Sunday, January 19, 2014

Beethoven Again, again

"Beethoven Again." The New Yorker online, 17 January 2014.

As promised, I'm going to try to update this somewhat-regularly with posts of my recent writing. This week's was a big one---a large piece on Beethoven, the completion-ist fetishism in classical music, and the sharp mind of Jonathan Biss. Click and check out his "Waldstein," which is great; he's got three albums of Beethoven sonatas out now, which are certainly worth a listen.

This article was my ideal kind to thing to write -- dig into a weird strand of history on JSTOR, Google Books, and the music library, find some interesting loot, and then present it with a caveat of strong-words-towards-the-classical-music-industry. It also deals with a favorite theme of Seated Ovation, the politics of programming (see here here here here, and especially here).

For those interested in where I got my information, I'll run down important sources: On A.B. Marx, the early Leipzig cycles, and Beethoven-motivated shifts in programming: Sanna Peterson's article "A.B. Marx, Concert Life, and German National Identity"; and Scott Burnham's "Criticism, Faith, and the Idee; A.B. Marx's Early Reception of Beethoven." On B├╝low, see Alan Walker's biography; on Schnabel, see his autobiography My Life and Music, his Chicago lectures compiled in Music and the Line of Most Resistance; and Arved Ashby's Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction. For the war stuff, Joseph Horowitz's excellent study of Toscanini and the classical music industry, and of course Annegret Fauser's Sounds of War. For those interested in this topic in general, I'd also strongly recommend Mark Evan Bonds's three excellent monographs: Music as Thought: Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven; After Beethoven: The Imperatives of Originality in the Symphony; and Wordless Music.

Undergirding this approach to Beethoven are two major studies, Tia DeNora's Beethoven and the Construction of Genius and Scott Burnham's Beethoven Hero, which consider Beethoven as a sociological phenomenon as much as a musical one. The fact is that most of the language we use to talk about Beethoven is very, very old, and it's not necessarily inherent to our listening experiences. We learn from a pedagogue or a book or a Charles Rosen that Beethoven is considered the greatest composer, and we tailor our expectations accordingly. I'm not saying that he isn't the greatest composer -- he's my favorite composer, and certainly has earned that status -- but we need to consider very carefully how his place in the canon was constructed (and, of course, how the canon itself came to be a thing). It's a story that's as much about the innate quality of the music as it is about the politics of his listeners in Europe from 1790 to 1840, and a construction of values around the type of music he wrote.

I often find that mainstream music criticism tells the most boring stories of classical music, which are those of the composers themselves -- heroic struggles of inspiration, torrid love affairs, pat tales of working out ideas -- and then stuff that happened in the past fifty years. Beethoven ends up being a hodge-podge of deafness, universal brotherhood, maybe something about the Nazis, and the Berlin Wall. Most are based on myth, and most essentially re-write Wikipedia entries or stale program notes.

For me, the most compelling stories are the ones told in the scholarly world today, but rarely make their way onto newspapers, websites, etc: how the music was granted its status as "great," and by whom: a history of how classical music was received and disseminated. It's old hat by now in musicology, but the rest of the music world seems stuck in a pre-1980 mode of thought. I'm not saying that we shouldn't still keep writing about Beethoven the man, but chances are if you're doing so, you're writing about something that's already been done better somewhere else. Why should we read an article about Beethoven's Fifth when we can easily Google a hundred others? Shifting attention towards the Beethoven Quartet Society, or the fascinating politics of Mengelberg's 1920 Mahler cycle in the wake of Versailles, or whatever other story that took place between 1827 and 2013, is probably going to be of more interest (to me, at least).

Anyway, I'm going to go back to writing my dissertation proposal.