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Did Beethoven Have All the Luck?

Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803

by Tia DeNora
University of California Press, 232 pp., $29.95


Beethoven, some think, had all the luck. An ethnomusicologist, tenured at a respected university (he will perhaps be happy to remain anonymous), once asserted: “There must be hundreds of symphonies just as good as the Eroica, but we just don’t know them.” This is the naive view of his-tory immortalized in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” quoted not quite accurately by Tia DeNora on the last page of her Beethoven and the Construction of Genius:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

It does not, however, stand up well to examination. Hundreds of symphonies by dozens of contemporaries of Mozart and Beethoven have been exhumed and republished in the last two decades, and no one has been found willing to make any extravagant claims for them.

A more refined form of this primitive theory has been elaborated in ourtime by cultural historians: we assume that the Eroica is so much better than the works of other composers simply because posterity has made Beethoven the touchstone of musical value. Dismissing the works of his contemporaries is not an independent act of criticism but only a mechanical repetition of what we have been schooled to believe. Beethoven has entered the canon; his contemporaries Joseph Wölffl and Joseph Weigl have not. Any further evaluation is merely redundant: we have been brainwashed. This view, however, is undermined by our realization that the supremacy of Beethoven was not imposed by posterity but accepted, sometimes with reluctance, by Beethoven’s contemporaries. By the age of thirty-five he was the most famous composer of instrumental music in Europe, and his position has remained largely unchallenged even by those who do not care for his work.

Tia DeNora’s thesis is more sophisticated than Gray’s or the ethnomusicologist’s quoted above, and more knowledgeable than the simplistic cultural criticism. Beethoven’s reputation, for her, was created and permanently established by the society in which he worked, largely by the backing of the aristocratic class whose support he cultivated assiduously. It was aristocratic patronage first in Bonn and later in Vienna that made Beethoven’s career possible, declared him a genius, and permanently consigned to the dustbin of history contemporary rivals like Wölffl and Jan Ladislav Dussek (the latter a composer once very much admired, and who can give considerable pleasure today). Beethoven’s genius was “constructed” by his society, above all by the upper class. DeNora writes:

We have not understood Beethoven very well if we fail to realize that had he spent the decade of 1792-1802 in London (as did Dussek), his artistic output would have developed quite differently.

It is unlikely that Beethoven in London would have become the prominent figure we know, even with the support of English aristocrats.

It is, of course, equally unlikely that he would have become the prominent figure we know if he had spent ten years in St. Petersburg, Naples, Boston, or wherever, if he had been a woman, or if…(further conditions to be added at the reader’s discretion).

DeNora’s book is in many ways a very good one. It gives a fascinating picture of important aspects of musical life in Vienna and of the complexities of musical politics. While very little of her research is original, she marshals the works of other students (like Mary Sue Morrow, Dexter Edge, and Julia Moore) clearly and cogently, and summarizes the present state of scholarship on Beethoven’s early career with considerable skill.1 The chapter about Beethoven’s concern with the manufacture of pianos and his influence on their construction is brilliantly handled. There is a wealth of enlightening detail throughout the book, and even specialists on Beethoven are likely to gain a much greater understanding of his early years. The conclusions drawn from all this detail, however, are too often either wrong or, at best, inadequate.

The basic thesis of DeNora is

that a serious music ideology, which took as its exemplars Beethoven and reconstituted, more explicitly “learned” and grandiose versions of Mozart and Haydn, emerged during the 1790s in Vienna, and that this ideology was primarily subscribed to by old aristocrats, not the middle class. This view runs counter to what Arnold Hauser (1962), Henry Raynor (1976), Theodor Adorno (1976), and a host of other scholars have had to say, on the basis of scant evidence, about the origins of serious music ideology, and, as such, it challenges received sociological wisdom and Beethoven mythology concerning the origin of the musical canon.

For the moment, we must leave aside the question to what extent works of music, or art in general, represent the philosophy or the ideology of those who are financing it or simply paying for it, although the assumption that the views of the artist, his audience, and his patrons generally coincide will not bear examination. I do not, of course, wish to question the fact that Beethoven sought the most highly placed aristocratic support for his work in order to give it the greatest possible prestige. Nevertheless, the evidence used by DeNora to determine the class of Beethoven’s partisans and her interpretation of it are not convincing.

To start with, she measures Beethoven’s growing reputation as a young composer in Vienna almost entirely by the statistics of public performance. Most music-making in Vienna, however, took place either at home or at semiprivate performances in the salons of the more affluent music lovers and patrons. She gives various reasons to justify her decision, including the growth of public concerts, and their accessibility, and adds:

Finally (and more practically), there is not enough specific information available on private concert programs (the salons), where composers and works often remain unidentifiable.

I know that it is traditional in the social sciences to generalize on the basis of the available information even when that information is clearly not representative, but the conclusions are not exactly trustworthy. More than in Paris, London, or Berlin, cultural life in Vienna depended on various forms of intimate music-making. We cannot assume that the repertoire for large public concerts and private gatherings would have been similar. The program for orchestral performances is often determined by ease of rehearsal and relative familiarity of style to both musicians and public. Furthermore, the public concert at the end of the eighteenth century was still in Vienna something of a novelty compared with many of the other European centers (and, I believe, compared with New York).

The interpretation of even this very limited evidence is not always persuasive. Most of the theaters and concert halls were, as DeNora writes, managed by the aristocracy, with one exception:

The most distinctly middle class of Vienna’s concert locations at this time [1791-1810] was the Leopoldstadt theater, located in Vienna’s suburbs…. Judging from the programs listed in Morrow’s public concert calendar, Beethoven was never performed at the Leopoldstadt theater.

This would, indeed, imply that popular bourgeois interest in Beethoven was minimal, since elsewhere Beethoven was the most performed composer in Vienna after Haydn and Mozart. Unfortunately, however, in the back of DeNora’s book, we find a note in small print:

Because relatively few Leopoldstadt concert programs survive, generalizations about the repertory there must remain speculative.

This further weakens our confidence in DeNora’s assessment.

Other problems arise in determining the social class of Beethoven’s supporters. Table I offered by DeNora gives us a breakdown of 186 “virtuosi, amateur musicians, and music patrons in the Viennese high culture music world, as listed in [Johann Ferdinand von] Schönfeld,” the author of a musical yearbook in 1796. We get twenty-three “first aristocracy by rank,” i.e., princes, princesses, counts, countesses, and one baron; eighty “second aristocracy,” which includes fourteen barons and Freiherren, along with sixty-six merely with “von” in front of their last name; nineteen middle-class professionals and businessmen; and finally sixty-four “musicians.” We never hear anything further about these “musicians.” If they were supporters of Beethoven, they do not interest DeNora. Nevertheless, in the establishment of Beethoven’s genius, they were the ones who counted the most. Support from the rich or the aristocratic was never forthcoming without professional advice.

Nor does the group of prominent music lovers with a simple “von” before their family name play any further role in spite of their considerable number. In any case, the nobility and legitimate status of this “von” cannot always have been clear. As DeNora knows, the line between “second aristocracy” and the middle class was not sharply drawn. Or even between “first” and “second.” The one baron classified among the music patrons of the “first aristocracy” is the famous Gottfried van Swieten, sponsor of Haydn and Mozart, and important for the revival of interest in the instrumental works of Bach. He was one of Beethoven’s principal promoters, and the First Symphony was dedicated to him. His father was Maria Theresa’s physician, for which he received a title. The Van Swietens were therefore a recently ennobled family from the professional middle class.

DeNora’s main thesis stands things on their heads. She would like to believe in “the emergence of the serious music ideology in the aristocratic music world between the late 1780s and the early 1800s.” She claims that in the campaign for serious music and against both the style of easy superficial pieces for the amateur and flamboyant virtuosity to please the mob, “the issue was simultaneously social and political because of the alignment of music patronage with the pursuit and maintenance of status.” In order to maintain their dominant cultural position, her account goes, the aristocrats aided in the construction of the concept of the great musical “genius,” and supported Beethoven’s difficult and often rebarbative music against the more easily assimilable and agreeable works of Dussek and Wölffl.2

DeNora’s concept of an identifiable and isolatable aristocratic taste and ideology is a constructed fiction. Her bias in interpreting what we know about the musical life of the period comes out in her comparison of the careers of Dussek and Beethoven. With Beethoven, the emphasis is on his early experience at the court of Bonn and his relatively successful attempts in Vienna to attract the support and patronage of the most prestigious and influential music lovers. With Dussek, she sets in relief his relations with the commercial music world of London, the many dedications of his works to middle-class citizens, and his work as a piano teacher. We could try a different slant with the two biographies: we might note the insulting snubbing of Beethoven in front of his colleagues by Prince Esterhazy, and recall Beethoven’s notorious revolutionary republican principles, his ostentatious refusal to take off his hat at the passage of royalty. Dussek, on the other hand, worked for William V of Holland, and was a salaried musician at the courts of Catherine II of Russia and Marie Antoinette of France, becoming a favorite composer of both these queens; he was also employed for two years by Prince Radziwill. We might speculate that the coddling by royalty sapped Dussek’s ambition, condemning him to be a minor composer of piano music, while Beethoven’s struggle to obtain financial support stimulated him to greater efforts.

  1. 1

    It is disconcerting to note that all of her references to the most important music journal from the end of the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, are derived from quotations by later authors, and she misses several important references in assessing Beethoven’s reputation.

  2. 2

    The most exaggerated formulation of DeNora’s thesis concerns the piano contest between Wölffl and Beethoven: she claims that “the serious music ideology as represented by Beethoven can be further clarified as the property of Vienna’s old and highest aristocracy.”

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