Well into the second half of the nineteenth century, much of it, beginning with the Ninth Symphony, was dismissed in many academic and amateur circles, even in Vienna, as obscure and possibly influenced, not for the better, by Beethoven's isolation and deafness.
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By the end of the century, the late music became the object of intense admiration. For the generation born between and , the late quartets were embraced as harbingers of Modernism and an antidote to late Romanticism in terms of their audible transparency, spirituality, and formal inventiveness.
The late Beethoven works became central to the claims of twentieth-century composition and the rhetoric of its defense, particularly in the case of Adorno and the musical modernism tied to the Second Viennese School. Late Beethoven became an icon of the power of music to be philosophically and spiritually profound. It is precisely because Beethoven's music conveys meaning to a wide range of listeners that it has remained central to the concert repertory as marking the point when music in the concert canon gained larger historical and cultural significance.
This status has permitted Beethoven's music to continue to resist a persuasive appropriation by the period instrument movement, despite creditable efforts to do so. Nonetheless, orchestral performances of Beethoven have undergone decisive shifts in approach in terms of tempo, sonorities, and articulation, many of them guided by insights derived from the use of period instruments. Consequently, the Beethoven we hear today is considerably removed from the conventions of Romantic interpretation pioneered by Wagner.
Ironically, part of the anti-Wagnerian impetus has come from one particular source, itself motivated by a negative reaction to Mahler's performances of Beethoven: Heinrich Schenker.
His massive monograph on the Ninth Symphony is a thinly veiled diatribe on a performance approach guided by Wagner that catered to what Schenker regarded as a musically illiterate public. Succumbing to a performance strategy that capitalized on the susceptibility in Beethoven's music to being translated into a coherent dramatic or spiritual narrative debased in Schenker's view the greatness of the music, distorting its true nature and inherent logic.
Despite the now commonplace rejection of interpretations that ascribe or suggest larger, nonmusical meaning in Beethoven's music, most readily found in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus , the character and life of Beethoven remain emblematic of our conception of the artist.
Beethoven the man is still construed as a rebel, eccentric, and inherently resistant to bourgeois respectability. His bizarre behavior and seemingly uncompromising personality make him an ideal model for the artist as outsider, victim, and saint. His apparent failure to find love only deepens our convictions that a gulf separates the true artist—the creative genius—from the rest of humankind.
This romantic conceit of Beethoven, firmly embedded in popular culture, informs nearly every movie made about the composer, from The Life and Loves of Beethoven to Copying Beethoven No amount of debunking by modern scholarship will dissuade the general public from these notions about Beethoven and his life. Beethoven's social ambitions and other traits that challenge his status as an outsider pale beside the idealized portrait that dominated the generation of Schumann and Liszt and has remained with us ever since.
Beethoven seems to be the man in the now iconic painting of Caspar David Friedrich, his back turned to us, who gazes into a vast expanse of mist and mountains. Despite the firm hold of the idealized Beethoven on the public imagination, we should not overlook the significant contributions made by revisionist scholarship, from biography to sketch studies, put forward by historians and theorists since the Second World War.
Recently, the focus seems to have shifted from issues of psyche and personality toward the connection between Beethoven and the world immediately around him. The insights into the performance history of the late quartets during the composer's lifetime are revelatory less about Beethoven than about amateurism, concert listening, and the behavior, practices, and atmosphere at performances in the mids. Closer scrutiny of Beethoven's dedications and commissions, and of his relationship with contemporaries and the politics of his time, ultimately challenged the image of Beethoven as a rejected outsider.
Three of the articles in this special issue of MQ examine Beethoven in his own time, while the other two touch on matters relating to the enduring image of the composer in the twentieth century. The latter group points to the continuing interest in Beethoven reception, particularly during the period in which twentieth-century modernism in music is said to have emerged. We think of Wagner as having brought music to a closer intersection with the visual and literary, but as suggested by Max Klinger's massive Beethoven sculpture depicting an idealized Olympian portrait of the composer, that link had its origin with Beethoven.
Gloriously carved in opulent stone, it was the focus of a Secession exhibit famously decorated by Gustav Klimt, a major cultural event in Vienna in which Mahler took part. As an ongoing cottage industry, Beethoven scholarship continues. The question remains as to whether we can look forward to any major shifts or breakthroughs.
What can come after the daunting profundity of Adorno's philosophical musings? And what is the likelihood that someone will stumble on undiscovered archival materials that might permit us to rethink the biography? No composer's works have been so systematically and thoroughly analyzed in terms of musical structure and content.
Will there be a move away from current performance habits to more expansive, romantic, and free readings of the music? Or is there a chance, as time passes, that Beethoven will recede from the repertory of pianists, orchestras, and quartets? This is unlikely because Beethoven's popularity rests on something his music does in a consistently persuasive manner, in contrast to much of the repertoire composed immediately before and after Beethoven.
To the untutored listener, Beethoven's instrumental music seems to be about something, it seems to tell a compelling story and make some sort of argument. The music appeals to the visual and emotional imagination of listeners in ways that have little connection to authorial intentionality. Nor does it necessarily seem to rely on or require learned responses or accepted tropes of reception and association extracted from a particular cultural inheritance and environment.
I was recently reminded of the appeal of Beethoven and his music at an unusual concert.
This was only the second live orchestra performance in a prison in New York State; the orchestra had given the first in No work in either program riveted the attention of the audience and received as much spontaneous response as the Beethoven symphony. Here was an audience who may have encountered only the opening bars in popular culture, but not the entire work. From beginning to end, their level of engagement with the Beethoven symphony was striking. One came away with the realization that there will be no end to our fascination with Beethoven, and therefore no end to inquiry and scholarship about his life and music precisely on account of its undiminished power to startle, engage, and inspire.
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