2019-09-04 20:52:00 UTC
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.
By John Clubbe
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
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
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