Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Two Beethovens--at least!

Reception history is an interesting field within the larger field of music history. What reception history does is look at how a composer was regarded at different times. One of the most interesting composers from this point of view is Beethoven because while he has been very famous and very popular ever since the latter part of his lifetime, say 1800 at least, why he has been popular and which works in particular were most appreciated has changed enormously over time.

At the present moment we are in perhaps the aftermath (hangover?) of the romantic myth of Beethoven. This is the Promethean myth of suffering and triumph and it is fed by a small selection of his works: the 3rd, 5th and 9th symphonies, Fidelio, and the Pathétique and Appassionata piano sonatas. During his own lifetime it was quite a different Beethoven that was admired; the works that were particularly appreciated were the Septet, Wellington's Victory and the second movement of the Symphony No. 8. This music is still around, but it is barely known and other of Beethoven's music, the whole divertimento repertoire, has been banished. From about the middle of the 19th century there was no longer a place for music with a divertimento character on the concert stage, not even in chamber music concerts.

As we are very familiar with the Promethean Beethoven--if you are not, then go have a listen to the first group of pieces mentioned above--let's listen to a bit of the other Beethoven. Here is the Septet in E flat major, op. 20 for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn:

The only reason I have any familiarity with this music is that in my first orgy of LP-purchasing around 1970 I picked up a box containing all of Beethoven's chamber music for winds, part of DGG's integral recording project for the Beethoven bicentenary. I know what you are thinking: "where is all the drama and suffering?" This sounds more like Haydn and Mozart than the Beethoven we are familiar with. Yes, exactly! But it was music like this that was the foundation of Beethoven's fame and he continued to write music like this throughout his life. Here is the second movement of the Symphony No. 8 for example:

That sounds more like Mendelssohn doesn't it?

My own history with Beethoven was heavily influenced by 20th century views. I came first to revere the late quartets. Why? Very largely because of the testimony of Stravinsky and others that this was perennially great music. The 19th century was a bit leery of the late quartets and they only achieved their full appreciation in the 20th century when they became the pinnacle of the repertoire in tandem with the 20th century rediscovery of the genre.

As for the symphony, Carl Dahlhaus makes the point that:
The history of the symphony [in the 19th century] looks almost like a history of the conclusions that composers were able to draw from Beethoven's various models of the symphonic principle: from the Third and Seventh Symphonies in the case of Berlioz, the Sixth in the case of Mendelssohn, and the Ninth in the case of Bruckner.
I have remarked before about how Bruckner seems to be always exploring the possibilities of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

I hesitate to deliver a tidy summing-up as Dahlhaus (in his Nineteenth-Century Music) also makes the point that the basic research into the details of the whole reception history of Beethoven has yet to be done, so I will just end with another of those works for which he was most famed during his lifetime, but which have been neglected ever since. Here is Wellington's Victory, op 91, celebrating the battle of Vitoria in Spain in June 1813, when forces commanded by Wellington defeated French forces commanded by Napoleon's older brother:

That is completely different from the aesthetic image we have of Beethoven but it was written in the fall of 1813, so certainly a product of his mature years, and a huge hit at the time.

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