June 29, 2005

Gratuitous Beethoven Bashing

Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan, so says one Dylan Evans in the Guardian.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

The trouble with the article is that there is a germ of truth in much of what Evans says - about the introduction and eventual championship of the personal element, for instance - the replacement of the artisan by the artiste - that characterized the rise of the Romantic movement. But he makes his points with all the subtly of carpet-bombing:

Hazlewood claims, in his BBC2 series, that music "grew up" with Beethoven; but it would be more accurate to say that it regressed back into a state of sullen adolescence. Even when he uses older forms, such as the fugue, Beethoven twists them into cruel and angry parodies. The result is often fiercely dissonant, with abrupt changes in style occurring from one movement to another, or even in the same movement. Hazlewood is right to describe Beethoven as a "hooligan", but this is hardly a virtue.

With rhetoric like this, any legitimate criticism Evans offers simply gets lost in the blast.

Beethoven certainly changed the way that people thought about music, but this change was a change for the worse. From the speculations of Pythagoras about the "music of the spheres" in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.

This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven's original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.

I don't think Beethoven can be tagged as directly responsible for atonalism and other 20th Century barbarities. Certainly he was a revolutionary, but that was a function of the times. I doubt very seriously whether one composer, even Beethoven, could successfully have stemmed the tide of Romanticism and kept serious music firmly anchored to the 18th Century tradition. If Beethoven hadn't been the transitional trailblazer, it would have been somebody else. (Indeed, as long as we're playing "what if?" there are even some tantalizing hints in some of Mozart's later works that he might have been the one, had he lived long enough.) Besides, in tagging Beethoven this way, surely Evans is indulging in some good old-fashioned post hoc ergo propter hoc illogic.

I don't ordinarily find myself defending Romanticism, but I think this article goes way too far in condemning it.

Yips! to Lynn S.

Posted by Robert at June 29, 2005 03:32 PM

In The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830, Paul Johnson had a lengthy discussion of how Beethoven changed the social role of the musician. Johnson's rhetoric, however, wasn't nearly so unhinged. Really, how much confidence can you put in musical criticism written by someone named Dylan?

Posted by: utron at June 29, 2005 05:36 PM

He seems to be punishing Beethoven for the sins of Wagner.

Posted by: The Colossus at June 29, 2005 11:17 PM

Beethoven certainly was the bridge between Classical and Romantic music but he didn't cause the change. Romanticism was a movement that involved society and governments (among other things), in addition to the Arts. If it wasn't Beethoven, it would have been somebody else. Part of the genius of Beethoven was that he was at the top of his game in either genre.

Posted by: O.F. at June 30, 2005 03:00 PM
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