By the middle of Volume 2 of his entertaining, provocative, and massive Oxford History of Western Music (five volumes, plus a sixth with indices and a chronology), Professor Richard Taruskin reaches the repertory familiar to all music lovers—Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, with the Romantics from Chopin to Tchaikovsky and Wagner following in the next volume. The landscape changes; writing about the familiar presents new problems. Perhaps the chief one is finding something novel and interesting to say about the most famous figures of the past, revered, written about, and overanalyzed for more than two centuries.
Taruskin’s solution has had a certain currency since Lytton Strachey turned his satirical attention to Victorian figures like Florence Nightingale and Cardinal Manning, casting a cold eye upon the respectable glories of the past, taking them down a peg or two. Taruskin’s reassessment is thesis-driven: for him, classical music and all high art in general is produced by and for a social and political elite (although it is not always clear just who belongs to the elite and whether the art created for it was always to its taste), and he feels this to be ignobly undemocratic. Beethoven is his first principal target; his reputation as a heroic figure struggling against critical misunderstanding must have appeared an easy mark.
Taruskin characterizes Beethoven’s political opinions as ambiguous at best. While they may have been somewhat inconsistent, his fierce resentment of aristocratic privilege was reported by no less a figure than Goethe. It is true that Beethoven was generously supported by some members of the aristocracy, above all by the most aristocratic of all next to the emperor, the Archduke Rudolph, brother of the emperor and Beethoven’s pupil (Beethoven certainly considered Rudolph an exception to his class, observing that he treated people with civility even if they were not well-born).
Taruskin fails to mention Beethoven’s democratic leanings, fashionable enough in the decades after the American and French revolutions, but he refers only to his antipopulist remark that he had never believed in the saying Vox populi, vox Dei. Well, you wouldn’t take much stock in public opinion if you were a composer whose every new work had been savaged mercilessly by the press for thirty years. At the same time, he had his critical admirers, of course, but Taruskin oddly reports this by saying that he had a great success with the aristocracy and the wealthy bourgeoisie; actually, many of his supporters were musicians and music lovers from more modest reaches of society. He would not have had such a success with wealthy patrons if he had not been backed by the members of his profession.
Taruskin says not a word about the public humiliation of Beethoven by Prince Esterhazy at the first performance of the Mass in C major, commissioned by the prince, who, on hearing it, said, “My dear Beethoven, what have you done?” and walked out (an incident witnessed by Beethoven’s colleague Johann Nepomuk …