Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Notes on Beethoven

Because the weather was quite miserable, I stumbled upon this nice article by Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker:


Already so much has been written about Beethoven, that adding another couple of words upon the subject seems to be ridiculous, even if done in a remote corner. But something struck me as rather strange: in spite of the health problems, the deafness, and in his later years the increasing social isolation and chaos of the household, and the awareness that his music was less and less performed in Vienna where Rossini was the fashionable modernity, he went on to write his music seemingly in the belief that it was going to be important somewhere in the future. But this future was not at all obvious at the time, in contrary: the political restoration was underway in drastic measures to turn the clock back after the disruptive revolutionary and Napolenic wars, and the ideals of the Enlightenment - so dear to his artistic and worldy outlook - seemed a thing of the past.

While concrete life around B shrunk more and more, his mind seemed to focus upon utterly personal musical expression, beautifully and brilliantly worked-out, dedicated to future audiences. He could not possibly have envisaged that his symphonies would form the core of a stable, enduring repertoire in a concert practice built on it; he could not have foreseen the development of academia where his music would be one of the most studied subjects; it was impossible to expect an army of specialized conductors whose abilities would be measured against the performance of his music; nor could he have known the later development of recording with its distribution industry which would make classical music accessible to anybody with the right equipment and the required receptivity. But he acted as if he knew, or felt, all those things: music life is, more or less, built upon his music and the standards they created. There is something utterly unlikely about the intense concentration and creative courage to just go on with the belief in the worth of what he was doing: most books on Beethoven take the role of his works in the entire development of classical music in which he played such an overwhelmingly important role, for granted, but it would have been a mere fantastic chimaera at the time.

By gradually loosening the ties with the physical world, B could escape into a fantasy world: music, where he could feel free and powerful, and it seems acceptable to conclude that this kept him going. Such fantasy world is entirely irrational, and it is a small step from experiencing elation within the realm of music and seeing that, with hard work and concentration, you can tap an inexhaustible source of invention, to the idea that somewhere into a vague future all this music will be played and heard by many people, all in contrast with a tame and rather indifferent surrounding world where tastes were moving away from all the ideals which were fundamental to B's art. This attitude, which can be called 'in extremis', was imitated by many later composers struggling with audience's misunderstandings and indifference, and reached an apotheosis in 20C modernism where composers felt free to do away with the audience as a valuable party within the holistic harmony of the art of music: the composer, the performer and the listener. The 20C modernist composer suffered from a Beethoven complex but without B's creative capacities and aims, and without consideration for performers and audiences, still embedded in the performance culture as it developed since Beethoven's time; this is the difference between B's irrational fantasies and the modernist irrational fantasies.

It may be of interest to mention that B was always curious about what people thought of his works, also of his late and 'difficult' quartets. He would ask his performers what they thought of it, and how the music was received. This means that in spite of his social isolation, he still considered the listener / performer an important part of the practice of music, that music was something to be communicated. The 9th symphony amply demonstrates his idea that music is rooted, or should be rooted, in a community.

After the erosion of the patronage by church and nobility, the more artists felt bound to what 'other people' were doing, or what was expected from them by a 'free market', the less chance that something of artistic value would come from their hands. Paradoxically, maybe the binding of composers to their patrons in the 'ancien régime' gave them considerable freedom because they had only to take into account the wishes and / or taste of one or two commissioners, while the artist in the bourgeois era - lacking the protection of patronage - had to see his work as a product in free competition in a free market, which stimulates conformity. Beethoven acted as if he felt that such free market situation was underway and that his music would belong to the very best in it and capable of beating any competition - an entirely irrational idea, but showing that in art, there may be much more reality in irrational vision than in streetwise practicality.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the most impressive composers were strikingly irrational in character, cultivating idealistic, or spiritual aims in their careers. Probably the most otherworldly composer was Debussy. But the first composer who searched the depth of the human soul in splendid isolation, unhindered by worldly concerns, was Beethoven, not by inclination (which shows itself clearly by his emotional outbursts and instability, bordering on paranoia), but by illness, circumstances and a tempestuous temperament hardly able to cope with the problems of daily life.

Due credit for the existence of B's impressive work should go to the three patrons who garanteed B an allowance which freed him from any obligation that may have distracted him from the creative task he had set himself: Archduke Rudolph, Prince Lobkowitz and Prince Ferdinand Kinsky. Without their financial support, we probably would not have B's symphonies, or not so many of them and not with such character and invention and scale, and for that reason maybe also the central performance culture would not have developed in the way it did. Had B to depend upon the assessment of an 'artistic committee' of experts, for instance chaired by Louis Spohr - a composer of fame, great merit and impeccable taste - it would be very unlikely that he would have been allowed a stipend of sorts. What is often forgotten, is that B had enemies, detractors and serious critics during all his life, next to the many enthusiastic reactions which carried him along, from his first appearances in Vienna as a pianist onwards.

The romantic cult which enveloped this intensily alive music, spread a gloss of a superficial, petty-bourgeois taste over the works, which can still be heard in performances in the style of museum pieces. We should try to find the performances and recordings which give the music as it is: as wild flowers and not dried bouquets. The solemn, domesticated type of performance denies this music's innate character.... and kills-off its most remarkable feature: it still sounds entirely contemporary.

Especially in the 19th century a veritable flood of romanticized pictures moulded public imagination.... they should be mocked and turned into the cupboard of outdated clichées: