• Email
  • Print

The Beethoven Takeover

Beethoven Hero

by Scott Burnham
Princeton University Press, 209 pp., $29.95

1.

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.”1 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 largely discredited and derided, or at least to make the case for its value alongside the technical analysis that has replaced it.2 Such programs or tales about the music, Burnham argues, serve to identify a new theme, for instance, as an important turning point in a psychological or dramatic process, where current analytic methods might merely trace the presence of a web of thematic relationships. His own criticism has its unashamed programmatic moments, as when he writes that the famous hushed half-note chords in the Fifth Symphony suggest “the suddenly audible respirations of a nervous soldier.”

A very few compositions, Burnham points out—he tallies no more than two symphonies, two piano sonatas, several overtures, and one piano concerto—control our impression of Beethoven and have had enormous historical impact. Among these works in the “heroic style” the Eroica Symphony has pride of place. The stories that have been told about it over the years differ; the protagonist is now Napoleon (“the default choice”), now Hector, Beethoven himself, or a quasi-Hegelian Idea. Burnham’s contention is that they all come down to the same basic myth, the quest plot or the hero’s journey:

Something (someone) not fully formed but full of potential ventures out into complexity and ramification (adversity), reaches a ne plus ultra (a crisis), and then returns renewed and completed (triumphant).

The myth can also be traced by analyzing details of melody, rhythm, harmony, and so on in the score. Formalist musical analysis as currently taught in the schools, then, tells an old story in a different way; an essentially ethical narrative is presented in a seemingly abstract form, even though the analysts would deny that it is really a story at all. (Another difference is also worth bearing in mind, especially in view of the final swerve of the argument of Beethoven Hero: formalist criticism can be comprehended only by specialists, while programmatic criticism is available to all.)

One movement of the Third Symphony and two movements of the Fifth—the opening and closing movements standing for the whole, with the middle movements of the sequence elided—suffice for a dazzling demonstration of music’s articulation of the heroic journey. While Burnham’s structuralist analysis of the stories he has encountered works better with some of them than with others, his analysis of the music is always on target, in fact marvelous. It is analysis of the “phenomenological” kind, correlating musical phenomena systematically with listener response, analysis “taking note of our reactions to the music and finding out how the music makes such reactions possible.” Amazingly, one finds oneself learning much that is new and right about these very familiar works. To give just one example, I have never heard the first-movement recapitulation in the Fifth Symphony (after those hushed chords) characterized so acutely:

After the intense drama of the end of the development and the arrival of the motto, the opening of the recapitulation seems to pull back from the action. This is felt not as stability but rather as a kind of breather: the important arrival of the home key and first theme is made retroactively to feel like the goal of a struggle whose intensity has made such a reprieve necessary and highly deserved.

There is hardly time to note the absence in this book of the Ninth Symphony—or of any attention to its arguably “heroic” status, past a quiet footnote—before Burnham is pressing on. Listeners engage with Beethoven’s heroic music and its masterplot in a way they do not with any earlier music (or, it is strongly implied, with any later music). “The music of Mozart remains, always, at a remove”; Beethoven’s grabs listeners by the lapels, draws them along with it, sweeps them away. In contrast to the eighteenth century’s “artful play with convention and representation,” Beethoven’s compositional processes “seem undisguised and experiential.” Indeed, a comparison between Haydn’s experiments in symphonic form and the similar techniques in Beethoven merely throws into relief what is

truly unprecedented in Beethoven: the sense of an earnest and fundamental presence burdened with some great weight yet coursing forth ineluctably, moving the listener along as does the earth itself.

Later on, in one of the book’s more eloquent passages, the music seems “to animate and empower its listeners…. One becomes literally enthused, flushed with the interiorized presence of the sublime.”

Though it is not exactly news that heroic music engages the listener in a special way, I doubt that this quality has ever been explored so deeply as in the chapter “Musical Values.” The very fact that the symphonies stimulated heroic stories made it easier for listeners to relate to them man to man (always man, I think). The music projects the passage of time in a new way that can be specified, once again, by means of analysis of rhythm, harmony, upbeat-downbeat cycles, and the like. Wagner’s remark that in the Eroica “everything becomes melody” means that by analogy to a simple melody, every element of the symphonic web counts, and therefore can engage us on the same primal level as when we find ourselves absorbed by the progress of a song from note to note and word to word. While all this may not add up to an explanation of the “presence” Burnham feels so strongly in Beethoven’s heroic music—he probably never expected it to—it illuminates much about this primary feature of musical experience.

A chapter entitled “Cultural Values” treats the resonance of “the premier story of Western mythology”—the story of the struggle of the hero for freedom—in the composer’s own time. For Burnham, Beethoven’s version of this myth projects the values of selfhood that evolved in the Goethezeit, at the hands of Kant, Goethe, Schiller, and Hegel. The argument here becomes complex and can only be sketched summarily. It starts with Kantian self-consciousness. Becoming, striving is the essence of Goethe’s idea of the self; the ability of a distinctly identifiable self or subject to create itself and its own world is the essence of Hegel’s. One concept is open, the other closed, and Beethoven’s heroic style captures both concepts. Thanks to his unique way of developing themes, the music seems to arrive at destinations in ever-new consequential ways, and these arrivals have the feeling of decisions freely made, of musical events based on, but not determined by, what has preceded them. The action-reaction, downbeat-upbeat pattern of Beethoven’s commanding macrorhythm mirrors the polar forces of deed and reflection that we find in the heroes of classical German drama—Goethe’s Egmont, Schiller’s Marquis of Posa and William Tell.

The developing themes also give the illusion of demanding or creating their own unique musical forms. Yet at the same time sonata form can be seen as a universal principle, and the coda in sonata form—the final section—works a closure that is suggestive, to Burnham, of the Hegelian merger of the individual with a higher world. We now hear of a “telling presence”; this means to say that the music both enacts mythic events and also narrates them, producing a pervading sense of irony.3 In sum,

A perspective simultaneously objective and subjective allows the heroic style its particular presence as a modeling of ironic self-consciousness, while the narrated projection of an end-oriented process…expresses the ethos of the self as hero—whether as an individual realizing a personal destiny or as the cosmos coming to know itself. The great and defining experiment of the age of both Goethe and Hegel was to model human consciousness in this way. Beethoven simply does it best.

Indeed, Beethoven’s music for Egmont realizes Goethe’s vision of heroism better than the play itself, as Burnham now demonstrates. A well-known difficulty with the culmination of Goethe’s drama is Egmont’s sudden transformation, in a single final scene, from an agreeable but apolitical being into a heroic symbol of freedom. As he goes to the scaffold, Goethe calls for a “Symphony of Victory”—which Schiller dismissed as a “somersault” into opera; but when in 1811 Beethoven composed music of almost hysterical rejoicing for this final curtain, he also planted much the same music as the coda that caps the play’s overture, before the curtain ever rises. Burnham points out that

because the music of the drama’s apotheosis acts in the overture also as the harmonic closure of the preceding music, what is only a political afterthought in the drama appears to become the whole story in the overture. In Goethe’s play there is no comparable sense of something within the play generating its own closure; indeed, its end arrives ex machina, and there are too many other issues (like the fates of Ferdinand and Brackenburg) that find no ultimate resolution.

Only the medium of music—Beethoven’s music—could accomplish this consummation:

Depending on one’s point of view, either Goethe’s bad faith about his ending prompted him to appropriate the overdetermined closure of music, or his supreme faith in the sense of his ending called for the only medium felt to be equal to such consummate finality.

(In either case we must admire Goethe’s prescience, since when he wrote Egmont in the 1770s Beethoven was still in diapers.)

Equally persuasive is the demonstration of the heroic style’s endurance, its stubborn persistence. A powerful, if technical chapter entitled “Institutional [i.e., academic] Values” studies its impact on theorists of music, and the use they have made of it in developing methods of technical analysis. For Beethoven has figured overwhelmingly in the thinking of music theorists since his day. Burnham shows how the characteristic features of the heroic style—development, culmination, closure, teleology: in a word, process—have in effect become the basis of the musical-analytic systems of four influential theorists, from A.B. Marx in the 1850s to Rudolph Réti in the 1950s. (The others, in between, are the even more formidable Hugo Riemann and Heinrich Schenker.4 ) In a brilliant deconstructive exercise that will doubtless rattle the cages of music theory, they are each shown to have articulated the repressed ethical values of the heroic style in technical terms. The terms are different, the covert values always the same. The institutional image of music is, quite simply, that of the Beethovenian heroic style.

2.

Musical values, cultural values, institutional values: all receive original and profound treatment in this remarkable study.5 “My goal is to engage as directly as I can the fundamental importance of this music,” says Burnham, and engage he does. It is a pity things get out of focus in the final chapter, where Beethoven’s heroic style, its almost coercive immediacy undimmed, is seen as throwing a paradoxical shadow across today’s aesthetic landscape.

This is because of our “urge to make teleological process the exclusive and defining agenda of music” (my italics). The heroic style unconsciously “controls our thinking to the extent that it dictates the shape of alterity [i.e., perceptions of other music]; it is the daylight by which everything else must be night”—so that non-heroic compositions by Beethoven, such as the “Pastoral” Symphony, have been pushed to the margins, and composers like Schubert are found wanting in the Beethovenian balance.6 Thanks to Beethoven, a discredited Romantic model of selfhood is being kept alive. Obsession with Beethovenian closure has closed the canon of music and closed music history. There may be a remedy, but only if we can learn new ways of listening to music for presence, not for process.

This seems overheated and probably exaggerated even as a polemic directed narrowly toward music theory. More serious is a confusion between music theory and Music, academic musical discourse and musical experience at large. One may accept that academics remain manacled to the heroic myth without supposing that this says very much about the attitudes of off-campus listeners. One may also allow for the handing down (not always so smoothly) of theorists’ lore to their students, and its trickling down to others by way of program notes, music appreciation courses, TV intermission features, and the like, without indulging in the fantasy that theory permeates the essential experience of the classical music audience. If Burnham means to imply that most people—men and women—listen to Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Stravinsky, and all other composers with Beethovenian ears, I frankly don’t believe it. And if all this other music “remains, always, at a remove” as compared to music in the heroic style, non-Beethovenian intense engagements can also be cited: with Gregorian chant, with Terry Riley’s In C, with Andrea Chénier.

The totalizing, all-embracing thrust of Burnham’s polemic makes so little sense that perhaps nobody will be confused by it after all. But there are cases of slippage in the prose:

A particularly compelling concept of self was animated by Beethoven’s music and through it seems ever renewable. The experience of this music has been primarily an ethical experience. How else could it have assumed pride of place in the musical-theoretic thought of the next two centuries? How else could it have come to stand for Music itself?

Here Music with a capital letter conflates with musical-theoretic thought. In another characteristic sequence, when “our current musical discourse” in one sentence is followed by “the unhappy results of our collective repression of this ethical dimension” in the next, while no actual slippage occurs, the referent of “us” seems unobtrusively to expand from those who reflect upon music professionally to a larger, universal collective. By the time we are being told to mend our ways and listen differently, the rhetoric is attuned to far more than a modest band of academics.

As already noted, there is nothing in this book about the biographical circumstances discussed in Tyson’s article, circumstances that support the familiar and no doubt naive view that the presence in Beethoven’s music is that of a miserable young musician who was going deaf and who was actually picturing himself as a tragic hero. Nor is much said about other composers (save for the paragraph on Schubert, and brief formal comparisons of Beethoven with Mozart and Haydn). Though it may seem unfair to tax the author with this particular economy, I come back to the issue because an inevitable question arises: If the overwhelming response to one composer’s music depends on its projection of a model of self-consciousness that means so much to us, what explains the response to other music that means just as much to us (or many of us), or more? Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky—are they all locked into the same secondary status that Burnham ascribes to Schubert? The naive view that all composers of genius engender their own individual, indeed personal engagements at least allows us relatively uncomplicated traffic with multiple musical presences, other selves.

It is perhaps just as well not to bring such arguments too heavily to bear on Burnham’s book, for his densely (and elegantly) reasoned study has no need of extra complications. Following its essential direction is easy enough—and stimulating, or so I found—but a full grasp of the underlying structure supporting its argument will require readers with a stomach for both musical analysis and Idealist philosophy. Those with intestinal fortitude will find much to ponder, admire, and digest in Beethoven Hero.

  1. 1

    The Musical Times, Volume 110 (February 1969), pp. 139-141.

  2. 2

    One of Burnham’s most important witnesses is Wagner, whose Beethoven criticism receives careful scrutiny from Thomas S. Grey, Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts (Cambridge University Press, 1995). Grey’s emphasis is of course on the storyteller rather than the story.

  3. 3

    Thus, for example, the codas of heroic works are often marked by a great deal of loud banging away at the final cadence—much more than is required to make the listener feel the piece has come to rest. The excess cadencing is more than an enactment of closure, it is also an announcement or narration of closure by some agent or agency that is conscious (self-conscious) of the enactment.

    On the universality of musical forms: sonata form in Beethoven’s heroic works rubs shoulders with sui generis forms—as can be heard in the finale of the Eroica Symphony or the scherzo (the goblin movement) of the Fifth.

  4. 4

    These theorists are all Germans or Austrians of a past era, or past eras; the youngest of them, Réti, was born (in Serbia) in 1885. He published his work at an advanced age and enjoyed a brief run, as Burnham says, in the 1950s and 60s, especially in England. In many ways Réti, with his special Beethoven obsession, works well for Burnham, but his place in the theorists’ pantheon really belongs to Arnold Schoenberg, an even earlier figure, as a somewhat uncomfortable footnote makes clear.

  5. 5

    I cannot resist noting the occurrence of the word “value” in three out of the five chapter titles of this book—almost a little manifesto of the so-called “new musicology” characterized by (among others) Charles Rosen in “Music à la Mode,” The New York Review, June 23, 1994, pp. 55-62. Even ten years ago, when positivistic music scholarship began to be questioned, such headings in a musicological study would have been inconceivable.

  6. 6

    Tell it not at the Y! When Beethoven’s reputation was first being established in Germany, in the 1830s, the “Pastoral” was his most popular symphony; see Sanna Pederson, “A.B. Marx, Berlin Concert Life, and German National Identity,” in 19th-Century Music, Volume 18, No. 2 (1994), pp. 87-107.

  • Email
  • Print