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WP: Tim Page: Beethoven: The genius who broke all the rules
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Frank Forman
2019-09-04 20:52:00 UTC
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WP: Tim Page: Beethoven: The genius who broke all the rules
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/beethoven-the-genius-who-broke-all-the-rules/2019/08/16/399b54b2-a71e-11e9-9214-246e594de5d5_story.html

Tim Page, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic for The
Washington Post, is Professor of Journalism and Music at the University of
Southern California and the author or editor of more than 20 books.

Beethoven
By John Clubbe
Norton.
505 pp. $39.95

Ludwig van Beethoven decided, in a break from tradition, that musical
content would dictate the forms of his compositions, instead of the other
way around. He lived in a time, writes John Clubbe, that saw "new and
strange ideas" and a flowering of the creative spirit. (Photo: Johnny
Eggitt/AFP/Getty Images)

Don't let the title "Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary" throw you off.
This is not one of those Marxian screeds that evaluate the work of an artist
by perceived progressive leanings: There is nothing of Trotsky and very
little of Adorno in this volume. Rather, John Clubbe has written a
thoughtful cultural history that takes into account the times in which
Beethoven lived and worked--and they were times of revolution.

Clubbe calls the two decades from 1790 to 1810 "the beginning of a new stage
in the history of mankind." "New and strange ideas, cheering to many but
highly upsetting to others, infiltrated Europe. This creative spirit, as
later historians have observed, produced a tremendous flowering in science,
technology, literature, art and music, and reforms of all kind. Poets and
musicians differentiated and refined the language of the inner life."

Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in the western German city of Bonn.
Clubbe calls the composer's father, Johann, a court tenor, his "first and
worst" teacher: "His pedagogy was unremarkable, his method cruel, his
behavior--influenced by a growing addiction to alcohol--abominable. He often
beat his son." Beethoven's hostility toward authority may be traced in part
to such unfair treatment. In any event, the young man was often dismissed as
ill-mannered and intemperate, and he burned bridges with many who would
gladly have helped him. Still, his genius prevailed--a strong pianist, an
inspired improviser, a violinist, a conductor, Beethoven also wrote hours
upon hours of marvelous music, bursting with energy and invention, and was
famous before he was 30.

There is a long-standing tendency to treat the early works as though they
had somehow been composed by Beethoven before he became the titanic
Beethoven of legend. In fact, the steady and radiantly good-humored early
piano sonatas and string quartets are no less worthy for having been written
in a classical mien than, say, "The Firebird" is minor Stravinsky because it
predates the savage ferocities of "The Rite of Spring." Indeed, Glenn Gould
found Beethoven's early music his most satisfying. "Almost all of those
early piano works are immaculately balanced--top to bottom, register to
register," he said in a 1980 interview. "Beethoven's senses of structure,
fantasy, variety, thematic continuity, harmonic propulsion and contrapuntal
discipline were absolutely--miraculously--in alignment."

But Beethoven the revolutionary would soon be in ascendance. Take the
abrupt--and, for its time, deeply shocking--opening of the Symphony No. 3
("Eroica"), written in 1803: There is no formal introduction whatsoever,
only two bluntly explosive chords and then the great first theme. Even five
years earlier, in one of his finest piano sonatas, Op. 10, No. 3, Beethoven
followed a joyful opening movement with a long Adagio of such unprecedented
tragic intensity that we can only imagine the effect it must have had on its
first audience. Thereafter, Beethoven would leave the rules behind--content
would dictate form, rather than the other way around.

Clubbe knows his 19th-century history--he has edited the letters of Thomas
and Jane Welsh Carlyle and written full-length studies of Byron and Thomas
Hood. He traces Beethoven's love for the work of Goethe and Friedrich
Schiller, and his profound early admiration for Napoleon (to whom the
"Eroica" was originally dedicated). A chapter on the creation of "Fidelio,"
Beethoven's only opera and an ode to human freedom, is especially
comprehensive. Clubbe also makes note that Vienna, for all of its undoubted
musical greatness--Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert spent most of their
careers there, with Brahms, Mahler and Schoenberg, among many others, to
follow later in the century--was in most ways a hidebound, purse-proud and
restrictive city.

As W. Jackson Bate observed of Samuel Johnson in his magnificent biography,
whatever we experience, we find Beethoven has been there before us, and is
meeting and returning home with us. It was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 that
was led by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler to reopen the Bayreuth Festival
at the end of World War II. And, when the Berlin Wall fell in the glorious
autumn of 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted an ensemble made up of residents
of both sides of the city, long divided by the Soviet domination of Eastern
Europe. Instead of the cry of "Freude!" ("Joy!"), Bernstein asked the chorus
to shout "Freiheit!" ("Freedom!"). Somehow, one suspects Beethoven would
have approved.
Oscar
2019-09-04 21:07:37 UTC
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On the contrary, one of the most savage book reviews in recent memory appeared in The Wall Street Journal five weeks ago. Written by Lloyd Schwartz, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the classical music critic for National Public Radio's “Fresh Air.” Look, for a general interest bio there is no point in trying to top Jan Swafford's nearly 20 years-in-the-making book from 2014. None!

https://www.wsj.com/articles/beethoven-review-the-revolutionary-composer-11564151730


<< ‘Beethoven’ Review: A Napoleon at the Keyboard
What were Beethoven’s politics? And are they manifest in his musical works?
By Lloyd Schwartz

July 26, 2019

Another interpretive life of Beethoven has appeared. If the author, the American cultural historian John Clubbe, were a good friend and had asked for my advice about his manuscript, what would I have told him? Maybe something like this:

Dear John,

Thanks for inviting me to read your book, which I did with interest. Beethoven as revolutionary is a great subject. But I’m sorry to report that I was disappointed. A biographical study of a figure as familiar as Beethoven must demonstrate a strong reason for being published, and while there are a number of fresh perspectives here, I’m not completely convinced by your argument that Beethoven’s music is more politically motivated than we had previously assumed, or that your ideas about Beethoven’s republican sympathies are especially fresh.

For one thing, your focus is a little blurry. Sixty-six pages into “The Relentless Revolutionary,” you seem to poke a big hole in your own title, admitting that Beethoven “never became a doctrinaire revolutionary,” that he was “more an idealistic rebel, or rather, often a rebel, sometimes a revolutionary, more usually somewhere in between.” This summation, though it waffles a bit, has considerably more shading than your enthusiastically alliterative title. Maybe your title isn’t quite right.

It’s of course hard to disagree with your argument that Beethoven’s revolutionary sympathies lie behind such masterpieces as the “Eroica” Symphony and the opera “Fidelio,” works that explicitly depict heroic action and what it takes to be a hero. They certainly sound “heroic.” But it’s confusing when you also call the limpid opening ripples of the “Moonlight” Sonata “revolutionary.” Beethoven is clearly doing something impressively new, but is the fervor of his compositional inventiveness the same as his “revolutionary” political views? If it is, shouldn’t you be dealing with that confluence in a more comprehensively focused way?

I particularly admire your deconstruction of Beethoven’s shifting attitudes toward Napoleon, beginning with the composer famously rubbing out his dedication to Napoleon on his score of the “Eroica” upon learning that Napoleon had just crowned himself emperor. You lead us expertly through his continually changing attitudes, as when, only a few years later, he considered dedicating his Mass in C to Napoleon, but then didn’t—because, as you show us, it would have been professional suicide to celebrate his country’s conqueror. I’m less convinced by your persistent argument that Beethoven saw himself as a musical Napoleon.

Your opening chapters take up the “key influences” on Beethoven’s early years in Bonn, Germany, and the origins of the French Revolution. Some of this is pretty well-trod territory. I was more interested in what led up to Beethoven’s two early cantatas, “On the Death of Joseph II ” and “On the Accession of Leopold II ”—music composed to commemorate, first, the enlightened despot Joseph, who was too autocratic to succeed in bringing about the reforms that he (and Beethoven) desired, and his succession by the potentially more benevolent Leopold, who died only two years into his promising reign. Though neither of these two still-unfamiliar works was performed in Beethoven’s lifetime, they marked important milestones in his development. You call the former work Beethoven’s “first masterpiece,” though listening to it, I rather share recent Beethoven biographer (and composer) Jan Swafford’s more tempered estimation: “Beethoven’s setting . . . pulls out all the stops, revealing that at age nineteen he had a number of stops to pull.”

And I have to say that I also prefer Mr. Swafford’s more engaging, conversational style, which avoids your sometimes-stiff academic vocabulary (“thus”), gushy exclamations (“alas”), dated diction (“yesteryear,” “oft-”), and outmoded syntax (“be it noted,” “compose he did”). Whom do you imagine will be your reader?

While we’re speaking of style and diction, let’s look closely at the end of a paragraph about the “Eroica”:

No doubt Beethoven did despair, but he was a fighter, and fight he would. Fate would not conquer him. The Eroica may strike those aware of Beethoven’s subsequent career as his most difficult, most challenging work. Twice as long as a typical symphony by Mozart or Haydn, it runs to what contemporaries regarded as an inordinate length, in modern recordings from forty-five to fifty-five minutes. It is also the first of his named symphonies.

These sentences are full of clichés, outmoded and melodramatic syntax, irrelevant and intrusive details, and all they build to is an anticlimax. How does a symphony having a name relate to its being a challenging work? And isn’t it odd to call this Beethoven’s first named symphony when there is a total of only two?

What follows sounds even sillier:

During the spring of 1803 he began what was perhaps the crucial work of his career. He rented a cottage for the summer in Oberdöbling, a village closer to Vienna than Heiligenstadt but still well outside the then city limits . . .

I know it’s not what you intend, but it sounds as if you’re saying that Beethoven’s most “crucial” work was renting a cottage. Please rewrite this.

Now that you’ve retired from teaching, and after writing and editing nearly a dozen books, I’m not sure you should include in your bio that you’ve “given pre-concert lectures for the Santa Fe Pro Musica and the Santa Fe Symphony.” One reservation I have about the way you’ve organized this book—long chapters divided into many short sub-chapters—is that it often reads like a series of program notes. You really shouldn’t be repeating so many sound bites from one chapter (or even one page) to the next: that Beethoven’s short haircut indicated his sympathy with young French revolutionaries; that there’s a difference between “van” (being “from” somewhere) and “von” (indicating nobility); that the original title for “Fidelio” was “Leonore.” How many times do you need to remind us? Don’t you trust your reader to remember these details? Or do you simply not expect—or want—anyone to read the whole book in sequence? As with your impulse to go off on tangents—about the history of elegies, or Bacchus, or 18th-century prisons, or Goya’s black paintings—these relentless repetitions and reminders distract from a forward-moving, unified whole.

“The Relentless Revolutionary” seems to warm up whenever you plunge into the political and cultural issues that most convey your sense of discovery. My heart sank when you wrote that “to explore Beethoven as a revolutionary requires that we take up his fascination with Plutarch. ” Yet your discussion actually springs to life when you write about the figure in Plutarch most important to Beethoven: Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic (four centuries before the better-known Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar ). That Brutus was so committed to the republic that he condemned his two anti-republican sons to death. How chilling (and I don’t remember reading this anywhere else) that Beethoven kept a bust of his ancient hero on his writing desk.

On the whole, you seem more comfortable writing about history than music. There is a lack of exactness whenever you write about what you hear in Beethoven, as when you describe the “Eroica” as a “veritable torrent of sound at white-hot intensity,” or when you conclude that the Finale of the Fifth Symphony “lasts a long time, and whenever we expect it to stop, it roars along.” Too often where you should be most specific your prose is smeared by generalized effusions. If I didn’t already know the music, I’d have a hard time imagining what it sounds like. What do you mean when you say, about the last quartets, that “the phrases have become detached and separated, yet linked by their emotional power they beckon to each other across the intervening spaces”? And are you sure you should end your big chapter on “Fidelio” with “This opera, like no other, can move us to tears”? (Do you really believe that this is the only opera that moves listeners to tears?)

Throughout your book I repeatedly asked myself what, exactly, you think music “means.” That is, I kept rehashing the old debate about whether any given musical work is basically abstract or whether, as you seem to believe, it almost always conveys a very specific narrative. We know that Mahler wrote narrative outlines for several of his symphonies and then omitted them from his published scores. But how important is it to understand an explicit storyline in, say, the “Eroica”? I believe that any great piece of music embodies an emotional progression of some kind. And in many works, like Debussy ’s “La Mer” or even Beethoven’s “Pastorale”—his other symphony with a “name”—the composer obviously had some very specific images in mind. We know the second movement of the “Eroica” is a funeral march, but isn’t the emotional—and musical—progression more important than any particular story it might be telling? Isn’t there something liberating about not knowing literally what each musical gesture is supposed to illustrate, especially since we can’t know what was in Beethoven’s head?

And so, while I enjoyed your numerous digressions—about the obscure but heroic author Johann Gottfried Seume, whose two books on walking through Europe Beethoven owned and whose gravesite he visited; about the doomed French revolutionary journalist Gracchus Babeuf ; about Beethoven’s friendship with Napoleon’s sympathetic and music-loving Baron de Trémont —I’m sorry I feel so negative about the whole book. I hope you find these comments useful. I would strongly encourage you to put this all through the wringer at least once more before you try to publish it.

Your friend,

Lloyd

—Mr. Schwartz, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is the classical music critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air.” >>
Ricardo Jimenez
2019-09-05 01:12:37 UTC
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Is there a book devoted to a collection of experiences of people who
knew great composers? What did the masters talk about? I have a
recollection of reading that Wagner would always steer the discussion
to his own music and how great it was.
number_six
2019-09-05 01:30:41 UTC
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Was the author of this volume a "clubbable man"?

Lexicographers want to know!
John Hood
2019-09-05 08:44:09 UTC
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Post by Ricardo Jimenez
Is there a book devoted to a collection of experiences of people who
knew great composers? What did the masters talk about? I have a
recollection of reading that Wagner would always steer the discussion
to his own music and how great it was.
I had a book that may fits your description.

Two things:

I can't remember what it was called.

It was a collection of composers slagging off other composers so I got
rid of it.

JH
y***@gmail.com
2019-09-06 04:36:07 UTC
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Post by Ricardo Jimenez
Is there a book devoted to a collection of experiences of people who
knew great composers? What did the masters talk about? I have a
recollection of reading that Wagner would always steer the discussion
to his own music and how great it was.
I remember coming across such a book, but have not read it:

https://tinyurl.com/y5et93x9
Bob Harper
2019-09-06 16:14:17 UTC
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Post by y***@gmail.com
Post by Ricardo Jimenez
Is there a book devoted to a collection of experiences of people who
knew great composers? What did the masters talk about? I have a
recollection of reading that Wagner would always steer the discussion
to his own music and how great it was.
https://tinyurl.com/y5et93x9
Thanks. I will try to get hold of a copy of Arthur Abell's "Talks
with Great Composers." Abell interviewed Brahms, Strauss, Puccini,
Humperdinck, Bruch and Grieg while he lived in Europe from 1890 to
1918. I guess Mahler was not ranked as "great" at that time.
Slightly OT, but I highly recommend this volume:

https://www.amazon.com/Music-Criticisms-1846-99-Eduard-Hanslick/dp/B0000CLVN1/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=eduard+hanslick&qid=1567786247&s=gateway&sr=8-2#customerReviews

Bob Harper

Bob Harper
2019-09-05 22:45:17 UTC
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Post by Oscar
On the contrary, one of the most savage book reviews in recent memory appeared in The Wall Street Journal five weeks ago. Written by Lloyd Schwartz, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the classical music critic for National Public Radio's “Fresh Air.” Look, for a general interest bio there is no point in trying to top Jan Swafford's nearly 20 years-in-the-making book from 2014. None!
https://www.wsj.com/articles/beethoven-review-the-revolutionary-composer-11564151730
<< ‘Beethoven’ Review: A Napoleon at the Keyboard
What were Beethoven’s politics? And are they manifest in his musical works?
By Lloyd Schwartz
July 26, 2019
Dear John,
Thanks for inviting me to read your book, which I did with interest. Beethoven as revolutionary is a great subject. But I’m sorry to report that I was disappointed. A biographical study of a figure as familiar as Beethoven must demonstrate a strong reason for being published, and while there are a number of fresh perspectives here, I’m not completely convinced by your argument that Beethoven’s music is more politically motivated than we had previously assumed, or that your ideas about Beethoven’s republican sympathies are especially fresh.
For one thing, your focus is a little blurry. Sixty-six pages into “The Relentless Revolutionary,” you seem to poke a big hole in your own title, admitting that Beethoven “never became a doctrinaire revolutionary,” that he was “more an idealistic rebel, or rather, often a rebel, sometimes a revolutionary, more usually somewhere in between.” This summation, though it waffles a bit, has considerably more shading than your enthusiastically alliterative title. Maybe your title isn’t quite right.
It’s of course hard to disagree with your argument that Beethoven’s revolutionary sympathies lie behind such masterpieces as the “Eroica” Symphony and the opera “Fidelio,” works that explicitly depict heroic action and what it takes to be a hero. They certainly sound “heroic.” But it’s confusing when you also call the limpid opening ripples of the “Moonlight” Sonata “revolutionary.” Beethoven is clearly doing something impressively new, but is the fervor of his compositional inventiveness the same as his “revolutionary” political views? If it is, shouldn’t you be dealing with that confluence in a more comprehensively focused way?
I particularly admire your deconstruction of Beethoven’s shifting attitudes toward Napoleon, beginning with the composer famously rubbing out his dedication to Napoleon on his score of the “Eroica” upon learning that Napoleon had just crowned himself emperor. You lead us expertly through his continually changing attitudes, as when, only a few years later, he considered dedicating his Mass in C to Napoleon, but then didn’t—because, as you show us, it would have been professional suicide to celebrate his country’s conqueror. I’m less convinced by your persistent argument that Beethoven saw himself as a musical Napoleon.
Your opening chapters take up the “key influences” on Beethoven’s early years in Bonn, Germany, and the origins of the French Revolution. Some of this is pretty well-trod territory. I was more interested in what led up to Beethoven’s two early cantatas, “On the Death of Joseph II ” and “On the Accession of Leopold II ”—music composed to commemorate, first, the enlightened despot Joseph, who was too autocratic to succeed in bringing about the reforms that he (and Beethoven) desired, and his succession by the potentially more benevolent Leopold, who died only two years into his promising reign. Though neither of these two still-unfamiliar works was performed in Beethoven’s lifetime, they marked important milestones in his development. You call the former work Beethoven’s “first masterpiece,” though listening to it, I rather share recent Beethoven biographer (and composer) Jan Swafford’s more tempered estimation: “Beethoven’s setting . . . pulls out all the stops, revealing that at age nineteen he had a number of stops to pull.”
And I have to say that I also prefer Mr. Swafford’s more engaging, conversational style, which avoids your sometimes-stiff academic vocabulary (“thus”), gushy exclamations (“alas”), dated diction (“yesteryear,” “oft-”), and outmoded syntax (“be it noted,” “compose he did”). Whom do you imagine will be your reader?
No doubt Beethoven did despair, but he was a fighter, and fight he would. Fate would not conquer him. The Eroica may strike those aware of Beethoven’s subsequent career as his most difficult, most challenging work. Twice as long as a typical symphony by Mozart or Haydn, it runs to what contemporaries regarded as an inordinate length, in modern recordings from forty-five to fifty-five minutes. It is also the first of his named symphonies.
These sentences are full of clichés, outmoded and melodramatic syntax, irrelevant and intrusive details, and all they build to is an anticlimax. How does a symphony having a name relate to its being a challenging work? And isn’t it odd to call this Beethoven’s first named symphony when there is a total of only two?
During the spring of 1803 he began what was perhaps the crucial work of his career. He rented a cottage for the summer in Oberdöbling, a village closer to Vienna than Heiligenstadt but still well outside the then city limits . . .
I know it’s not what you intend, but it sounds as if you’re saying that Beethoven’s most “crucial” work was renting a cottage. Please rewrite this.
Now that you’ve retired from teaching, and after writing and editing nearly a dozen books, I’m not sure you should include in your bio that you’ve “given pre-concert lectures for the Santa Fe Pro Musica and the Santa Fe Symphony.” One reservation I have about the way you’ve organized this book—long chapters divided into many short sub-chapters—is that it often reads like a series of program notes. You really shouldn’t be repeating so many sound bites from one chapter (or even one page) to the next: that Beethoven’s short haircut indicated his sympathy with young French revolutionaries; that there’s a difference between “van” (being “from” somewhere) and “von” (indicating nobility); that the original title for “Fidelio” was “Leonore.” How many times do you need to remind us? Don’t you trust your reader to remember these details? Or do you simply not expect—or want—anyone to read the whole book in sequence? As with your impulse to go off on tangents—about the history of elegies, or Bacchus, or 18th-century prisons, or Goya’s black paintings—these relentless repetitions and reminders distract from a forward-moving, unified whole.
“The Relentless Revolutionary” seems to warm up whenever you plunge into the political and cultural issues that most convey your sense of discovery. My heart sank when you wrote that “to explore Beethoven as a revolutionary requires that we take up his fascination with Plutarch. ” Yet your discussion actually springs to life when you write about the figure in Plutarch most important to Beethoven: Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic (four centuries before the better-known Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar ). That Brutus was so committed to the republic that he condemned his two anti-republican sons to death. How chilling (and I don’t remember reading this anywhere else) that Beethoven kept a bust of his ancient hero on his writing desk.
On the whole, you seem more comfortable writing about history than music. There is a lack of exactness whenever you write about what you hear in Beethoven, as when you describe the “Eroica” as a “veritable torrent of sound at white-hot intensity,” or when you conclude that the Finale of the Fifth Symphony “lasts a long time, and whenever we expect it to stop, it roars along.” Too often where you should be most specific your prose is smeared by generalized effusions. If I didn’t already know the music, I’d have a hard time imagining what it sounds like. What do you mean when you say, about the last quartets, that “the phrases have become detached and separated, yet linked by their emotional power they beckon to each other across the intervening spaces”? And are you sure you should end your big chapter on “Fidelio” with “This opera, like no other, can move us to tears”? (Do you really believe that this is the only opera that moves listeners to tears?)
Throughout your book I repeatedly asked myself what, exactly, you think music “means.” That is, I kept rehashing the old debate about whether any given musical work is basically abstract or whether, as you seem to believe, it almost always conveys a very specific narrative. We know that Mahler wrote narrative outlines for several of his symphonies and then omitted them from his published scores. But how important is it to understand an explicit storyline in, say, the “Eroica”? I believe that any great piece of music embodies an emotional progression of some kind. And in many works, like Debussy ’s “La Mer” or even Beethoven’s “Pastorale”—his other symphony with a “name”—the composer obviously had some very specific images in mind. We know the second movement of the “Eroica” is a funeral march, but isn’t the emotional—and musical—progression more important than any particular story it might be telling? Isn’t there something liberating about not knowing literally what each musical gesture is supposed to illustrate, especially since we can’t know what was in Beethoven’s head?
And so, while I enjoyed your numerous digressions—about the obscure but heroic author Johann Gottfried Seume, whose two books on walking through Europe Beethoven owned and whose gravesite he visited; about the doomed French revolutionary journalist Gracchus Babeuf ; about Beethoven’s friendship with Napoleon’s sympathetic and music-loving Baron de Trémont —I’m sorry I feel so negative about the whole book. I hope you find these comments useful. I would strongly encourage you to put this all through the wringer at least once more before you try to publish it.
Your friend,
Lloyd
—Mr. Schwartz, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is the classical music critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air.” >>
'Savage' is an understatement. One wonders whether Mr. Clubbe will be
able to appear in polite (musical) society after such a humiliation.
y***@gmail.com
2019-09-06 04:32:34 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by Oscar
On the contrary, one of the most savage book reviews in recent memory appeared in The Wall Street Journal five weeks ago. Written by Lloyd Schwartz, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the classical music critic for National Public Radio's “Fresh Air.” Look, for a general interest bio there is no point in trying to top Jan Swafford's nearly 20 years-in-the-making book from 2014. None!
https://www.wsj.com/articles/beethoven-review-the-revolutionary-composer-11564151730
<< ‘Beethoven’ Review: A Napoleon at the Keyboard
What were Beethoven’s politics? And are they manifest in his musical works?
By Lloyd Schwartz
July 26, 2019
Dear John,
Thanks for inviting me to read your book, which I did with interest. Beethoven as revolutionary is a great subject. But I’m sorry to report that I was disappointed. A biographical study of a figure as familiar as Beethoven must demonstrate a strong reason for being published, and while there are a number of fresh perspectives here, I’m not completely convinced by your argument that Beethoven’s music is more politically motivated than we had previously assumed, or that your ideas about Beethoven’s republican sympathies are especially fresh.
For one thing, your focus is a little blurry. Sixty-six pages into “The Relentless Revolutionary,” you seem to poke a big hole in your own title, admitting that Beethoven “never became a doctrinaire revolutionary,” that he was “more an idealistic rebel, or rather, often a rebel, sometimes a revolutionary, more usually somewhere in between.” This summation, though it waffles a bit, has considerably more shading than your enthusiastically alliterative title. Maybe your title isn’t quite right.
It’s of course hard to disagree with your argument that Beethoven’s revolutionary sympathies lie behind such masterpieces as the “Eroica” Symphony and the opera “Fidelio,” works that explicitly depict heroic action and what it takes to be a hero. They certainly sound “heroic.” But it’s confusing when you also call the limpid opening ripples of the “Moonlight” Sonata “revolutionary.” Beethoven is clearly doing something impressively new, but is the fervor of his compositional inventiveness the same as his “revolutionary” political views? If it is, shouldn’t you be dealing with that confluence in a more comprehensively focused way?
I particularly admire your deconstruction of Beethoven’s shifting attitudes toward Napoleon, beginning with the composer famously rubbing out his dedication to Napoleon on his score of the “Eroica” upon learning that Napoleon had just crowned himself emperor. You lead us expertly through his continually changing attitudes, as when, only a few years later, he considered dedicating his Mass in C to Napoleon, but then didn’t—because, as you show us, it would have been professional suicide to celebrate his country’s conqueror. I’m less convinced by your persistent argument that Beethoven saw himself as a musical Napoleon.
Your opening chapters take up the “key influences” on Beethoven’s early years in Bonn, Germany, and the origins of the French Revolution. Some of this is pretty well-trod territory. I was more interested in what led up to Beethoven’s two early cantatas, “On the Death of Joseph II ” and “On the Accession of Leopold II ”—music composed to commemorate, first, the enlightened despot Joseph, who was too autocratic to succeed in bringing about the reforms that he (and Beethoven) desired, and his succession by the potentially more benevolent Leopold, who died only two years into his promising reign. Though neither of these two still-unfamiliar works was performed in Beethoven’s lifetime, they marked important milestones in his development. You call the former work Beethoven’s “first masterpiece,” though listening to it, I rather share recent Beethoven biographer (and composer) Jan Swafford’s more tempered estimation: “Beethoven’s setting . . . pulls out all the stops, revealing that at age nineteen he had a number of stops to pull.”
And I have to say that I also prefer Mr. Swafford’s more engaging, conversational style, which avoids your sometimes-stiff academic vocabulary (“thus”), gushy exclamations (“alas”), dated diction (“yesteryear,” “oft-”), and outmoded syntax (“be it noted,” “compose he did”). Whom do you imagine will be your reader?
No doubt Beethoven did despair, but he was a fighter, and fight he would. Fate would not conquer him. The Eroica may strike those aware of Beethoven’s subsequent career as his most difficult, most challenging work. Twice as long as a typical symphony by Mozart or Haydn, it runs to what contemporaries regarded as an inordinate length, in modern recordings from forty-five to fifty-five minutes. It is also the first of his named symphonies.
These sentences are full of clichés, outmoded and melodramatic syntax, irrelevant and intrusive details, and all they build to is an anticlimax. How does a symphony having a name relate to its being a challenging work? And isn’t it odd to call this Beethoven’s first named symphony when there is a total of only two?
During the spring of 1803 he began what was perhaps the crucial work of his career. He rented a cottage for the summer in Oberdöbling, a village closer to Vienna than Heiligenstadt but still well outside the then city limits . . .
I know it’s not what you intend, but it sounds as if you’re saying that Beethoven’s most “crucial” work was renting a cottage. Please rewrite this.
Now that you’ve retired from teaching, and after writing and editing nearly a dozen books, I’m not sure you should include in your bio that you’ve “given pre-concert lectures for the Santa Fe Pro Musica and the Santa Fe Symphony.” One reservation I have about the way you’ve organized this book—long chapters divided into many short sub-chapters—is that it often reads like a series of program notes. You really shouldn’t be repeating so many sound bites from one chapter (or even one page) to the next: that Beethoven’s short haircut indicated his sympathy with young French revolutionaries; that there’s a difference between “van” (being “from” somewhere) and “von” (indicating nobility); that the original title for “Fidelio” was “Leonore.” How many times do you need to remind us? Don’t you trust your reader to remember these details? Or do you simply not expect—or want—anyone to read the whole book in sequence? As with your impulse to go off on tangents—about the history of elegies, or Bacchus, or 18th-century prisons, or Goya’s black paintings—these relentless repetitions and reminders distract from a forward-moving, unified whole.
“The Relentless Revolutionary” seems to warm up whenever you plunge into the political and cultural issues that most convey your sense of discovery. My heart sank when you wrote that “to explore Beethoven as a revolutionary requires that we take up his fascination with Plutarch. ” Yet your discussion actually springs to life when you write about the figure in Plutarch most important to Beethoven: Lucius Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic (four centuries before the better-known Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar ). That Brutus was so committed to the republic that he condemned his two anti-republican sons to death. How chilling (and I don’t remember reading this anywhere else) that Beethoven kept a bust of his ancient hero on his writing desk.
On the whole, you seem more comfortable writing about history than music. There is a lack of exactness whenever you write about what you hear in Beethoven, as when you describe the “Eroica” as a “veritable torrent of sound at white-hot intensity,” or when you conclude that the Finale of the Fifth Symphony “lasts a long time, and whenever we expect it to stop, it roars along.” Too often where you should be most specific your prose is smeared by generalized effusions. If I didn’t already know the music, I’d have a hard time imagining what it sounds like. What do you mean when you say, about the last quartets, that “the phrases have become detached and separated, yet linked by their emotional power they beckon to each other across the intervening spaces”? And are you sure you should end your big chapter on “Fidelio” with “This opera, like no other, can move us to tears”? (Do you really believe that this is the only opera that moves listeners to tears?)
Throughout your book I repeatedly asked myself what, exactly, you think music “means.” That is, I kept rehashing the old debate about whether any given musical work is basically abstract or whether, as you seem to believe, it almost always conveys a very specific narrative. We know that Mahler wrote narrative outlines for several of his symphonies and then omitted them from his published scores. But how important is it to understand an explicit storyline in, say, the “Eroica”? I believe that any great piece of music embodies an emotional progression of some kind. And in many works, like Debussy ’s “La Mer” or even Beethoven’s “Pastorale”—his other symphony with a “name”—the composer obviously had some very specific images in mind. We know the second movement of the “Eroica” is a funeral march, but isn’t the emotional—and musical—progression more important than any particular story it might be telling? Isn’t there something liberating about not knowing literally what each musical gesture is supposed to illustrate, especially since we can’t know what was in Beethoven’s head?
And so, while I enjoyed your numerous digressions—about the obscure but heroic author Johann Gottfried Seume, whose two books on walking through Europe Beethoven owned and whose gravesite he visited; about the doomed French revolutionary journalist Gracchus Babeuf ; about Beethoven’s friendship with Napoleon’s sympathetic and music-loving Baron de Trémont —I’m sorry I feel so negative about the whole book. I hope you find these comments useful. I would strongly encourage you to put this all through the wringer at least once more before you try to publish it.
Your friend,
Lloyd
—Mr. Schwartz, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is the classical music critic for NPR’s “Fresh Air.” >>
Thank you Oscar and Frank for the reviews; I just saw the Clubbe when I was browsing in a Barnes & Noble but didn't have time to look through it and was wondering how it was being received by critics...
g***@gmail.com
2019-09-05 04:46:03 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by Frank Forman
WP: Tim Page: Beethoven: The genius who broke all the rules
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/beethoven-the-genius-who-broke-all-the-rules/2019/08/16/399b54b2-a71e-11e9-9214-246e594de5d5_story.html
Tim Page, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic for The
Washington Post, is Professor of Journalism and Music at the University of
Southern California and the author or editor of more than 20 books.
Beethoven
By John Clubbe
Norton.
505 pp. $39.95
Ludwig van Beethoven decided, in a break from tradition, that musical
content would dictate the forms of his compositions, instead of the other
way around. He lived in a time, writes John Clubbe, that saw "new and
strange ideas" and a flowering of the creative spirit. (Photo: Johnny
Eggitt/AFP/Getty Images)
Don't let the title "Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary" throw you off.
This is not one of those Marxian screeds that evaluate the work of an artist
by perceived progressive leanings: There is nothing of Trotsky and very
little of Adorno in this volume. Rather, John Clubbe has written a
thoughtful cultural history that takes into account the times in which
Beethoven lived and worked--and they were times of revolution.
Clubbe calls the two decades from 1790 to 1810 "the beginning of a new stage
in the history of mankind." "New and strange ideas, cheering to many but
highly upsetting to others, infiltrated Europe. This creative spirit, as
later historians have observed, produced a tremendous flowering in science,
technology, literature, art and music, and reforms of all kind. Poets and
musicians differentiated and refined the language of the inner life."
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in the western German city of Bonn.
Clubbe calls the composer's father, Johann, a court tenor, his "first and
worst" teacher: "His pedagogy was unremarkable, his method cruel, his
behavior--influenced by a growing addiction to alcohol--abominable. He often
beat his son." Beethoven's hostility toward authority may be traced in part
to such unfair treatment. In any event, the young man was often dismissed as
ill-mannered and intemperate, and he burned bridges with many who would
gladly have helped him. Still, his genius prevailed--a strong pianist, an
inspired improviser, a violinist, a conductor, Beethoven also wrote hours
upon hours of marvelous music, bursting with energy and invention, and was
famous before he was 30.
There is a long-standing tendency to treat the early works as though they
had somehow been composed by Beethoven before he became the titanic
Beethoven of legend. In fact, the steady and radiantly good-humored early
piano sonatas and string quartets are no less worthy for having been written
in a classical mien than, say, "The Firebird" is minor Stravinsky because it
predates the savage ferocities of "The Rite of Spring." Indeed, Glenn Gould
found Beethoven's early music his most satisfying. "Almost all of those
early piano works are immaculately balanced--top to bottom, register to
register," he said in a 1980 interview. "Beethoven's senses of structure,
fantasy, variety, thematic continuity, harmonic propulsion and contrapuntal
discipline were absolutely--miraculously--in alignment."
But Beethoven the revolutionary would soon be in ascendance. Take the
abrupt--and, for its time, deeply shocking--opening of the Symphony No. 3
("Eroica"), written in 1803: There is no formal introduction whatsoever,
only two bluntly explosive chords and then the great first theme. Even five
years earlier, in one of his finest piano sonatas, Op. 10, No. 3, Beethoven
followed a joyful opening movement with a long Adagio of such unprecedented
tragic intensity that we can only imagine the effect it must have had on its
first audience. Thereafter, Beethoven would leave the rules behind--content
would dictate form, rather than the other way around...
- From now on, I'm going to take a new path.

Beethoven
g***@gmail.com
2019-09-05 07:34:03 UTC
Reply
Permalink
Post by Frank Forman
WP: Tim Page: Beethoven: The genius who broke all the rules
https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/beethoven-the-genius-who-broke-all-the-rules/2019/08/16/399b54b2-a71e-11e9-9214-246e594de5d5_story.html
Tim Page, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic for The
Washington Post, is Professor of Journalism and Music at the University of
Southern California and the author or editor of more than 20 books.
Beethoven
By John Clubbe
Norton.
505 pp. $39.95
Ludwig van Beethoven decided, in a break from tradition, that musical
content would dictate the forms of his compositions, instead of the other
way around. He lived in a time, writes John Clubbe, that saw "new and
strange ideas" and a flowering of the creative spirit. (Photo: Johnny
Eggitt/AFP/Getty Images)
Don't let the title "Beethoven: The Relentless Revolutionary" throw you off.
This is not one of those Marxian screeds that evaluate the work of an artist
by perceived progressive leanings: There is nothing of Trotsky and very
little of Adorno in this volume. Rather, John Clubbe has written a
thoughtful cultural history that takes into account the times in which
Beethoven lived and worked--and they were times of revolution.
Clubbe calls the two decades from 1790 to 1810 "the beginning of a new stage
in the history of mankind." "New and strange ideas, cheering to many but
highly upsetting to others, infiltrated Europe. This creative spirit, as
later historians have observed, produced a tremendous flowering in science,
technology, literature, art and music, and reforms of all kind. Poets and
musicians differentiated and refined the language of the inner life."
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in 1770 in the western German city of Bonn.
Clubbe calls the composer's father, Johann, a court tenor, his "first and
worst" teacher: "His pedagogy was unremarkable, his method cruel, his
behavior--influenced by a growing addiction to alcohol--abominable. He often
beat his son." Beethoven's hostility toward authority may be traced in part
to such unfair treatment. In any event, the young man was often dismissed as
ill-mannered and intemperate, and he burned bridges with many who would
gladly have helped him. Still, his genius prevailed--a strong pianist, an
inspired improviser, a violinist, a conductor, Beethoven also wrote hours
upon hours of marvelous music, bursting with energy and invention, and was
famous before he was 30.
There is a long-standing tendency to treat the early works as though they
had somehow been composed by Beethoven before he became the titanic
Beethoven of legend. In fact, the steady and radiantly good-humored early
piano sonatas and string quartets are no less worthy for having been written
in a classical mien than, say, "The Firebird" is minor Stravinsky because it
predates the savage ferocities of "The Rite of Spring." Indeed, Glenn Gould
found Beethoven's early music his most satisfying. "Almost all of those
early piano works are immaculately balanced--top to bottom, register to
register," he said in a 1980 interview. "Beethoven's senses of structure,
fantasy, variety, thematic continuity, harmonic propulsion and contrapuntal
discipline were absolutely--miraculously--in alignment."
But Beethoven the revolutionary would soon be in ascendance. Take the
abrupt--and, for its time, deeply shocking--opening of the Symphony No. 3
("Eroica"), written in 1803: There is no formal introduction whatsoever,
only two bluntly explosive chords and then the great first theme. Even five
years earlier, in one of his finest piano sonatas, Op. 10, No. 3, Beethoven
followed a joyful opening movement with a long Adagio of such unprecedented
tragic intensity that we can only imagine the effect it must have had on its
first audience. Thereafter, Beethoven would leave the rules behind--content
would dictate form, rather than the other way around.
Clubbe knows his 19th-century history--he has edited the letters of Thomas
and Jane Welsh Carlyle and written full-length studies of Byron and Thomas
Hood. He traces Beethoven's love for the work of Goethe and Friedrich
Schiller, and his profound early admiration for Napoleon (to whom the
"Eroica" was originally dedicated). A chapter on the creation of "Fidelio,"
Beethoven's only opera and an ode to human freedom, is especially
comprehensive. Clubbe also makes note that Vienna, for all of its undoubted
musical greatness--Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert spent most of their
careers there, with Brahms, Mahler and Schoenberg, among many others, to
follow later in the century--was in most ways a hidebound, purse-proud and
restrictive city.
As W. Jackson Bate observed of Samuel Johnson in his magnificent biography,
whatever we experience, we find Beethoven has been there before us, and is
meeting and returning home with us. It was Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 that
was led by the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler to reopen the Bayreuth Festival
at the end of World War II. And, when the Berlin Wall fell in the glorious
autumn of 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted an ensemble made up of residents
of both sides of the city, long divided by the Soviet domination of Eastern
Europe. Instead of the cry of "Freude!" ("Joy!"), Bernstein asked the chorus
to shout "Freiheit!" ("Freedom!"). Somehow, one suspects Beethoven would
have approved.
Breaking all the rules can also be viewed negatively:

https://groups.google.com/forum/#!searchin/rec.music.classical/narcissistic%7Csort:date/rec.music.classical/QjxGbeh9tls/tMhxq9uXBQAJ
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