Beethoven and the Big Change

Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4, Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor,” and Choral Fantasy Choir

fortepiano Robert Levin. the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, and the Monteverdi, directed by John Eliot Gardiner
Deutsche Grammophon Archiv, three CDs, $17.99 each

In 1791 a listing was made of the several dozen musicians in the employ of the episcopal court of Bonn. “Herr Ludwig van Beethoven plays clavier concertos” is the extent of the entry on the young man who was to become Bonn’s and perhaps Germany’s most celebrated citizen. At the age of twenty his output included three concertos for piano (one arranged from a violin concerto, as was not uncommon at the time), as well as a concerto for piano with two other instruments, and possibly a fourth piano concerto, if some extant early sketches were ever completed. A young pianist-virtuoso-composer needed concertos to make his way—indeed, the encounter between the concerto’s solo instrument and orchestra can stand as a metaphor for the freelance musician and his support system of audience and patrons. Before Beethoven found himself as a symphonist, the concerto was the public genre that marked the stages of his march to success and, as the nineteenth century saw it, greatness.

Around 1801, when he published the first two of his canonical piano concertos, Beethoven knew he was becoming deaf; by 1809, when he composed the fifth of them, the so-called “Emperor,” he could no longer play in public. So in the eighteen years remaining to him he no longer wrote concertos. The story of Beethoven’s concertos is a story of the obligatory and no doubt painful relinquishment of a favorite genre. (In later years he began work on more than one concerto, only to leave them unfinished. The Eighth Symphony was first sketched as a concerto.) Yet in this arrested development Leon Plantinga can trace a grand panorama of change in the very concept of Western music and in the model of a composer. It is a transition from music as performance to music as text, from the performer-composer known to the eighteenth century to the genius-creator postulated by the nineteenth. In the sphere of the concerto, Beethoven’s deafness was both cause and symbol of this transition.

This historical process has been the subject of much discussion (as well as complaint) in recent years. It is bound up with the issue of “absolute” music, music thought to be autonomous irrespective of verbal texts, social contexts, and even performance considerations. It is the subject of an entire book by the late, much translated musicologist Carl Dahlhaus, and the subject of a full half of a book on the ontology of music by the English philosopher Lydia Goehr. When did European music change over from a fluid performance activity, passed on from master to student over the ages, as it was and is in other cultures, and become a written, read, and (eventually) digitally recorded artifact to be contemplated as well as—as much as, one sometimes feels—heard?

Over a period of roughly a thousand years, according to historians of the longue durée. Somewhat abruptly around the year 1800, according to Goehr, and it is easy for Plantinga in one of …

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