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Beethoven’s Genius: An Exchange

In response to:

Did Beethoven Have All the Luck? from the November 14, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

To suggest that genius is a social achievement is by no means to debunk Beethoven or to deny his talent. Charles Rosen wrongly assumes [NYR, November 14, 1996] that the sociology of identity and reputation is in contention with music analysis and appreciation. In Beethoven and the Construction of Genius, I argue that Beethoven’s talent was a necessary but not sufficient cause of his subsequent acclaim. Between 1792 and 1803, the musical field—concert-giving conventions, critical discourse, music technology—was restructured such that Beethoven’s unconventional works came to condition the criteria by which they were judged. The result was a virtuous circle within which Beethoven flourished. In his eagerness to maintain that Beethoven’s music was the cause of its own success, Rosen not only misses the larger point of my book, but misconstrues detail.

It is entirely appropriate to examine Beethoven’s place in the public concert repertory if our aim is to assess the growth of his reputation beyond its origins in salons. I do caution readers that relatively few concert programs for the most middle-class venue of the day survive, and that conclusions about non-middle-class subscription to Beethoven’s works may be subject to revision. But the caution is not a disclaimer; the number of programs (listed by Mary Sue Morrow, amended by Dexter Edge) is forty and Beethoven’s name does not appear. Moreover, private concert programs did not differ wildly from their public counterparts of the same scale. The boundary between “public” and “private” was permeable and aristocrats often premiered works in private before launching them in more diverse and larger settings. It is wrong to suggest that circa 1800, musicians “benefited” from the growing valuation of serious music. This didn’t happen until later, as Julia Moore has suggested in her pathbreaking work on the economics of Beethoven’s career. Rosen conveys the impression that I ignore Beethoven’s ambiguous relationship with, and occasional defiance of, his noble supporters. On the contrary, as would have been clear from a descriptive overview of the book’s contents, Beethoven’s resistance is discussed in terms of its strategic value for reconfiguring the patron-musician relationship. (Moreover, the item to which Rosen alludes—from Bettina Brentano’s “Beethoven letters”—is unauthenticated.) Finally, even when we consider the views of musicians—which I do, throughout the second half of the book—circa 1792-1803, opinion about Beethoven’s talent was divided.

In the book and elsewhere, I have argued that twentieth-century music analysis is not the surest route to music history. Because music’s meaning and value are perceived differently across time and social group, I have suggested that accounts of music’s “evolution” elide many of the most interesting questions for the social history and historical sociology of culture and knowledge. When Rosen tells us, for instance, that “a growing familiarity with [Beethoven’s] music…revealed his work as the continuation and fulfillment of a firmly established tradition,” he misses the point that traditions are invented and reinvented by actors from within (indeed, music critical discourse is itself a medium of that invention, not merely writing “about” it). In other words, the precise nature of what is “hailed” as continuous is a topic, not a resource, for historical research. It was with this point in mind that I examined the notion of genius (and Mozart’s “spirit”) as it was transformed between 1780 and 1800.

Rosen says it is necessary to classify and rank Beethoven’s recipients, to distinguish between, as he puts it, “journalistic chatter,” “informal reactions” and, it is implied, more reliable assessments. But historical research, as opposed to music appreciation, needs to examine those viewpoints-in-the-making. It should not attempt to deduce music’s meaning and value from within a discourse that is itself a product of history. For Rosen to suggest, as if it served as explanation and evidence, that Beethoven’s compositional practice was “more powerful and more effective than that of any of his contemporaries” is not only a tautological explanation of how power (aesthetic or otherwise) is generated, it is also inadequate given what Beethoven’s contemporaries can tell us if we are willing to listen.

Tia DeNora
Exeter, South Devon
England

Charles Rosen replies:

I never denied that genius is a social achievement. In fact, I wrote in my review: > The status of Beethoven as a great composer is not a fact of nature but the result of a system of values and an ideology in which we have been educated and by which we continue to judge, think, and behave.

I claimed only that DeNora does not understand how genius is socially constructed—to use her expression. Nor did I say that DeNora wishes to debunk Beethoven or deny his talent. She is not interested enough in his music to do either. What I challenged was her belief that Beethoven’s success can be explained with absolutely no consideration whatever of his work.

When she says that she argues “that Beethoven’s talent was a necessary but not sufficient cause of his subsequent acclaim,” she is more than a little disingenuous. Put that way, the thesis is acceptable and even bland. Who would deny it? If Beethoven had not received support and financial aid from influential members of Viennese society, he would not have achieved the early success that allowed his career to develop so spectacularly. That, however, is not all that DeNora maintains in her book: there she astonishingly and literally insists that if the Viennese aristocracy had backed a more conventional composer like Johannes Wölffl, then Wölffl and not Beethoven would have become the great genius acclaimed by the next two centuries and that the difficult and more innovative style of Beethoven would not be the model that it is for us today. Pascal said that if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would be changed. For DeNora, Johannes Wölffl is Cleopatra’s nose. Of course, all these ifs and might-have-beens of history skirt the absurd, but DeNora’s is one of the more ludicrous.

She believes that it is “tautological” to say that “Beethoven’s compositional practice was ‘more powerful and more effective than that of any of his contemporaries.”’ That is interesting: it means that she cannot conceive any form of musical argument that would explain Beethoven’s success except the fact that he succeeded. For DeNora, no form of musical discourse has any meaning. We cannot discuss Beethoven in modern terms because they have been set by our estimation of Beethoven. She also refuses to discuss Beethoven in terms of the criticism of his contemporaries.

She writes that she does “consider the views of musicians”: this is untrue—she does not consider them or listen to them, she only quotes a few of them. There is no assessment of Beethoven’s critics, no attempt to determine the accuracy or the cogency of any of the contemporary evaluations, to see in what way the blame or the praise heaped on Beethoven was relevant to his music. Not all of Beethoven’s enemies were stupid, not all of his idolaters intelligent, but DeNora cannot distinguish among them even on their own terms. She does not think it worthwhile to know what those terms were, because musical discourse, she clearly believes, has no practical value for understanding history.

DeNora’s focus is too narrow. The “social achievement” which needs to be studied in order to understand Beethoven’s success is the language of eighteenth-century music, the way it was built into society and the way it was influenced by, and influenced in turn, the aesthetics and the social action of all the other arts. The “construction of genius” cannot be studied, as DeNora does, in isolation from the construction of Western art music or, indeed, from the development of the concept of “genius” fashionable in aesthetics in the late eighteenth century. DeNora does not dishonestly eliminate any discussion of this development because it would weaken her thesis, although it would: she is not aware of these matters because she has not gone back to the original sources but relies entirely on the work of recent scholars. She sums up their work brilliantly, but that is not enough to prove the points she wishes to make.

In spite of the belief of Sir Ernst Gombrich and others, eighteenth-century tonality is not a scientific discovery but a constructed system, a complex language developed in response to social pressures and to the needs of society. It was solidly in place when Beethoven began to write: in that sense it existed as a fact. To say that Beethoven was more effective than any other composer in exploiting this system is not a tautology, but a demonstrable proposition: it can be, and was, discussed and argued in the eighteenth century. DeNora writes:

Within modern musicological circles, it is quite difficult to construct a convincing argument that the music of Wölffl, for instance, is “better” than Beethoven’s, even though some of Beethoven’s contemporaries suggested just that.

Not many of Beethoven’s contemporaries suggested that, and not for very long. (Note DeNora’s quotation marks around “better”: that is because she thinks the word is strictly meaningless.) It would be difficult today to construct a convincing argument that Galileo and Copernicus were wrong and Ptolemy right, but many of Galileo’s contemporaries suggested that, and not every one of them was stupid or ignorant of science. Not all aesthetic judgment is a matter of taste (and the acceptance of a scientific theory is considerably influenced by social and ideological pressure). It is a fact that Beethoven was more effective than almost anyone else at handling the socially constructed tonal system as he received it from Haydn and Mozart, and this fact was recognized very early. What gave him his ultimate superiority, however, was his radical originality. Many of his contemporaries were at first appalled—and most of them later fascinated—by his innovations, but this was expected of a “genius” as the concept was developed in literary and artistic circles in Germany and the rest of Europe. The demand for innovation that shocked and even repelled was already traditional by 1800. What DeNora does not sufficiently realize is that the controversy over Beethoven was considered as a proof of genius, and she does not see at all that by 1798 the attacks against Beethoven always treated him as a considerable figure that had to be reckoned with.

A single class—like the Viennese aristocracy—cannot permanently affect the course of music. It can only give someone five years—or fifteen minutes—of fame. The history of music is an interaction of individual talent, social pressures, and the musical system already in place. The most stable of these factors is, in fact, the musical system. Ignoring it completely, as DeNora does, vitiates every generalization. Without his powerful patrons, Beethoven could not have achieved what he did. If he had not received their support (there is that “if” again), he would have had to look elsewhere or write in isolation, and his work would most probably have been different. Schubert never received that kind of patronage and he was not a brilliant virtuoso performer. His music found public success starting in the decade after his death, and much of his work was only appreciated almost a century later. I think Beethoven was too aggressive to wait that long.

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