In 1969 Alan Tyson, the leading British authority on Beethoven, who is also a psychoanalyst, published a short, quiet, and (by now) rather well-known article called “Beethoven’s Heroic Phase.” Its subject is the composer’s psychological state (bad) in the years when he first began to experience deafness, from around 1799 to 1802. Beethoven says again and again, in letters sent and unsent, that he must accept his affliction with resignation. Yet resignation was obviously hard to attain, for he also keeps mentioning alternatives: death as a release, a woman’s love that may rescue him, and especially immersion in his art. “The goal which I feel but cannot describe” was to create a future music of transcendent greatness. Tyson observed that three compositions written or commenced in the year 1803, the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives, the opera Leonore (later Fidelio), and Symphony no. 3, the pathbreaking Sinfonia Eroica, virtually act out each of these alternatives.
One might expect “Beethoven’s Heroic Phase” to figure somewhere in a book about Beethoven and heroism that concentrates on the Eroica Symphony. But in Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero it does not even figure in the substantial bibliography. Strategic economy is a very striking feature of this book, as striking as its breathtaking ambition. Its ultimate goal is to demonstrate how Beethoven affects the way we understand all music; it concentrates, that is, on the “reception” of music, not the composition of music, and the reader is warned at the outset not to look for such traditional historical topics as the development of musical style, biography, or even the influence of the biographical Beethoven myth. Yet with all these exclusions, situating Beethoven historically may be the book’s outstanding success, as we shall see.
It begins with a survey of what are here called “programmatic” accounts of Beethoven compositions, stories invented by commentators as a way of explaining or comprehending their aesthetic force. One remembers fondly, perhaps, the infestation of goblins visited on the Fifth Symphony by Helen Schlegel in E.M. Forster’s Howards End. Describing Berlioz’s program for the Eroica, Burnham writes that he “hit upon the happy expedient of hearing the scherzo as a musical transcription of ancient Greek funeral games.” Some very good points are made about this kind of criticism. First of all, the stories are about the music; whatever the critics may say or imply, the music is not about the stories. Second, this kind of writing was developed in the early nineteenth century to cope with a new kind of listening experience expressive of human values, or so it was felt, beyond the reach of the rhetorical or rationalistic interpretative methods of previous generations. The composer was no longer viewed as an artisan, but as a creative genius. His music had to be approached not as exercise or representation but as organism or myth.
Burnham and a number of other musicologists are attempting to reclaim programmatic criticism, which has been …