Did Beethoven Have All the Luck?

Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803

by Tia DeNora
University of California Press, 232 pp., $29.95


Beethoven, some think, had all the luck. An ethnomusicologist, tenured at a respected university (he will perhaps be happy to remain anonymous), once asserted: “There must be hundreds of symphonies just as good as the Eroica, but we just don’t know them.” This is the naive view of his-tory immortalized in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” quoted not quite accurately by Tia DeNora on the last page of her Beethoven and the Construction of Genius:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

It does not, however, stand up well to examination. Hundreds of symphonies by dozens of contemporaries of Mozart and Beethoven have been exhumed and republished in the last two decades, and no one has been found willing to make any extravagant claims for them.

A more refined form of this primitive theory has been elaborated in ourtime by cultural historians: we assume that the Eroica is so much better than the works of other composers simply because posterity has made Beethoven the touchstone of musical value. Dismissing the works of his contemporaries is not an independent act of criticism but only a mechanical repetition of what we have been schooled to believe. Beethoven has entered the canon; his contemporaries Joseph Wölffl and Joseph Weigl have not. Any further evaluation is merely redundant: we have been brainwashed. This view, however, is undermined by our realization that the supremacy of Beethoven was not imposed by posterity but accepted, sometimes with reluctance, by Beethoven’s contemporaries. By the age of thirty-five he was the most famous composer of instrumental music in Europe, and his position has remained largely unchallenged even by those who do not care for his work.

Tia DeNora’s thesis is more sophisticated than Gray’s or the ethnomusicologist’s quoted above, and more knowledgeable than the simplistic cultural criticism. Beethoven’s reputation, for her, was created and permanently established by the society in which he worked, largely by the backing of the aristocratic class whose support he cultivated assiduously. It was aristocratic patronage first in Bonn and later in Vienna that made Beethoven’s career possible, declared him a genius, and permanently consigned to the dustbin of history contemporary rivals like Wölffl and Jan Ladislav Dussek (the latter a composer once very much admired, and who can give considerable pleasure today). Beethoven’s genius was “constructed” by his society, above all by the upper class. DeNora writes:

We have not understood Beethoven very well if we fail to realize that had he spent the decade of 1792-1802 in London (as did Dussek), his artistic output would have developed quite differently.

It is unlikely that Beethoven in London would have become the prominent figure we know, even with the support of English aristocrats.

It is, of course, equally unlikely that he would have become the prominent figure we know if he had spent ten years in St. Petersburg, Naples, Boston, or wherever, if he had been…

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