Sunday, June 1, 2014

Beethoven as Celebrity

We live in strange times, as I'm sure you have noticed. Dr. Dre is a rapper, producer and entrepreneur, founder of the headphone company Beats by Dr. Dre that was just purchased by Apple for $3 billion, according to news reports. I believe this makes Dr. Dre the first rapper worth more than a billion dollars. He has achieved fame in many ways, as you can learn from reading the Wikipedia article I linked to. Other famous musicians of our day include Kanye West, who just famously wed Kim Kardashian and the famous musical-power-couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé. You already know all this, as we are deluged by news of these famous musicians through all the mass media. So why do I mention it? Just to give us some context. What is missing from the Wikipedia articles and the media coverage of all these musicians is much about the music. Perhaps there isn't so very much to discuss, or perhaps there is, but ordinary consumers are just not interested.

One of the few areas in music where the actual music is still often discussed is the classical world, though, as we are about to see, that is changing. There is a new biography of Beethoven out, that inspires this post. Here is the Amazon link. And here is a revealing review of the book. The reviewer thinks he is giving a positive review, I think, but what it does is accurately reveal reasons to never read it! As the reviewer notes,
Traditional biographers have not skirted the dramatic aspects of Beethoven’s life, but they have kept them in the background, concentrating instead on the composer’s personal growth and his creation of an unprecedented series of pathbreaking works.
Yes, and thank God for that. This new book, by John Suchet, takes a rather different tack in which Beethoven's fame as a composer is merely an excuse to root about in his personal life, to display his eccentricities to us just as if he were a contemporary celebrity.
“He might have been one of the greatest artists who ever lived,” Suchet states in the preface, “but he was still a man who had to live among fellow mortals, eat and drink, buy clothes, pay his rent. That is the Beethoven of this book.” It certainly is—and the author takes us through the emotionally charged events of Beethoven’s life with remarkable gusto, unencumbered by any serious consideration of the music. The First Symphony and Pathétique Sonata are dispatched in a single sentence; the Eroica Symphony is discussed solely from the standpoint of its ill-fated dedication.
 According to the review, Suchet not only focuses on personal dramas to the exclusion of the music, he even makes up stuff to hype up Beethoven's already-dramatic life. The reviewer calls it a "pleasurable and highly entertaining read." Well, perhaps, but one that I will never pick up.

Two questions come to mind: first of all, why would anyone read this book? And second, why is this kind of tell-all celebrity gossip so popular? Maybe that is the same question. I want to ask, why would someone who is interested in Beethoven's music (in my mind the only reason to be interested in Beethoven at all) buy this book? After all, it has nothing to do with the music and I'm pretty sure will even distort your perception and understanding of the music. But from an author or publisher's viewpoint, maybe that is irrelevant. Serious lovers of Beethoven's music are far fewer than people who will pick up a tell-all scandalous book about someone who has a name they recognize--a celebrity.

There are other musicians in history who have had much more scandalous private lives than Beethoven did--the example of Carlo Gesualdo comes immediately to mind, who had both his wife and her lover murdered after catching them together. But these names are not in the public consciousness the way Beethoven's is, so the financial rewards are much less.

Books like this one on Beethoven or like Maynard Solomon's on Mozart that I posted about here, are exploitative, crass and vulgar. They leverage the fame of the composer, achieved by means of writing great works of music, into sales of books that ignore the music in favor of cheap gossip (sometimes disguised as Freudian psychoanalysis) so as to appeal to masses of readers that have no real interest in classical music.

I suspect that a hundred years ago, people would have shunned these kinds of books with horror as they would have seen them as the crude exploitation that they are. I only hope that this, like rappers worth a billion dollars, is a temporary aberration in music history and that, one hundred years from now, they will be regarded as absurd manifestations of the cultural failings of our time.

Let's listen to one of the many reasons it is worth paying attention to Beethoven (and ignoring his squabbles with his sister-in-law over custody of her son, Beethoven's nephew). Here is the Scherzo from the "Archduke" Trio, so called because it was dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, the brother of the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and composition student of Beethoven.

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