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Knock, Knock. Who’s There?

The Interior Beethoven: A Biography of the Music

by Irving Kolodin
Knopf, 357 pp., $15.00

An ounce of historical accuracy is worth a pound of rhetorical flourish.” These are the words, and they go some way to defining the work, of Alexander Wheelock Thayer, the classic biographer of Beethoven. Few other writers on the composer appear to have formed so austere a view of their duties. The earliest accounts of Beethoven were scarcely more than strings of anecdotes compiled by people who had known him (Seyfried, Wegeler, Ries); they soon gave place to more ambitious attempts to characterize the man and to ruminate philosophically on the music (Lenz, A. B. Marx, Nohl). And somewhere between those two groups came the egregious Anton Schindler. He had not only known Beethoven but had served as his factotum for a time in the 1820s, a fact we are never allowed to forget. But he also had innumerable axes to grind, so that what might have been a peculiarly intimate portrait became distorted through self-importance, malice, and a desire to save “our master” (Schindler’s habitual term) from criticism of any kind, with the result that his production is only of limited value to us today.

Schindler’s inadequacies had at least one good effect: they drove Thayer to undertake what became his life’s work. This American scholar, born in Massachusetts in the year that Beethoven started to work on the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, and subsequently educated in law at Harvard, first came to Europe in 1846, and was soon involved in a vast series of biographical investigations. His was, as we would say today, the first “fully researched” biography of Beethoven—indeed, of any composer. In a sense it was also the last. From the publication of its first volume (in a German translation) in 1866 its quality was instantly recognized, and although Thayer died in 1897 with only three volumes in print, so that the biography had to be completed by others, its stature was such that it came to be regarded as a classic. Like Roget’s Thesaurus, or Grove’s Dictionary of Music & Musicians, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven was simply updated, most recently (1964) in an elegant manner by Professor Elliot Forbes of Harvard. No one since Thayer has attempted an account of Beethoven’s life that is anything like as comprehensive.

But Thayer made it easy for himself by a simple device: he omitted the music. He did not indeed omit all mention of music: the composition of the symphonies and sonatas is accurately dated, the concerts are carefully itemized, the publications of works are accurately recorded. But there is no attempt by Thayer to “evaluate” the music or to link it in any way with the life; individual works, or the general nature of the musical achievement, are simply not discussed. This was a decision of principle, and a self-conscious one. As he wrote to his German translator, Deiters, in 1865:

I have resisted the temptation to discuss the character of Beethoven’s works and to make such a discussion the foundation of historical speculation, preferring to leave such matters to those who have a greater predilection for them. It appears to me that Beethoven the composer is amply known through his works and in this assumption the long wearisome labors of so many years were devoted to Beethoven the man.

Thayer’s self-abnegation, it goes without saying, set no precedent. In fact, even the scholar who completed the biography after his death in 1897 (Hugo Riemann) felt it necessary in revising the work as a whole to insert appreciations of the music (though those summaries have a fin-de-siècle ring about them today and have been excluded from Forbes’s new edition). And almost all recent writers on Beethoven have felt that, since Thayer’s biographical comprehensiveness had liberated them from the necessity of going over the same ground, they were free to concentrate on whatever aspect of the music most interested them, while selecting from the life those details that best reinforced their point of view. This has had at least two consequences. First, certain aspects of Beethoven’s life have not been looked at really closely for about a century; even when the facts themselves have been updated, they have largely escaped twentieth-century scrutiny. And secondly, a genre has sprung up of somewhat light theses on Beethoven, which spin out an argument for some way and link it loosely to the known facts.

Some of these thesis-lives are quite distinguished; one thinks, for instance, of J. W. N. Sullivan’s well-written account of Beethoven’s “spiritual development” (1927), or Ernest Newman’s The Unconscious Beethoven (also 1927), or even W. J. Turner’s more wordy sketch (also 1927), as well as the Sterbas’ psychoanalytic study of Beethoven’s relationship with his nephew (1954). It is to this genre that Irving Kolodin’s new book, The Interior Beethoven, seems to be aspiring. By giving it the subtitle “A Biography of the Music” he even appears to be making some claim to fuse Life and Works. Alas! the book strikes me as innocently pretentious. Its aims are thoroughly confused, and though from time to time Kolodin raises interesting questions (as well as others of staggering banality), he seems fated to demonstrate on each occasion that he lacks the capacity (more precisely, the scholarship) to resolve them.

Kolodin is interested in the way that Beethoven’s melodies, or more generally his musical ideas, often have to wait many years before attaining their most characteristic form of expression. He quotes an aside of Joseph Kerman’s, “Beethoven had a way of realizing his unfulfilled conceptions,” and sees this as one of Beethoven’s obsessions.

The tracing of thematic or motivic recurrences through this artist’s—any artist’s—work is a legitimate form of inquiry, though it needs to be done with tact, the twin perils being those of stating the obvious and of claiming the absurdly far-fetched. But between these hazardous shoals there is a navigable channel; after all, any musically alert listener will have noticed with interest the resemblance between the principal melody in the Choral Fantasia (1808), itself lifted from a long unpublished song of the 1790s, and the “Ode to Joy” theme from the Ninth Symphony (1823). Ernest Newman chased one prevalent musical figure, three ascending notes, through a very large number of Beethoven’s works, and Paul Mies even tried to identify similar melodic processes at work in the sketches. In fact, the recurrence of such “fingerprints” no doubt plays a large part in our sense of a composer’s style; it would be surprising only for any critic to be surprised by this.

The pity is that Kolodin, who has listened to a very great deal of music and has been moved by much of what he has heard (indeed, conveys some of this pleasure in his passing remarks), seems to have little idea of what he is doing in pursuing these melodic/ motivic resemblances. Take, for instance, what he calls Beethoven’s “struggle to subjugate the $$$ syndrome.” In describing this figure played fortissimo at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven once told Schindler (the story comes from Schindler, and here, I take it, we can believe him): “Thus Fate knocks at the door.” The rhythmic motif itself of course permeates the first movement of the symphony, and recurs at impressive, or fateful, moments in the other three. But it is also found en passant in a number of Beethoven’s near-contemporary and earlier compositions, such as the Fourth Piano Concerto and the “Appassionata” Sonata; for that matter, we encounter it in Mozart and Haydn.

But what can one legitimately deduce from this? Only that it was part of Beethoven’s technical vocabulary, especially in these earlier and middle years. Yet Kolodin writes as if the use of this figure itself, even in unimpressive passages, were somehow fateful or fraught with significance, instead of being—as Tovey long ago pointed out in regard to its ubiquitous use in the first movement of the “Fifth”—a device for rendering vitality to the inner parts without rapid harmonic change: a device, moreover, that the greater polyphony of his later works rendered less necessary. Nor is Kolodin even correct in asserting that this rhythmic ever finally burned itself out in the Fifth Symphony; two years later, at any rate, there was a relapse, for the $$$ syndrome recurs in a fulminating form in the C-minor scherzo of the Op. 74 string quartet.

Kolodin also blunders around rather aimlessly in his discussions of Beethoven’s sketches. It seems only natural that someone as eager as he is to pursue the vicissitudes of a Beethoven melody and to view it surfacing from time to time in a new context should have recourse to the sketchbooks: not merely the excerpts that Gustav Nottebohm provided a century or so ago but the transcriptions and facsimiles that have appeared in the last twenty-five years. But it must be said that this area is something of a scholarly minefield; some of the editions of those sources—such as that of the “Wittgenstein” sketchbook—are seriously misleading on the aspects on which Kolodin consults them. Caveat auctor! And other questions that he asks of specific sketches are merely crass, and seem unlikely to be answered. “Can one determine, from the later sketches, whether Beethoven had recourse to the first form of the same ideas, and if so, under what circumstances?” “Did Beethoven retrieve the earlier form from some deep freeze of mental semen for purposes of later artistic impregnation, or was it deliberately sought in the sketchbook itself?” It seems clear that in fact Kolodin despairs of any answer:

The unanswered, perhaps unanswerable question is: To what extent was this reversion to a prior thought volitional, to what extent involuntary? Did Beethoven cultivate the sketchbooks as sources for material when the time became ripe for this usage, or did the ideas recur at the prompting of an unconscious creative urge? There are, to my knowledge, no unquestionable answers to such questions, for the simple reason that the existence of the sketchbooks was generally unknown during Beethoven’s lifetime. When the books became known, there was no Beethoven to answer the questions they raised.

This assumes that Beethoven himself could have given an accurate answer to such questions if they had been put to him. I doubt this. But the sketchbooks can probably answer them even less. Kolodin is luckless in his use of sketch material. He hangs a complicated argument on a misdating of the sketches for the A major piano sonata Op. 101, contained in a sketchbook in William Scheide’s library at Princeton; and he seems amazed that the sketches for the sonata’s second movement—a march in F—should be in the key of F, whereas it would be strange if sketches for an F-major movement were in any other key.

Elsewhere Kolodin’s scholarship is sadly awry on such varied topics as the date of the Op. 33 bagatelles, the relative chronology of the movements of the Fifth Symphony, and the occasion on which orchestral cellos and double-basses first went their separate ways. There are also a great many simple errors of fact. But this is not a scholarly book and it seems a pity that some of its arguments and the documentation supplied in its footnotes should make it appear to ape one.

Yet the problem that Nottebohm ducked remains with us, since no one since has quite succeeded in resolving it: the problem of harmonizing or dovetailing accounts of the man and the composer, of life and works. “Pure” music analysis will always have its advocates. But the temptation, felt by so many, to recall the Heiligenstadt Testament in discussing the “Eroica” Symphony, or to search for a real, perhaps an “immortal,” beloved behind the “ferne Geliebte” of the Op. 98 song cycle, does not seem to me to be in any way a culpable one. It arises indeed from a recognition that (as even his contemporaries perceived) the whole of the man went into the music; conceptually, therefore, the two are to some degree mutually sustaining and illuminating. In our account of the Fifth Symphony we must acknowledge the validity of Tovey’s explanation concerning the composer’s vitalizing use of inner-part rhythmic figures. But our description of the opening measures will at the same time be incomplete if we fail to find a place for the notion that there Fate is knocking at the door. In clarifying such matters, Mr. Kolodin’s well-intentioned but misconceived book gives us little help.

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