Ross begins with a number of gestures in the direction of what are the currently fashionable ways to look at music:
This little history of Beethoven reception underlines the current shibboleths: classical music is austere, unforgiving, ivory tower music, the realm of dead white males.
George Bernard Shaw begins with a statement of offhand elitism that would fit quite well with the way that his audience, upper-class Englishmen, viewed the world:
I think in the case of both writers, one of the crucial elements, coming far before engaging with the music in any detail, is flattery of the reader. Both are writing for people of high cultural station. The easiest way to flatter the reader, when talking about someone of the stature of a great composer like Beethoven or Brahms, is to relate their foibles, their ordinary humanness to bring them down, not to the reader's level, but just slightly below! Ross does it through health and psychology, themes our time is obsessed with:
Throughout the book, we register, in our mind’s ear, Beethoven ranting, grumbling, pestering, pontificating, leering, sneering, and, above all, complaining. Especially in his final years, Beethoven was in constant misery, some of it ordained by fate and some of it self-imposed. Heavy drinking compounded other health problems and, Swafford argues, proved fatal. (The theory that the composer died of lead poisoning, publicized in the 2001 book “Beethoven’s Hair,” has been undermined by further testing of his remains.) In Friedman’s novel, doctors ask about blood in the stool and the quality of his urine. There is squabbling over money, and an almost total lack of serenity.Shaw goes about it in a different way. As it would have been unseemly to a late Victorian to talk about Brahms' drinking problem, he does it by way of taking a superior attitude to the music itself:
My point here is not the truth or falsity of these characterizations--they certainly carry more weight if they are true--but rather the function of them, what the writer uses them for. In both cases, I think it is to flatter his readers. This is, of course, what distinguishes musical journalism from musical criticism.
Now there was, of course, real music criticism a hundred years ago, just as there is now. It is not likely to be found in high-profile magazines catering to the carriage trade, however. A hundred years ago it was found in the program notes and Encyclopedia Brittanica articles of Donald Francis Tovey a musicologist, conductor and composer. Here are a couple of samples of his writing:
What both these excerpts reveal is a kind of profound respect for the art and those who create it. There is no hint of a need to flatter the reader by reductionist tactics. There are writers on music today that share this attitude and I'm sure I have mentioned them before. One is Charles Rosen who writes about how a young Mozart invented the structure of the Classical era concerto in this excerpt:
Yes, Mozart at age fifteen had the kind of command of musical structure to do this. Let's listen to those very early Mozart piano concertos, based on solo piano sonatas of J. C. Bach. Here are all three concertos, K. 107: