A Great Master? On the legacy of Beethoven

Out of the three composers most likely to appear in a random classical music magazine’s list of “greatest of all time” – Bach, Mozart and Beethoven – the latter is likely to be the most controversial. While he is constantly praised in almost all major publications as a great man, as a genius, and as an inventor who redefined classical music, there is a new generation who sees in Beethoven a symbol of all that is wrong in classical music culture: Its urge to cling to the past, to constantly worship the same historical figures – “dead white men”, as the saying goes – and in this way, perhaps unconsciously, perpetuate colonialist or sexist ideas. But how can a man both be praised as a revolutionary renewer of music and be denounced as a symbol of ageing institutions clinging to an archaic past? Where does this image come from, and who is the real Beethoven?

There are two statements often made about Beethoven that, in a way, kind of sound like the same statements said with a positive or negative tone. The first of those is that Beethoven “broke the rules”, “shattered all conventions” of classical music. The second is that his technique was just bad. In all honesty, I think both these statements are dubious at the very least. The ‘rules’ of music at any particular time have never been exactly defined. All composers at any point in history have both adhered to some conventions set by their predecessors and broken away from others. Moreover, Beethoven’s early works are actually very exemplary of the traditions of capital-c Classical harmony to the point of literally being used as examples in textbooks. Even the pieces from his ‘heroic’ period, growing larger in scale and more ambitious in their structure, still follow a typically Classical conception of form where the narrative of a movement is told by way of themes that change through a combination of harmonic and motivic development. And although he does seem to let go of these Classical models of form in his late works, he just as often falls back on even older models, such as the fugue or the theme and variations. Beethoven chose to use the rules in his own way, but to say he radically broke with convention is inadequate.

The second point, of Beethoven having bad technique, is interestingly enough not always made as a criticism of him (although it can be). Leonard Bernstein has made the same point in a video that has become somewhat famous, with the intention to praise Beethoven by saying that his greatness did not come from technical skill, but something seemingly superhuman, even divine: “It’s as if he had some private telephone wire to heaven”, Bernstein says. Beethoven, in Bernstein’s conception, seems to be so great that even having bad, or at least unremarkable technique only made him better. In a way, this reminds me of the urban legend that Einstein failed all his classes in high school. I don’t really believe Bernstein is being completely sincere, however. At one point he even blatantly lies: Discussing the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th, he says “The melodies go like this…” and then plays the accompaniment. “You see, it’s not a great melody”, he has the audacity to say, when this movement is one of Beethoven’s pieces most famous for its melody. But was Beethoven’s technique actually bad?

I will start my evaluation of Beethoven’s technique by admitting that there was one aspect of Beethoven’s music in which he was indefensibly bad, and that is his vocal writing. The reason that I can’t defend this aspect of his music is that the voice is unlike any other instrument in how it is tied to the body of a performer. Beethoven’s writing for instruments can be criticised by pointing out that many of his pieces are near impossible to play – a famous example is the Hammerklavier sonata, which was thought to be unplayable until Liszt did it. But most of his instrumental parts, rather than being literally unplayable, fall in the realm of technically doable, but exhausting and laborious for the musician. For an instrumental player, this can cause annoyance, frustration and exhaustion, but it will not hurt them. Singing however, is such a physically intensive act that a ridiculously demanding, non-idiomatic part can physically hurt a singer, causing them so much strain that it will do irreparable damage to their voice. This means that, in my opinion, a composer has an obligation to be gentle with their singers, more so than with instrumentalists, since the only thing that risks being damaged by too demanding instrumental parts is the relationship between the composer and performer. Beethoven did not do this and deserves criticism for it.

Beethoven’s instrumental writing is not so clearly bad, in my opinion. While it is true that his symphonies are often hard to balance, with very loud brass parts threatening to drown out the other voices, the simple fact is that if this is done well, the pieces often just sound very good. And while instrumentalists might be frustrated by his demanding parts, these parts have historically also greatly accelerated the development of the professional orchestra. Not to mention Beethoven’s crucial role in the emancipation of certain instruments – particularly the low strings, which in Mozart are often given little more than a standard basso continuo line, but in Beethoven frequently have the chance to shine with great melodies and recitativos, as in the seventh and ninth symphonies. And let’s not forget his iconic use of timpani in the second movement of the ninth, where instead of hammering away on the tonic and dominant, they are given the third of the chord and plenty of solo measures, and so become integral to the entire structure of the movement. This emancipation of the low instruments may also be related to Beethoven’s innovations in piano writing, being one of the first pianists to seriously train his left hand, resulting in LH-parts that go far beyond the typical repeated chords or Alberti bass of Mozart sonatas.

Another of Bernsteins criticisms is that Beethoven never wrote a great fugue. And certainly, Beethoven’s fugues are generally not as complex as Bach’s, and it can be kind of funny to see the ways in which he kind of ‘cheats’ to make things easier, either simply allowing himself to cross voices or making enormous leaps to avoid doing so, and cutting voices out at moments where writing full counterpoint would be too difficult. But Beethoven had a different conception of a fugue, and one that is not without interest, as he realised the transformative power it could have in music. See how the greatest climaxes in the fifth and ninth symphony are both prepared by a fugue. Or listen to the last movement of the 31st sonata, where it is exactly the fugue that transforms the movement, leading it into its exhilarating finale. To me, Beethoven’s use of fugues is symbolic of an enlightenment kind of ideal where the fugue represents reason which, when used to its maximum extent, can help us achieve a kind of spiritual transcendence. While Beethoven’s technique in writing fugues may have been imperfect, even mediocre, one cannot say that he did not understand the essence and potential of the fugue.

Finally, there is the complaint that Beethoven was bad at writing melodies. This is surely the weakest of the criticisms, as illustrated by the fact Bernstein had to play the accompaniment and pretend it was the melody to make this point. The fact that Beethoven did not always write great melodies can be explained by his near obsession with motivic development, which relies on constant repetition and variation of shorter fragments and so stands opposed to melody, which needs time and space to breathe. But when he wanted, he could write great melodies, which is illustrated by the fact that he did. Particular examples of Beethoven’s melodic skill are the A natural in the melody of the second movement of the Pathetique – a lesser melodist would surely have written an A flat – and the energising upbeat on the return of the first motive in the melody to Ode an die Freude, which a lesser melodist would not have thought of. Many other great melodies in Beethoven’s works are: That of the second movement of the seventh symphony, which Bernstein is pretending isn’t there, the Sanctus from the Missa Solemnis, the second movement of the fifth symphony, the Cavatina in the thirteenth string quartet, and I could keep going.

These past paragraphs may have read like a long-winded defence of Beethoven. But this is not purely my intention. When Bernstein says that there was no aspect in which Beethoven was ‘great’, and that there are many things he is supposedly bad at, he uses this to mythologise Beethoven’s inspiration by link to the divine. This ends up causing a worse form of worship by implication that Beethoven had some sort of holy gift other composers didn’t have. Meanwhile, a thorough examination of Beethoven’s skills and weaknesses is surely the best way to bring him down to earth, humanise him and allow both honest criticism, but also a genuine appreciation of him.

If neither of the two statements about Beethoven are true – he didn’t shatter the conventions of music, and he didn’t have terrible technique – then where do we find the source of his divisive legacy? One explanation may be his biography, which offers plenty of opportunities for each to cherrypick some story from. Beethoven suffered horrifying abuse from his alcoholic father in his childhood, entered into adult life a wounded, socially stilted man, and even music, his refuge, was ultimately taken away from him when he lost his hearing later in his life. It is easy to craft a narrative out of this of a tragic hero, someone who had to struggle against adversity, and persisted against all odds. But, perhaps caused by his abuse but not excused by it, he was also an angry, aggressive man, prone to temper tantrums and violence, also against women. It is only fair that any worship of Beethoven as a great man (notice the phrasing of great man, not just great composer) be critically examined and the problematic aspects of his character reconsidered.

But there is another aspect of Beethoven’s legacy that is critical to the way he is viewed to day, and that is the way he was written about in the years after his death. During the Romantic era, Beethoven was revered as a saviour of music in many essays, the most notable point of these being the argument that he transported music from the realm of the ‘beautiful’ into the realm of the ‘sublime’. Far from being content with merely causing ‘pleasure’ or ‘delight’ in the listener, his music was said to invoke awe, terror, and, eventually, revelation. Below a selection of quotes from ETA Hoffman’s article Beethoven’s Instrumental Music:

[On the fifth:] “How this marvellous composition carries the hearer irresistibly […] into the spirit kingdom of the infinite!”

“Surely the heart of every sensitive listener will be moved deeply and spiritually […] yes, even in the moment after it is finished, he will not be able to detach himself from that wonderful imaginary world where he has been held captive by this tonal expression of sorrow and joy”.

“I am unable to tear myself away from the marvellous variety and interweaving figures of [Beethoven’s] trios. The pure siren voices of [his] gaily varied and beautiful themes always tempt me on further and further”.

(emphasis mine)

The aspect I want to focus on, as highlighted by the emphasis, is the involuntary nature of the experience on the listeners part; they are moved against their will by Beethoven. Think of the power dynamic between the composer and the listener this suggests, and then think of the double meaning we invoke when we call any composer a master, and now we see the root of the divisive legacy of the composer. This perceived, mythologised version of Beethoven is associated with power in every aspect: Power over the singers and instrumentalists who perform his music, forcing them to push themselves to the limits of their physical ability. Power over conventions and technique, tossing both out of the window while still somehow managing to always write the exact right notes; he is so above everything that he does not need them. Power over the listener, imposing grand, intense experiences on them against their own will. Perhaps it is attractive for many to subject themselves to this imagined giant, to make a master out of him. For many others, it will be the reason to turn away from him, wary of the very idea of the ‘master’, and perhaps justifiably so, seeing how the will to power has had terrible consequences in history – wars, slavery, and colonialist exploitation being just a few.

But is this imagined person the real Beethoven? Are there no aspects of him or his music that we might be missing here? Of course there are. Beethoven’s music, far from invoking terror and revelation, is frequently light-hearted and humorous – not in the crass, “Leck mich im Arsch” way, but with a kind of delightful absurdism. Beethoven normalised the use of the scherzo as a middle movement, preferring it above the more serious minuet, and in these movements we can find many examples of his wit: How in the second movement of 16th string quartet he suddenly repeats the same bar over 50 times, or how in the scherzo of the Hammerklavier he inserts one bar of silence in the middle of a phrase, giving it a slightly awkward feel. That same scherzo also ends with a long section consisting only of the notes B and B flat, giving it a Musica Ricercata-like vibe.

And let’s not forget Beethoven’s soft side. While he has a reputation for huge, bombastic endings, many of his pieces actually end piano or pianissimo, like a candle being blown out. But more importantly, look at the most expressive pieces he has written. Most capital-C Classical pieces, even slow movements, are still driven by a rhythmical ostinato. Even if the harmony and melody portray the epitome of sadness or grief, the rhythm always keeps going. Mozart’s Introitus (or any other funeral march) is a perfect example of this. Beethoven himself has done it too; see the evergoing dactyl-spondae pattern in the slow movement of the Seventh. To me this is representative of a certain social convention in how a person is allowed to show their emotions; You can be sad, and show other people that you are sad, but you cannot let it affect your daily goings; the march has to go on. But now listen to the third movement of the Ninth. Hear how time seems to stop, just for a moment, and we can allow ourselves to be fully consumed by emotion, without thinking of anything else. I actually think Beethoven displays a great sensitivity, even vulnerability here, showing us the most honest, exposed version of his artistic self. This symphonic Adagio would be the blueprint for similar movements by composers such as Wagner, who did it less well in the Siegfried-Idyll, and Mahler, who did it better in his fifth and ninth symphonies.

But even in the pieces where Beethoven does take the listener on awe-evoking, terrifying journeys against their own will, should we necessarily problematise this as a glorification of real-world power, with its terrible historic consequences? Or can we imagine a different dynamic between composer and listener here, perhaps even a playful one? If social mores would allow me, I would like to draw a comparison between music and the act of BDSM, although I will admit I have not personally done the latter. Obviously listening to music is not an erotic experience for the typical listener, but it doesn’t have to be, that is not the point. In BDSM, while some kind of domination and subjugation is usually performed by the participants, their relationship is completely equal in reality. Both are able to stop the act at any minute (by using their safeword), and at that moment the other is obliged to respect their wishes. Someone performing domination in this cannot be selfish – otherwise it will be bad – and instead, they are required to empathise with their sub in order to maximise the pleasure of both. Likewise, a composer who wishes to astound their audience musically needs to be able to empathise with and respect them. A composer who does not respect their audience will write selfishly and produce bad music. And let’s not forget that the audience member is the one who chooses to go to the concert or put on the cd, and always has the opportunity to walk out or pause the track.

It’s time to demystify and re-appreciate Beethoven. He had no ‘direct connection to God’ and he did not ‘shatter all conventions’. But neither was he bad at orchestration, fugue-writing or melody. He was a flawed human being with a troubled past who did his best to live his life and succeed. He was a good composer who, far from wanting to violently impose himself on the listener, frequently used humour and showed his sensitive side. Was Ludwig van Beethoven a great master? He was a master if you want him to be one to you.

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