17 December 2008

My Own Private Beethoven

And Shakespeare, he’s in the alley,
With his pointed shoes and his bells . . . .
Bob Dylan (“Stuck Inside of Mobile With These Memphis Blues Again”)
[ italics added to indicate contour peaks ]

Without in the least minimizing his importance in music history, I see a huge irony in Beethoven’s impact. He was revered as a rule-shatterer, a liberator, a mold-breaker. (And it is worth noting at the outset that this reverence pertains to him not for the mere fact of his breaking rules, but by reason of the surpassing excellence of his art.) Scarcely a composer lived after him in the 19th century, but found wonder, power and inspiration in the example of Beethoven’s music.

Indeed, Beethoven’s excellence and example are such that, as a student myself a century and a half after Beethoven’s day, I once learnt a great deal about music by poring over his scores, and absorbing his musical echo — little though my own music resembles that of Beethoven.

If musicians themselves, as a ‘peer review board’, grant Beethoven such effulgence of praise, then the fact that so much of the general music-listening public adores Beethoven, is profoundly harmonious. Beethoven’s music deserves its popularity. (I say much the same of Tchaikovsky’s music, for instance, but that, Gentle Reader, is the tale of another day.) Wherein the irony exists is: Beethoven’s oeuvre is a monument in the literature, and one of his attributes is the Sign of the Mold-Smasher — yet in part the audience since Beethoven (both general public and musicians) set him forth, perhaps unconsciously, as a new mold against which to assess other composers since.

All of us would laugh, probably, at the notion of criticizing, let alone finding fault with, a Beethoven symphony for its ‘failure’ to fit the stylistic norms of a Haydn symphony. Yet it is quite common for even cultured listeners to feel musical dissatisfaction with symphonies later than Beethoven which fail to conform to the norms encompassed by his work.

One peculiar icon of this ‘enshrinement’ of Beethoven is specifically related to the Ninth Symphony, in whose finale the composer famously brought in chorus and a quartet of soli voices to declaim a setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”: to compose a new setting of the Schiller poem made thus famous by Beethoven, was a graduation exercise completed by Tchaikovsky at the St Petersburg Conservatory. What with Beethoven was fresh invention, became institutionalized, and perhaps even in some danger of becoming rote.

Leave us point out, as well, that his present pre-eminence notwithstanding, Beethoven’s popularity was not immediately universal. The composers who followed (Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt) labored tirelessly to communicate their enthusiasm and respect for Beethoven to an at times uncomprehending public. Berlioz found conductors who routinely ‘corrected’ Beethoven’s harmony, and had to fight for the integrity of Beethoven’s scoring.

Before the century turned, though, the pendulum had swung to near-deification of Ludwig van. “There can never be a second Beethoven or a second Shakespeare,” wrote George Grove (he of the landmark Dictionary) to conclude a book on Beethoven’s symphonies, first published in 1896. In good conscience, I find this a bit rich. For all the encomia that Beethoven rightly deserves, I think it folly to assign quite so much of the musical oxygen in the room to him. Did Beethoven smash idols, only to the end that a couple of generations after would cast a golden object of worship in his image?

A weekly radio show geared towards children recently committed its inevitable simplifications about Beethoven, making it sound as if, once he went wildly Romantic, his music obeyed no steenkin’ rules. Anyone who studies late Beethoven scores can attest to their powerful coherence. That wouldn’t make an exciting kids’ show; I can see that.

His oeuvre is testimony that the composer is possessed of a robust framework for questioning the musical conventions of a season, and capable of customizing his own sonic architecture. To set Beethoven up as a ‘new gold standard’ is (not to put too fine a point on it) to betray the musical legacy of Beethoven himself, and to place the art of music in confinement.

When I hear Beethoven’s music, I see the flame of Liberty alight.

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