoven cranked up the volume. The famous tune from his Ninth Symphony, a choral setting of Schiller's "Ode to Joy," is about as banal as they come--about a half step above "Chopsticks"--but gather a hundred people together to sing it, and it will send shivers down your spine.

What keeps us coming back to Beethoven isn't the beauty so much as the difficulty--the challenge. Mozart is so graceful as to be sublime, but the flow can become noxious. 

Everyone seems to love Beethoven's late quartets best, when the flow collapses utterly, and so do I. Nothing so perfect or moving as Mozart's great string quintets, K. 515 and 516, but rather, dotardly musical labyrinths of Lear-like mumblings and grumblings, interspersed with cheery folksongs (abruptly cut short, as if they were shamefully simple-minded) along with classical arpeggios to sustain the forward motion and fill the air with angelic sound. Beethoven's own description of these pieces seems to fit; he once remarked to his publisher, “Thank God, there is less lack of imagination than ever before.”

Beethoven understood himself better than we understand him.

I don't think we need to worry, as Ross evidently does, whether the shadow he cast over the nineteenth century was pernicious. Just say the names--Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Verdi, Brahms, Wagner--and it becomes obvious that the challenge Beethoven presented to his successors was fully met.

That challenge was to cast aside classical conventions more boldly, or thread them more ingeniously, so as to sustain the power Beethoven had shown them how to generate without disrupting the lyric flow.

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