Sunday, October 19, 2014

Applaud, friends

Towards the end of his life one of Beethoven's favorite sayings was "Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est" ("Applaud, friends, the comedy is over") a paraphrase of the last words of Augustus Caesar. A fitting response to the work of perhaps the greatest composer (along with Bach, of course) is simple applause. But, alas, we all, including your blogger, always seem to want to do more: to explain, to characterize, to memorialize and, even more likely, to exploit and misrepresent. All of these strategies are present in Alex Ross' recent large essay reviewing Beethoven's place in history as viewed through a great stack of recent and not-so-recent books about him. The catalyst for this project is the recent weighty book by composer Jan Swafford, which sounds like a pretty good book. Praising with faint damns, Ross says:
Swafford, in his introduction, declares his fondness for Thayer’s Victorian storytelling and belittles modern musicological revisionism. He writes, “Now and then in the course of an artist’s biographical history, it comes time to strip away the decades of accumulated theories and postures and look at the subject as clearly and plainly as possible.” He also distances himself from the psychological approach of Maynard Solomon, who, in his 1977 biography, attempted to place Beethoven on a Freudian couch. Though Swafford does not look away from the composer’s less attractive traits—his brusqueness, his crudeness, his alcoholism, his paranoia—the portrait is ultimately admiring.
As readers of the blog know, I recoiled in horror from the psycho-babble of Maynard Solomon's awful book on Mozart, so anyone who decides to avoid that nonsense gets a thumbs-up from me.

Ross begins with a lengthy introduction that tells us how we ought to think about Beethoven and his influence. This heavy-handed attitude is underscored by little editorial clues like the sub-heading asking the journalistic question:

Beethoven transformed music—but has veneration of him stifled his successors?

Not to mention the caption to the ugly little graphic:

Which says:
Recent scholarship shows that Beethoven was perpetually buffeted by political forces.
Like crap it does!! You have to be on guard. As I was saying the other day, virtually everything you read in the mass media is crafted not so much as to tell you things as to tell you how to think about things. A couple of hilarious satires coming from the right of American politics purport to demonstrate this tendency in the New York Times. For example, if the world were to end tomorrow, this is how the NYT would headline it: "World to End Tomorrow: Women and Minorities Hardest Hit" not to mention the ever-popular "Republicans: Threat or Menace?" Don't worry, I'm not getting political, those are just examples and I'm sure there are lots from the opposite point of view. I just find those ones particularly entertaining.

Back to Alex Ross' framing of how we should regard Beethoven. Bear in mind as you read the following quotes that Alex wants us to look at things as he does: there are no absolute aesthetic values so if we think some music is really good there have to be subtle, underlying reasons for doing so, possibly political. Also, classical music is basically uptight, so we always have to either apologize for that or point it out. And so on. In other words, what makes Alex Ross such a successful writer is that he always confirms the prejudices of those folks who live on the Upper West Side. Here let me bold some key words and phrases:

After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. 
Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music. In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center. As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph
More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible.
“We ourselves appear to become mythologized in the process of identifying with this music,” the scholar Scott Burnham has written. Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory. As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN” emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say.
Wow, it is even Beethoven's fault that Alex didn't become a composer! And no, music history was not "designed" to prolong Beethoven's glory.

From then on the essay unfolds as a fairly typical omnibus review. So now that I have shown how Alex' essay tries to tell you how to think, let me have a turn at bat.

I'm not going to run out and buy any of these books, not even the new one by Swafford (whose writing I have enjoyed in the past). Why not? I don't need them and you probably don't either. Writing about music is always less valuable than the music itself. A journalist always has to find an angle which, in the case of music particularly, always turns out to be a misrepresentation. Sometimes this misrepresentation is close to being a felony, as in the horrid book by Solomon on Mozart. Other times it is just a misdemeanor in that it, while not actually lying to us, distracts us from the music itself. A few books, like those by Charles Rosen and Joseph Kramer, actually stay focused on the music and are worth your time. In most cases, though, you would be far, far better off just listening to the music.

Let me be blunt(er): you are not going to garner any clever insights into the music of Beethoven by reading the essay by Alex Ross or any of the books he reviews. You are going to spend a lot of time being misled and, worst of all, reading about rather than listening to, Beethoven.

Beethoven was a truly great composer. The reason he is so famous is not because of politics, or celebrity or psychology or any of that crap. It is because he wrote very, very good music. Some of it great music. You have to accept the concept of objective aesthetic value to wrap your head around that. But Alex Ross and all the rest would rather be put in stocks and pelted with turnips than admit there is such a thing as objective aesthetic value. So they write a lot of breezy prose. This is why it is sometimes pointed out that a lot of so-called supporters of classical music are actually its worst enemies.

Now let me shut up, so I can put up something for you to listen to. This is the Piano Sonata op. 101 in A major played by Mauricio Pollini:

UPDATE: I just thought of a good way of summing it up: in the 19th century Beethoven was admired for being a great composer. In the 21st century we resent him for the same reason!

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