Reference books usually steer clear of overstatement, but the article on Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians opens with a sentence that would seem fulsome were it not also self-evidently true:
For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.
Beethoven’s audience is so all-encompassing as to include those whose familiarity with his work is limited at best. Indeed, he is the only classical composer whose name is generally known to people who do not listen to classical music. It is as revealing that the cartoonist Charles Schulz chose Beethoven as the favorite composer of one of the characters in Peanuts as it is that Lorin Maazel chose the Ninth Symphony to perform last fall at his inaugural concerts as music director of the New York Philharmonic.
What is striking about this mass popularity, though, is that it has not diminished in the slightest the respect in which Beethoven is held by musicians. A few major composers and performers (among them Benjamin Britten and Vladimir Horowitz) have found him unsympathetic, but most see him as a creator of commanding stature, and his music is performed and recorded regularly, even routinely, throughout the world.1 He would appear prominently on any list, however short, of the key figures of Western culture—though that, too, is an understatement. No painter, sculptor, or novelist, not even Michelangelo or Tolstoy (who wrote a novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, about one of his compositions) is more widely renowned. Only Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible have burrowed as deeply into the collective consciousness of the human race.
The life and works of such a protean figure must necessarily stand as a crushing rebuke to all egalitarian ideologies, and so it is inevitable that politically oriented musicologists should have sought to explain him away. By shoehorning Beethoven’s work into one interpretative paradigm or another, they hope to show that there can be no such thing as a universal masterpiece that commands the respect not merely of specialists but of all men in all conditions. In his new book Beethoven: The Music and the Life,2 Lewis Lockwood summarizes the ways in which some of these scholars (for whose ideas he himself has no sympathy) have “read” the Ninth Symphony:
[Theodor] Adorno regarded its optimism as awkward and old-fashioned . . . with great éclat, a feminist critic has denounced the first movement as an example of “horrifyingly violent” masculine rage, and a feminist poet reviled the entire work as a “sexual message” written by a man “in terror of impotence or infertility, not knowing the difference.”
These reinterpretations have been both facilitated and impeded by the fact that Beethoven’s popular appeal, unlike that of Shakespeare, is rooted not merely in the compelling force of his music but in the near-mythic story of his life. That Western music’s most admired composer should also have triumphed over seemingly insurmountable personal handicaps—starting with his deafness—is a coincidence that few are prepared to dismiss as altogether coincidental, whatever they may make of it in the end.
Just as important, the facts of Beethoven’s life have been copiously documented, making it possible for us to “know” him in a way that we cannot possibly know Shakespeare. We know, for instance, what he looked like—his strong, coarse features are documented not only in literary sources but by a life mask taken in 1812—how he treated his friends and family, what he thought of himself and his contemporaries. Though a sprinkling of apocryphal tales has crept into the history books, the plain truth is startling enough. Perhaps Beethoven did not actually shake his fist at the darkening sky before dying, but he really did dedicate the Eroica Symphony to Napoleon, then withdrew the dedication when Napoleon had himself crowned emperor, erasing it from the manuscript so violently as to tear a hole in the tide page that is visible to this day. He really did study with Haydn and meet Goethe, who left behind a first-hand impression of the brusque, unclubbable genius whose fame would in time outstrip that of the author of Faust: “A more self-contained, energetic, sincere artist I never saw. I can understand very well how singular must be his attitude toward the world.”
We know so much about Beethoven the man that it is possible—almost—to lose sight of why he matters so much to us. It is for this reason that Beethoven: The Music and the Life is of particular interest. The author, a professor of music at Harvard, is one of the most celebrated Beethoven scholars of his generation. Contrary to present-day musicological fashion, he is primarily concerned with Beethoven’s achievements as a composer—though he never commits the reciprocal error of forgetting that the music was written by a human being. And though he makes clear his disdain for ideological interpretations of artistic phenomena, he wastes no time in refuting palpable absurdities. Instead, he criticizes by example, discussing Beethoven’s music in transparent, jargon-free language accessible to educated amateurs and supplying just enough biographical and historical background to illuminate without distracting.
Typical of Lockwood’s method is his description of the finale of the Fifth Symphony:
The triumphant tone of this movement spoke to generations of composers after Beethoven as the essence of an optimism that they could associate with Enlightenment ideals, and its way of ending offered a metaphor for the whole work as “a passage from darkness to light,” as many have described it. What needs to be seen is that the “light,” C major, has been gleaming distantly in the work since the recapitulation of the first movement, and that the finale, flooding the whole work with its C-major emphasis, is the summation of a process that has been unfolding since the first movement.
The result is that rarest of achievements, a profoundly humane work of scholarship that will—or at least should—appeal to specialists and generalists in equal measure. Whether it will make any impression upon the new generation of theory-mongering musicologists remains to be seen, but for any music lover seeking to understand why Beethoven became and remains central to the Western tradition in art, Beethoven: The Music and the Life is essential reading.
Lockwood’s greatest achievement is the bright light—one is tempted to call it a C-major light—he sheds on a question that has preoccupied critics and scholars for the better part of two centuries. To put it as simply as possible: why is Beethoven so popular? What is it about his music that speaks to so many so directly?
Many contemporary critics have argued that the appeal of Beethoven’s music is to some degree extra-musical, wrapped up as it is in our knowledge of his life and, even more, in the “Beethoven myth” spawned by that knowledge. Long before today’s ideologically driven detractors set out to cut him down to size, yesterday’s celebrants of Beethoven’s universal genius were forcibly enlisting him in the service of their own nonmusical causes. The musicologist Scott Burnham, in reviewing the posthumous reception of Beethoven’s work, has noted how it was variously used as “an important bulwark in the burgeoning ideology of German spiritual nationhood,” as a symbol for Allied victory over the Axis in World War II, and, more recently, in celebration of the collapse of Communism.3 As Burnham writes in his contribution to the New Grove article on Beethoven:
Beethoven’s music has served throughout the last two centuries as a kind of potent and free-floating moral force that can be harnessed for any number of political enterprises. . . . His music has fought wars and celebrated victories, consoled and scorned, empowered and overmastered.
Burnham’s Beethoven is, in short, a public figure, a musical orator whose achievement would seem to have much in common with that of Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln—or even Adolf Hitler. At the same time, however, his status as “cultural hero” (in Burnham’s pithy phrase) obviously cannot be separated from our awareness of the difficulties of his personal life. Are we right to read those circumstances into the music he composed—to suppose that it can be intelligibly interpreted as a spiritual autobiography?
One of the reasons such questions are so difficult to resolve is that Beethoven is the great transitional figure who stands between classicism and romanticism. The 19th-century romantics esteemed him for introducing emotional subjectivism into music, largely ignoring the extent to which Beethoven (in the famous words of Count Waldstein, his loyal patron) received “the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn.” Yet it is no more true to speak of the composer of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies as a pure classicist. He is something else altogether, not “wholly other” but nonetheless unlike any other composer of his time.
Still another reason for the confusion surrounding Beethoven’s musical character stems from the fact that though he was the least intellectual of men, he has always been of singular interest to intellectuals. This is because his music, unlike the less explicitly emotive masterpieces of Mozart, lends itself to such verbal metaphors as “a passage from darkness to light.” In addition, Beethoven’s private life often relates intelligibly to his work (as Mozart’s does not). He is, in short, easy to write about, and intellectuals characteristically prefer art around which they can spin skeins of more or less relevant ideas, rather than engaging directly with the art object itself.
On the other hand, certain kinds of musicians—especially those who live under the aspect of modernity—have been chronically reluctant to speculate about the expressive content of music. Recognizing as they do that music is a nonverbal art form whose meaning is radically ambiguous, they jump to the conclusion that it can “mean” nothing at all—a conclusion which in the case of Beethoven’s music can be negated by the simple and immediate experience of listening to it.
Here, it is the literary men who have the advantage over their musical counterparts, especially if they also happen to have some practical knowledge of the materials of music. Much, for example, has been written about the tumultuous first movement of the Eroica, but anyone seeking insight into its staggering impact would do well to skip the formal analyses of the musicologists and turn to a 1922 essay by H. L. Mencken, himself an amateur musician:
There is no sneaking into the foul business by way of a mellifluous and disarming introduction; no preparatory hemming and hawing to cajole the audience and enable the conductor to find his place in the score. Nay! Out of silence comes the angry crash of the tonic triad, and then at once, with no pause, the first statement of the first subject—grim, domineering, harsh, raucous, and yet curiously lovely—with its astounding collision with that electrical C sharp. The carnage has begun early; we are only in the seventh measure. In the thirteenth and fourteenth comes the incomparable roll down the simple scale of E flat—and what follows is all that has ever been said, perhaps all that ever will be said, about music-making in the grand manner.
Whatever the limitations of this jocular “analysis,” it does not make the mistake of supposing that the Eroica is an abstraction. Mencken understands that Beethoven is putting high emotions into play, and that the piece’s effect arises from its ability to make its listeners respond in kind. Nor is this effect a purely Pavlovian chain of stimulus and response. No one can possibly listen to the first movement of the Eroica without recognizing that its composer is trying to tell us something—that, in other words, he has a message to send.
What, then, was Beethoven’s message?
Though he left behind a reasonably large body of correspondence and other writings, Beethoven himself was in no way a man of words. Unlike most of the romantic composers who followed him, moreover, he devoted comparatively little time and effort to setting words to music. His songs are the least important part of his output, and though two of his masterpieces, the Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis, employ a chorus and vocal soloists, they are for that reason atypical.
Even in his one significant piece of “program” music, the Pastoral Symphony, each movement of which bears a specifically programmatic title, Beethoven went out of his way to warn the listener that the piece as a whole was “more the expression of feeling than tone-painting.” One need know nothing about him to understand this piece, or any other that he wrote. For the responsive listener, his music is complete in itself.
None of this is to say that Beethoven’s work is unreflective of his personal experience—or, to put it another way, that it is expressively opaque. Hence it is indeed useful, if not essential, to know something of Beethoven’s life and times, and such knowledge can serve for many listeners as a handy point of entry into his imaginative world. Despite his emphasis on the purely musical values of Beethoven’s work, Lewis Lockwood is at all times open to this kind of biographical explication, as when he writes that “the Plutarchian lesson of resignation” taught by growing deafness “pointed the way to some of his most compelling musical achievements.”
No less interesting is Lockwood’s response to the postmodern argument that the heroic idealism of Beethoven’s middle-period works was somehow rendered irrelevant by the horrors committed under the banner of idealism in the 20th century:
To [this] pessimism there is no final response except that provided by listeners and musicians who seem to arise in every new generation and regard works such as the Eroica and the “Emperor” Concerto as among their most significant personal experiences. Listeners accept them not as antiquated expressions of a political idealism that has been cruelly banished by history, but as evocations of the human possibilities that might be realized in a better world. And by attending to the inner as well as the outer aspects of such works, such listeners still believe in the courage and beauty that they convey.
Similarly, in the extended discussion of the Ninth Symphony that is the pivotal chapter of Beethoven: The Music and the Life, Lockwood begins by pointing out the circularity of Marxist-style “readings” of works of art, noting that “to a convinced ideologue, objections are simply the product of an opposed ideology and cannot possess any special claim to ‘truth.’ ” A better way to interpret the Ninth Symphony, he suggests, is “not only to try to understand the work in the context of its origins but to make that understanding, as nearly as possible and with minimal distortion and loss of content, meaningful in the present.”
To this end, and still attending to “the inner as well as the outer aspects” of the work, Lockwood reminds us that in the French Revolution and its aftermath, Beethoven witnessed “the manifest abandonment of Enlightenment ideals by all post-1789 regimes from the 1790’s to the 1820’s—first the Terror and its adversaries, then Napoleon and his adversaries, then the newly victorious autocratic governments.” He then argues that the Ninth Symphony—in particular the setting of Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy that is its choral finale—was an attempt by Beethoven “to revive a lost idealism.” As he goes on to explain:
It was a strong political statement made at a time when the practical possibilities of realizing Schiller’s ideals of universal brotherhood had been virtually extinguished by the post-Napoleonic regimes. . . . By using Schiller’s Ode to directly address humanity at large, Beethoven conveys the struggle of both the individual and of the millions to work their way through experience from tragedy to idealism and to preserve the image of human brotherhood as a defense against the darkness.
For Lockwood, the Ninth Symphony is thus a “public” statement, and one with clear political implications. Yet it just as clearly reflects Beethoven’s most intimately personal experience—the disaster of his deafness, which isolated him from society and convinced him that he could not hope for the solace of romantic love. Unable to overcome that tragedy, he instead used it as a spur, seeking consolation in the making of art. The artist, Beethoven wrote in 1812, strives unendingly for perfection because “he has not yet reached the point to which his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.”
This courageous aspiration dictates the shape not only of individual works like the Ninth Symphony, in which tragedy and terror are triumphantly resolved into major-key hope, but of Beethoven’s career as a whole, in which he moved from the “heroic” middle-period masterpieces, with their brazen defiance of fate, to the intense inwardness of the late piano sonatas and string quartets. These latter works exist in a world beyond heroism—or, rather, in the state of spiritual tranquility that is the hero’s ultimate reward.
Late in his own long life, Igor Stravinsky paid this extraordinary tribute to Beethoven’s late quartets:
These quartets are my highest articles of musical belief (which is a longer word for love, whatever else), as indispensable to the ways and meanings of art, as a musician of my era thinks of art and has tried to learn it, as temperature is to life.
It is startling that the giant of modernism who once declared that music “is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” should have written so passionately about the greatest works of a composer whose music is so palpably expressive of the deepest human concerns. But, then, Stravinsky’s best music, whatever he may have thought or wrote about it, is in fact as expressive of those same concerns as is Beethoven’s. The composer of Symphony of Psalms and the composer of the Ninth Symphony were in some fundamental sense speaking the same language.
This spiritual continuity—this unswerving faith in the universal power of beauty to relieve and transcend the earthly woes of mankind—is Beethoven’s message. Small wonder that its unabashed idealism should make postmodernists so uncomfortable. Disbelieving as they do in the possibility of truth and beauty, they have no choice but to seek to explain away a universal masterpiece like the Ninth Symphony, whose very existence definitively refutes the nihilism that informs their view of the world.
The abolition of the Ninth Symphony is, to say the least, an ambitious critical project, and one may doubt that it will be completed any time soon. As Scott Burnham writes, “Perhaps when that happens, the Western world will truly have passed into another age.” But until that nightmare should come to pass, it seems far more likely that Beethoven will remain, as the New Grove still proclaims him to be, the most admired composer in the history of Western music—past, present, and future.
Beethoven on CD: A Select Discography
Most of the great conductors and instrumentalists of the 20th century left behind memorable recordings of Beethoven’s music, and the finest young artists of the 21st century seem more than likely to follow suit. Here are ten noteworthy examples:
1933-35: Artur Schnabel was the first pianist to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos, and these performances, for all their surface imperfections, remain an interpretative touchstone. Schnabel’s recordings of the seven “named” sonatas—the Pathétique, Moonlight, Pastoral, Waldstein, Appassionata, Les Adieux, and Hammerklavier—have recently been collected in a two-disc set. The transfers from issued 78’s are of exceptionally high quality (Pearl GEMS 0004, two CD’s).
1932-41: Technical standards in string playing have soared since the 30’s, but the Busch String Quartet’s 78-era performances of the five late quartets, much like Schnabel’s sonata recordings, remain memorable for their combination of unsentimental directness and frank expressivity. They have been reissued in a single set together with a similarly fine string-orchestra performance of the Grosse Fuge by the Busch Chamber Players (Pearl GEMS 0053, three CD’s).
1936: Beethoven figured more prominently in Arturo Toscanini’s working repertoire than any other composer, and Toscanini’s recording with the New York Philharmonic of the Seventh Symphony is a near-definitive interpretation. No other performance of this “apotheosis of the dance” (as Richard Wagner called it) has such irresistible forward momentum, and none is so virtuosically played. This legendary recording, currently out of print in the U.S., is scheduled for future release by Naxos as part of a complete Toscanini-New York Philharmonic series. It is already available in England and can be ordered online from www.amazon.co.uk (Naxos Historical 8.110840).
1940: Rarely has one great composer recorded the work of another, but Béla Bartók can be heard in a live performance of the Kreutzer Sonata recorded in 1940 at the Library of Congress that shows off his remarkable pianism—at once romantically flexible and unmistakably modern in its intensity. He is partnered by Joseph Szigeti, the most idiosyncratic and individual of violin virtuosos (Hungaroton HCD 12330).
1951: Wilhelm Furtwängler reopened the Bayreuth Festival after World War II with a performance of the Ninth Symphony that is a prime example of his highly personal interpretative style. The contrast between Furtwängler’s introspective, sometimes wayward conducting and Toscanini’s lean, linear approach is illuminating (EMI Classics 66953).
1958: Primarily known for his playing of Bach, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, accompanied by Vladimir Golschmann and an orchestra of New York studio musicians, performed the First Piano Concerto with a clarity and incisiveness that were unmistakably Bach-like in spirit. This exhilarating performance is currently available as part of a three-disc set containing Gould’s versions of all five Beethoven piano concertos (Sony Classical SM3K 52632, three CD’s).
1960: Like Gould, Bartók, and Szigeti, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter performed Beethoven in a style noticeably different from that of the Austro-German tradition, and his Russian “accent” can be heard in a performance of the Appassionata Sonata, currently available as part of a two-disc set also containing Richter’s recordings of five other Beethoven sonatas (Philips 456 949-2PM2, two CD’s).
1962: Otto Klemperer was widely thought to be the most important Beethoven conductor of the postwar era, and his distinctive style—blunt, unadorned, and at times almost shockingly straightforward—can be heard in the studio recording of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, that he made with the Philharmonia Orchestra and an all-star cast headed by the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (EMI Classics 67361, two CD’s).
1965-70: The violinist Isaac Stern, the cellist Leonard Rose, and the pianist Eugene Istomin, three American virtuosi who also performed together as a trio in the 60’s and 70’s, recorded all of Beethoven’s piano trios during their peak years as an ensemble. There is no finer recorded example of the postwar “international” style of classical interpretation (Sony Classical SM4K 46738, four CD’s).
1998: Many prodigies have played the Beethoven Violin Concerto—Yehudi Menuhin first performed it with Fritz Busch and the New York Symphony when he was just eleven years old—but it is hard to imagine a violinist of any age interpreting it as well as the American violinist Hilary Hahn. Her sensitive, unaffected playing can be heard on the recording she made at the age of eighteen, beautifully accompanied by David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical SK 60584).
Except as indicated, these CD’s can all be purchased online by viewing this article during the month of February on COMMENTARY’s website:
1 For a selection of important recordings of Beethoven’s music, see the discography at the end of this essay.
2 Norton, 604 pp., $39.95.
3 At the great concert celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, Leonard Bernstein substituted the word “Freiheit” (freedom) for “Freude” (joy) in the choral finale of the Ninth Symphony.