Why Beethoven

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 2010 the British music critic Norman Lebrecht published “Why Mahler?” The book was an attempt to explain why the symphonies of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) inspired both hatred and adoration in his lifetime, were forgotten for a half-century after his death, and now dominate the concert repertoire. “Why Beethoven”—no question mark—explains why no such thing happened in the case of that composer.

“Johann Sebastian Bach’s oratorios lay untouched for a hundred years,” Mr. Lebrecht writes. “The operas of Handel were hardly seen for two centuries. Mozart, popular as his operas may have been, had his symphonies and concertos used as kindling. . . . Schubert’s piano sonatas gathered dust for generations. Schumann’s symphonies were discarded, as were several Verdi operas. Beethoven, alone among classical and romantic composers, was embraced first to last, his time to ours. Why is that?”

I take Mr. Lebrecht’s point that Beethoven’s greatness has never been disputed by serious people, but his comparisons are trite. Bach and Handel lived a century before Beethoven, and their music had to endure the 1760s and ’70s, when European musical authorities were fools and there was no concertgoing public in the 19th-century sense. Schumann’s symphonies are very fine but the loss of them would not amount to a civilizational tragedy. And maybe Schubert’s sonatas gathered dust, but his songs did not, whereas Beethoven’s songs might be forgotten at no great cost.

The putative aim of the book, in any case—this is also true of the book on Mahler—is a conceit, a framing device that allows Mr. Lebrecht to write as he likes about Beethoven and his works. In this case Mr. Lebrecht has written 100 chapters on 100 compositions by Beethoven. These chapters treat not only the well-known works—the symphonies, the violin concerto, the string quartets, the piano sonatas, the cello and violin sonatas, “Fidelio,” “Missa Solemnis”—but also many works casual listeners will not have heard: various songs, the horn sonata, the sextet for two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons, and so on. In most of these chapters, he judges the merits of assorted recordings of the works.

Mr. Lebrecht’s reflections are as predictable as Beethoven’s music: which is to say, not at all. Some are autobiographical. The chapter on the sixth symphony, the “Pastoral”—possibly one of the most beautiful symphonic works ever written—is titled “Hell on Earth.” Huh? Mr. Lebrecht could not enjoy this work for many years, he tells us, because his cruel and abusive German stepmother would force him to listen to a recording of it with her, over and over. She idolized the German conductor Bruno Walter and took young Norman to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. But her behavior to him was so appalling that for years after leaving home he stopped listening to music altogether. She urged him to call her “Mother” and hit him when he refused, and forced him to go on long Sunday-morning treks across the countryside.

Was she so terrible? He says yes, and who are we to doubt it? “Her voice squeaked like an unoiled gate,” he writes. “Her cooking was tasteless, her outlook joyless, her rare smiles menacing. She got me a piano teacher and hit me if I skimped on practice. She hit me for many other sins, and for none.” Still, I wonder. Mr. Lebrecht has made a brilliant career in music criticism. His stepmother had him listen to Bruno Walter recordings and took him to concerts as a teenager. Hitting aside, it’s not obvious that he owes her nothing more than the vitriol recorded here.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “Why Beethoven”

  1. It could have been worse than having a stepmother who worshipped Walter.

    She might have worshipped Furtwängler. Or Karajan. (Without regard to their politics.)

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