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 a woman, or if…(further conditions to be added at the reader’s discretion).
DeNora’s book is in many ways a very good one. It gives a fascinating picture of important aspects of musical life in Vienna and of the complexities of musical politics. While very little of her research is original, she marshals the works of other students (like Mary Sue Morrow, Dexter Edge, and Julia Moore) clearly and cogently, and summarizes the present state of scholarship on Beethoven’s early career with considerable skill.1 The chapter about Beethoven’s concern with the manufacture of pianos and his influence on their construction is brilliantly handled. There is a wealth of enlightening detail throughout the book, and even specialists on Beethoven are likely to gain a much greater understanding of his early years. The conclusions drawn from all this detail, however, are too often either wrong or, at best, inadequate.
The basic thesis of DeNora is
that a serious music ideology, which took as its exemplars Beethoven and reconstituted, more explicitly “learned” and grandiose versions of Mozart and Haydn, emerged during the 1790s in Vienna, and that this ideology was primarily subscribed to by old aristocrats, not the middle class. This view runs counter to what Arnold Hauser (1962), Henry Raynor (1976), Theodor Adorno (1976), and a host of other scholars have had to say, on the basis of scant evidence, about the origins of serious music ideology, and, as such, it challenges received sociological wisdom and Beethoven mythology concerning the origin of the musical canon.
For the moment, we must leave aside the question to what extent works of music, or art in general, represent the philosophy or the ideology of those who are financing it or simply paying for it, although the assumption that the views of the artist, his audience, and his patrons generally coincide will not bear examination. I do not, of course, wish to question the fact that Beethoven sought the most highly placed aristocratic support for his work in order to give it the greatest possible prestige. Nevertheless, the evidence used by DeNora to determine the class of Beethoven’s partisans and her interpretation of it are not convincing.
To start with, she measures Beethoven’s growing reputation as a young composer in Vienna almost entirely by the statistics of public performance. Most music-making in Vienna, however, took place either at home or at semiprivate performances in the salons of the more affluent music lovers and patrons. She gives various reasons to justify her decision, including the growth of public concerts, and their accessibility, and adds:
Finally (and more practically), there is not enough specific information available on private concert programs (the salons), where composers and works often remain unidentifiable.
I know that it is traditional in the social sciences to generalize on the basis of the available information even when that information is clearly not representative, but the conclusions are not exactly trustworthy. More than in Paris, London, or Berlin, cultural life in Vienna depended on various forms of intimate music-making. We cannot assume that the repertoire for large public concerts and private gatherings would have been similar. The program for orchestral performances is often determined by ease of rehearsal and relative familiarity of style to both musicians and public. Furthermore, the public concert at the end of the eighteenth century was still in Vienna something of a novelty compared with many of the other European centers (and, I believe, compared with New York).
The interpretation of even this very limited evidence is not always persuasive. Most of the theaters and concert halls were, as DeNora writes, managed by the aristocracy, with one exception:
The most distinctly middle class of Vienna’s concert locations at this time [1791-1810] was the Leopoldstadt theater, located in Vienna’s suburbs…. Judging from the programs listed in Morrow’s public concert calendar, Beethoven was never performed at the Leopoldstadt theater.
This would, indeed, imply that popular bourgeois interest in Beethoven was minimal, since elsewhere Beethoven was the most performed composer in Vienna after Haydn and Mozart. Unfortunately, however, in the back of DeNora’s book, we find a note in small print:
Because relatively few Leopoldstadt concert programs survive, generalizations about the repertory there must remain speculative.
This further weakens our confidence in DeNora’s assessment.
Other problems arise in determining the social class of Beethoven’s supporters. Table I offered by DeNora gives us a breakdown of 186 “virtuosi, amateur musicians, and music patrons in the Viennese high culture music world, as listed in [Johann Ferdinand von] Schönfeld,” the author of a musical yearbook in 1796. We get twenty-three “first aristocracy by rank,” i.e., princes, princesses, counts, countesses, and one baron; eighty “second aristocracy,” which includes fourteen barons and Freiherren, along with sixty-six merely with “von” in front of their last name; nineteen middle-class professionals and businessmen; and finally sixty-four “musicians.” We never hear anything further about these “musicians.” If they were supporters of Beethoven, they do not interest DeNora. Nevertheless, in the establishment of Beethoven’s genius, they were the ones who counted the most. Support from the rich or the aristocratic was never forthcoming without professional advice.
Nor does the group of prominent music lovers with a simple “von” before their family name play any further role in spite of their considerable number. In any case, the nobility and legitimate status of this “von” cannot always have been clear. As DeNora knows, the line between “second aristocracy” and the middle class was not sharply drawn. Or even between “first” and “second.” The one baron classified among the music patrons of the “first aristocracy” is the famous Gottfried van Swieten, sponsor of Haydn and Mozart, and important for the revival of interest in the instrumental works of Bach. He was one of Beethoven’s principal promoters, and the First Symphony was dedicated to him. His father was Maria Theresa’s physician, for which he received a title. The Van Swietens were therefore a recently ennobled family from the professional middle class.
DeNora’s main thesis stands things on their heads. She would like to believe in “the emergence of the serious music ideology in the aristocratic music world between the late 1780s and the early 1800s.” She claims that in the campaign for serious music and against both the style of easy superficial pieces for the amateur and flamboyant virtuosity to please the mob, “the issue was simultaneously social and political because of the alignment of music patronage with the pursuit and maintenance of status.” In order to maintain their dominant cultural position, her account goes, the aristocrats aided in the construction of the concept of the great musical “genius,” and supported Beethoven’s difficult and often rebarbative music against the more easily assimilable and agreeable works of Dussek and Wölffl.2
DeNora’s concept of an identifiable and isolatable aristocratic taste and ideology is a constructed fiction. Her bias in interpreting what we know about the musical life of the period comes out in her comparison of the careers of Dussek and Beethoven. With Beethoven, the emphasis is on his early experience at the court of Bonn and his relatively successful attempts in Vienna to attract the support and patronage of the most prestigious and influential music lovers. With Dussek, she sets in relief his relations with the commercial music world of London, the many dedications of his works to middle-class citizens, and his work as a piano teacher. We could try a different slant with the two biographies: we might note the insulting snubbing of Beethoven in front of his colleagues by Prince Esterhazy, and recall Beethoven’s notorious revolutionary republican principles, his ostentatious refusal to take off his hat at the passage of royalty. Dussek, on the other hand, worked for William V of Holland, and was a salaried musician at the courts of Catherine II of Russia and Marie Antoinette of France, becoming a favorite composer of both these queens; he was also employed for two years by Prince Radziwill. We might speculate that the coddling by royalty sapped Dussek’s ambition, condemning him to be a minor composer of piano music, while Beethoven’s struggle to obtain financial support stimulated him to greater efforts.
All of this, one way or the other, is largely irrelevant. Dussek chose to settle in London, an important commercial center of music, with a distinguished school of composers for the piano like John Cramer and Muzio Clementi. Another possible choice was Paris, where the interest in music devolved principally on opera, and the scene was dominated by Cherubini, Méhul, and Grétry. Beethoven’s early training in Bonn was largely based on the latest Viennese instrumental style and on The Well-Tempered Keyboard of Johann Sebastian Bach, a work as yet unpublished which had just attracted a lot of excitement in the circle connected with Mozart, and which the young Beethoven performed complete to the admiration of the musical world in Bonn. Vienna was not only the most natural choice for Beethoven, but the most reasonable one for a young composer with great ambition: the latest developments in pure instrumental style there were attracting international attention and revolutionizing the aesthetics of music. In addition, there was the opportunity of personal contact with Haydn.
The prestige of difficult, serious music had already developed to a much greater extent in Vienna than DeNora believes in her effort to give the credit for it largely to aristocratic machinations or to tar it with the brush of upper-class privilege. Although she refers to the complaints about the difficulty of Mozart’s works during the 1780s, she does not grasp the magnitude of the objections,3 which lasted well into the nineteenth century (there is a brilliant article by E.T.A. Hoffmann defending the complexity of Mozart’s modulations against the attacks of another opera composer, Sacchini), and she takes no account of the extraordinary experiments in fugal writing in the quartets by Haydn and other composers like Florent Gassmann of the early 1770s, which turned the quartet into a learned form.
Who were the beneficiaries of the new grandiose pretensions made for the art of music? Obviously not the court or the aristocracy but the musicians, above all professional composers and performers.
The greatest disappointment in DeNora’s account is the lack of any historical consideration of the idea of greatness in music or the other arts. The late eighteenth century does not mark the first appearance of the concept of the temperamental genius in music. The Netherlandish composers, including Johannes Ockeghem, Pierre de la Rue, and Josquin des Prés, at the end of the fifteenth century had already developed that kind of international prestige, which made them sought after by Italian courts, and they had also demonstrated their importance by an extremely complex and learned style. Moreover, this style was not merely a demonstration of craft: we have only to read the account of an early sixteenth-century critic like Glarean to see the enormous emotional impact of the music of Josquin, who reduced his listeners to tears, and who, furthermore, was known for his arrogant and temperamental refusal to write music when commissioned except when he felt like it.
The basic model of the temperamental genius, however, was to be found in the visual arts, with Michelangelo. Beethoven’s persona, the figure he presented to the world of a difficult, irascible nonconformist, is clearly an imitation of the mythical paradigm of the temperamental genius refusing to bow to the authority of pope or aristocrat that Michelangelo supplied for the centuries that followed him. This would suggest that the relation of a high classical art and the artist as genius to an aristocratic society is a very complex one, in which the artist’s genius is a trophy for the court that hires him but also a protest against, and an undermining of, the aristocratic authority that finances the art.
The gap between trivial and serious music was established and enforced in Vienna by the musicians themselves. The first musicians’ union in Vienna, formed in the early 1780s, explicitly denied membership to performers of dance music. The gradual increase in the seriousness of nonliturgical music at this time was a natural result of the decline of church and court patronage, and the necessity of guaranteeing the musicians’ livelihood in other ways and increasing their social standing.
By the late 1770s, Haydn was recognized internationally as the greatest composer of instrumental music, a genre which was finally to be considered the most philosophical and noble form of music in Germany, England, and France, and even to replace opera as the vehicle of the sublime. DeNora claims that Haydn was not accepted as a star in Vienna until after his great success in London in 1791. That may be true about the way the aristocratic circles thought of him since he was still a salaried employee at a minor court, but his reputation among his fellow musicians and amateurs had spread his fame to London and then later to Paris. In order to understand the dealings of Viennese composers with the aristocracy, incidentally, we need some discussion (absent in DeNora) of the legendary insolence of the Viennese upper classes.
Mozart’s reputation as a more difficult composer than Haydn was firmly in place by the time he was twenty-five years old. His letters to his father assuring the anxious old man that his music could be appreciated by the layman should be interpreted as a way of calming paternal fears that his son’s music would be accessible only to the professional musician and the connoisseur. Many of Mozart’s works were considered both difficult to play and to listen to. He began the composition of six quartets for piano and strings, but after two of them had been completed and printed the publisher cancelled the commission: they were too hard to play and nobody would buy them. Critics thought that he overloaded the instrumentation of his operas so that the singers could not be heard. Singers complained that his elaborate ensembles did not allow them to show off their vocal qualities to advantage. In his first opera of great importance, I domeneo, there is already an aria with three solo wind instruments accompanying or, rather, vying with the singer: this opera contains some of his greatest music and was never revived during his lifetime after the first performances in the wonderful rococo court theater in Munich that seats a public of only three hundred. The following opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, has an aria which contains a full concerto for a quartet of solo winds.
We misjudge Mozart if we do not see that his ambitions and his pretensions were extraordinary. And we misinterpret the idea of musical genius if we fail to understand that what stimulated his ambitions was the consciousness of his powers, his awareness of how effectively and easily he could realize them even at the risk of losing some of his popularity. He rarely resisted the temptation, for example, to show off his contrapuntal skills, perhaps the greatest in history since the death of J.S. Bach. (As far as one can see from Mozart’s correspondence, the one person close to him absolutely fascinated by fugues was not an aristocrat but his wife Constanze.) He not only followed Haydn in writing fugal sections in the developments of symphonies and quartets, as well as fugal finales, minuets with elaborate canons, and the famous contrapuntal tour de force of the coda of the finale of the “Jupiter” symphony, but he also put three orchestras on the stage in Don Giovanni in addition to the one in the pit, all three playing dances in different rhythms and even tuning up while blending harmoniously with the others. He also inserted a full three-part canon in a comic opera like Così fan tutte, while the farcical Singspiel The Magic Flute has an overture with a masterly double fugue and, in the second act, a superb chorale prelude in antique style: understandably, the farce has philosophic pretensions that match its musical ones, with Masonic symbolism and moral reflections.
This was the tradition in which Beethoven aspired to show his talent. To top Mozart’s three-part canon in an opera, Fidelio has a four-part canon. Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte has an E major aria in grand style with two solo horns: Leonore in Fidelio has an even grander one in E major with four horns. It is not true that Beethoven imitated Mozart and Haydn in the early works and ceased to do so in the later ones: the influence of his predecessors continued to work upon him until his death, and, in addition, the innovations of the first works are more radical than is sometimes understood today, which explains the initial opposition to Beethoven of which DeNora makes so much. She interprets the opposition as a conflict of ideologies overcome only by the influence of the aristocracy in Beethoven’s favor. The more natural explanation is that the initial opposition was a reaction to Beethoven’s continuing practice of the innovative tradition of originality established by Haydn and Mozart and sanctioned by the new European aesthetics in all the arts; and it was overcome principally by greater familiarity with Beethoven’s music and the support of the professionals and amateurs who were fascinated by it.
Mozart and Haydn both tried to get the backing of the most prestigious and influential members of the aristocracy in addition to their cultivation of publishers and middle-class financiers and impresarios. Mozart found support for his most serious and difficult operas, not in Vienna, where the theater was controlled by the court, but in Prague, where the opera house was managed by the municipality. Beethoven had every reason to follow their example. He sometimes went to great lengths to get it. He allowed the first performance of the Eroica Symphony to take place in the palace of Prince Lobkowitz; the available room was so small that it could only accommodate an orchestra of thirty-five, and even that crowded the space so that the audience had to listen from the next room. There are four independent horn parts in this symphony, but with an orchestra of thirty-five there was place only for two cellos: the opening cello theme must have sounded ineffective, and of course everyone complained that the horns were too loud.
Some but not all of the members of the Viennese aristocracy liked music. Some of these, but not all, were interested in serious and difficult music. In spite of what sociologists would like to believe, such inclinations are too individual to be tied to class. We cannot, for example, claim that admiration for a tenor like Pavarotti is typical of millionaires because the New York Metropolitan Opera relies on some indecently rich contributors to help meet its huge deficit. The administration looks for millionaires who are sympathetic opera buffs; with a little luck it finds a small number. Mozart and Beethoven looked for support in the same way, and they tried to get the most illustrious aristocratic names on their subscription lists to help sell the concert tickets and the published sheet music. It is true that a number of aristocrats must have felt that becoming a patron of advanced music reaffirmed their social position, but that is not a result of upper-class ideology but a measure of the success of musicians at promoting their own importance.
Perhaps the difficulty arises from a natural confusion of an elite with an aristocracy. The interest in difficult serious music is an elite taste. It can give great pleasure even to the point of becoming addictive. Serious music seems academic and tedious to some: on others it has an emotional impact like sex or a trip on a roller coaster. It is not tied to one level of society. Not all members of the governing class take pleasure in fugues or sonatas or serial music. On the other hand, small farmers and kitchen help have been known to respond to some of the most complex forms of art music. In fact, the reason for someone’s interest in serious music, pop music, or painting, football, or computer games, may be as much physical as cultural.
Admittedly, nevertheless, satisfying a desire for serious music needs leisure and generally requires money. Very few of the poor in Beethoven’s Vienna (and not many today) had the opportunity to enjoy his music. A taste for serious music also tends to reinforce the class structure since it is generally considered nobler and more distinguished intellectually than rock or folk dancing. To many musicians this aspect of class is irrelevant: for others, of course, serious music may be a way of enhancing their social status. It has distinct if limited snob appeal. Nevertheless, as important as these collateral benefits may be, it is a grave error of sociologists to make them the principal driving impulsions in the development of styles and reputations. They are influential forces but rarely determining ones.
The necessity for seeking out the support of the rich and the aristocratic certainly influenced the character of the music of Mozart and Beethoven. That, as Emile Durkheim, founding father of sociology, once remarked about someone’s thesis, may be sociology, but it isn’t news. The influence, however, is not as direct or as obvious as some social critics might like to think: criticism is not that easy. Beethoven’s republican sentiments are clear enough in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, in the style of the music as well as the words; but with the Missa Solemnis, written almost at the same time, he tried to arrange private publication for distribution only to the most select royal courts. Does this tell us something about the music, written in any case for the accession of the Archduke Rudolph to his archbishopric? It is certainly a mass never intended for ordinary performance in a church, but only for a grand celebration. We cannot make a hard and fast separation between music and ideology, but marrying them to each other is a shotgun wedding. Music is too malleable, and Beethoven over time has suited almost anyone’s purpose: republican, liberal, Nazi, ivory-tower aesthete, romantic idealist, austere serialist—everyone finds himself in Beethoven.4
What DeNora finds in Beethoven is a man who, with the backing of the old aristocracy, condemned other composers like Dussek and Wölffl (judged very briefly by some of his contemporaries to be of equal merit) to blush unseen in permanent obscurity. The impulse behind her work is admittedly the present debate on
artistic standards and canons of taste…and programs for cultural reform…. These programs range from suggestions for “reshuffling” personnel within the canon, to suggestions for substitutions, to appropriating official members of the canon for new social concerns, to abolishing canonic structures altogether in favor of postmodernist aesthetics and local and community arts. While these programs obviously vary in levels of ambition, they share a concern with the ways exclusive or “high” cultural forms are both inaccessible and inappropriate to the lived experience of a large proportion of the people to whom they are upheld as aspirational.
How shocking the word “inappropriate” is in that last sentence is something that I am sure DeNora does not understand. Whom is she patronizing? Everyone in the arts today deplores the inaccessibility of so much of culture for a large part of the population, but who are those unfortunates in the outer darkness for whose lived experience high culture is not “appropriate,” the great unwashed incapable of appreciating the most difficult of Beethoven’s works? Immigrant Asians or Hispanics? Single mothers on welfare? Subway motormen? Wealthy Oklahoma ranchers? Sociologists? Cultural historians?
I presume that the coupling “inaccessible” and “inappropriate” is not simply redundant, and that DeNora does not mean only that Beethoven’s music is not appropriate to the lived experience of people who have never been able to hear any of it. And I hope that she is not implying that it is inappropriate for music lovers from non-European cultures to enjoy the work of dead white males, as that would entail the equally detestable corollary that live whites ought not to listen to music from China, India, or Africa, a proposal that would cause consternation even in the ethnomusicological circles which find Beethoven irrelevant to our “lived experience.”
We can see how an inappropriate use of the concept of class brings to light the patronizing attitude of a cultural critic who works in an academic atmosphere. Frank Kermode wrote recently, with what seemed like envy, that at least in music history no one was teaching students that the late Beethoven quartets were an instrument of domination over the lower orders by the Austro-Hungarian upper class. He was evidently wrong. DeNora is at pains to clarify her stand: “My intention is by no means to debunk Beethoven. Within the cultural framework devoted to its appreciation, Beethoven’s music is rich and rewarding of close attention, as I continue to discover.” This happy discovery sets her apart from the people for whom Beethoven’s music is truly and permanently inappropriate, those of whatever economic class with no musical sensibility or interest. Their lives are enriched by other pleasures.
DeNora wishes to “treat with dignity the perspectives of those for whom (and for whatever reasons) Beethoven’s talent was not self-evident,” and she intends
to appreciate the accounts his listeners offered about their responses to his music, not as a window to these respondents’ cultural or psychological makeup, but as a way of exploring the uses of that music in context, of exploring the definition of the music’s social impact by specific individuals within a specific context.
A note on this sentence explains:
This discourse also allows nonmusic specialists to explore music’s social meaning. I exploit this loophole: I do not offer any discussion (informed by twentieth-century music theoretical notions of form) about how Beethoven’s early compositions did or did not “deviate” from standard Viennese practice.
This discourse does not provide a loophole. One cannot explore “music’s social meaning” with no reference to the music. At least to some extent a “nonmusic”(!) specialist has to come to terms with the subject. It is one thing to ignore twentieth-century notions of form, but DeNora offers no discussion of eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century conceptions: most of her quoted documents are journalistic chatter or informal reactions to the works of Beethoven and other composers. These have their value, even sometimes great value, but what that value is cannot be determined without examining the music being praised or excoriated.
We do not restore dignity to the opponents of Beethoven until we can judge how intelligent and how relevant their comments were. For DeNora all opinions are equal—except that praise of Beethoven is generally ascribed to a desire to flatter Beethoven’s aristocratic patrons, while praise of other composers comes straight from the heart with no ulterior motive. Hostile criticism of a composer who would later be accepted as a master can be obtuse or sharp. Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno’s book The Philosophy of Modern Music, for example, is largely a fraudulent presentation, a work of polemic that pretends to be an objective study, and the chapters on Stravinsky are vicious and unprincipled; but Adorno was an extremely intelligent critic, and some of his comments on Stravinsky reveal important aspects of his work unrecognized by admirers (although what Adorno thought were crippling faults would later seem to be inspired innovations).
In the same way, attacks on Beethoven could be profound and even persuasive, and would continue to be so after his death even to the present. Most musicians (outside of Central Europe) will appreciate the brilliance of Debussy’s remark at a concert during a Beethoven symphony: “Ah, the development section is beginning; I can go out and smoke a cigarette.” The way Beethoven’s reputation was “constructed” is perhaps revealed best in some comments made in 1812 by a close friend of Goethe, the composer Karl Friedrich Zelter:5
I, too, regard him with terror….His works seem to me like children whose father is a woman or whose mother is a man…. I know musical people who once found themselves alarmed, even indignant, on hearing his works and are now gripped by an enthusiasm for them like partisans of Greek love.
A few years later Zelter was to become the teacher of Mendelssohn, who would take the latest and most difficult works of Beethoven as models for his own compositions, but in 1812 Beethoven was a monstrosity for Zelter.
The shock of alarm and indignation followed by fascination was the basis for Beethoven’s reputation. It needed familiarity to be accepted. (We may be reminded of Rimsky-Korsakov’s injunction to his young student Stravinsky not to listen to the music of Debussy or he might get to like it.) The repeated performances necessary to this acceptance were provided by the musicians already under his spell—the expression is not too strong. Aristocratic ideology had very little to do with it: the few aristocrats who financed Beethoven were advised by musicians who told them where to put their money for the best cultural investment. On the other hand, the new supremacy of the art of music current in literary circles had a great deal to do with it (DeNora discusses neither the new aesthetic theories nor the considerable backing of Beethoven by poets and novelists).
It is true that some composers later to be accepted as “great” did not receive the financial backing that Beethoven did, but none of them combined a shocking and even alarming originality of improvisation and composition with a brilliant and imperious virtuoso style of performance which got Beethoven started when he was young; nor did they arrive when the literary world was working to convince the cultivated society of Europe that music was the new archetype of Romantic art. Schubert is often cited as a composer who died in relative obscurity, although at thirty-one, the age of Schubert at his death, Beethoven’s reputation had only been acknowledged for a few years—and even with all of Schubert’s obscurity, the eighteen-year old Schumann as far away as Leipzig wept all night on hearing of his death.
DeNora sincerely believes in the validity of her other candidates for greatness:
This is not to say, however, that there were not composers who might have been capable of garnering a similar sort of reputation. Some, I think, were better suited for the part than others (Gelinek less so than Dussek or Wölffl, for instance).
Before this can seem anything but absurd, some consideration of the music must be offered, yet this is just what DeNora seems to want to avoid at all costs. She does, however, present us with an illuminating letter of Wölffl to his publisher, Breitkopf, about his problems in London:
Since I have been here, my works have had astonishing sales and I already get sixty guineas for three sonatas; but along with all this I must write in a very easy and sometimes a very vulgar style. So much for your information, in case it should occur to one of your critics to make fun of me on account of any of my things that have appeared here. You won’t believe how backward music still is here and how one has to hold oneself back in order to bring forth such shallow compositions, which do a terrific business here.
Beethoven, too, had to compromise his serious status: he composed a cheap “Battle” Symphony with cannon effects, collaborating with Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome; wrote easy sonatinas; made an ineffective arrangement of his violin concerto for piano (adding an interesting cadenza with kettledrums); and transcribed folk songs for an English publisher. But does anyone seriously think he would have been capable of Wölffl’s servile submission to popular taste? Or that Wölffl could have risked alienating his public, as Beethoven did—and Mozart as well, it must be emphasized—in order to realize his most personal musical ideas?
DeNora and other sociologists are right: 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. They are wrong, however, to believe that this system of values was imposed by a single class, even a class with political authority and a lot of money. It has been elaborated over a long history, and one in which a highly specialized and complex technical musical language was developed and continuously changed as a part of a larger and more general cultural environment. Neither the more general culture nor the musical language, however, could be simply altered at will, either by a class or by an exceptional individual: both of them could only be inflected and partially reshaped.
The acknowledged genius of Beethoven is to a great extent the product of this system of values and was, in fact, demonstrable within that system. A growing familiarity with his music did not establish him as a radical and revolutionary master like Monteverdi, Berlioz, Debussy, and Stravinsky—or even Haydn—but revealed his work as the continuation and fulfillment of a firmly established tradition. The changes that Beethoven made to the musical language of the late eighteenth century, as startling as some of them may have appeared at first, were in fact conceived with reference to the local tradition, most of them being expansions of procedures already worked out and employed by previous composers in Vienna. His exploitation of the style was more powerful and more effective than that of any of his contemporaries. Starting from some of the most radical experiments of Mozart and Haydn, many of which had only recently been accepted by more conservative amateurs and professionals, he used them at greater length and with greater force, employing the larger range of the new pianos and the growing size of the orchestras.
His superiority was quickly recognized after the initial shock of the new emotional violence was absorbed. It was not simply imposed from without, although we cannot deny the influence of both Viennese society and general European culture on Beethoven’s individual talent. His emotional violence, on the other hand, had little to do specifically with Viennese society, aristocratic or otherwise, but was a general European phenomenon, and needs to be studied on a larger scale than the one DeNora provides. Part of Beethoven’s tremendous success must be ascribed to his being the one representative in Viennese music of the new movement of passion that swept across Europe after the American and French revolutions.
DeNora’s account of the social conditions of Beethoven’s rise to fame is instructive, and her synthesis of recent research is generally admirable. Any interpretation of this material, however, will remain dubious until it is put in direct touch with the music and not merely with what some people said about it. DeNora thinks our prejudice in favor of Beethoven makes it difficult to trust anything we have to say today, but her naive belief that reports of performances and critical judgments of the past can be accepted without investigation as if they all had equal weight is crippling. Then, as today, critics heard what they expected to hear. (Some of them, for example, still always hear Toscanini’s tempi as fast, although his Parsifal was the longest in the history of Bayreuth, and many of his tempi in Brahms and Verdi were slower than those of most other conductors.) Contemporary critics expected Beethoven’s music to sound difficult, and often enough they heard it as difficult even when his music was lyrical and graceful. In addition, they were, as so often, incapable of separating the defects of the execution of a new work from the intentions of the composer.
We all believe that a work of music has a meaning expressive of its composer, of the moment of its creation, and of the society in which it first appeared. In trying to pin that meaning down, however, DiNora and other social historians make two assumptions which seem at first so reasonable as to be self-evident, but which are in fact either false or at best deeply misleading. The first is that the ideology of the composer or of his music can be equated with the ideology of those who pay for it. The relation of an artist to public or private patrons is very much more complex: some artists do what is expected of them, others are not so docile; some even force their patrons to accept an art at odds with their aesthetics and their political ideals. The politics and the social philosophy of a composer or of the contemporary public do not simply determine the character of the music.
The second assumption is that the ideology of a patron of music is the ideology of his or her class. On the contrary, some patrons of music are mavericks rather like the artists they support. I do not know if one can reasonably say that the Baron van Swieten, for example, was representative of his class, whatever class that may have been. Perhaps the new sociological approach is trying to fill the gap left by the now discredited Marxist history of art, but the best Marxist criticism, like that of György Lukács, was less naive than some of the recent social interpretations in spite of their richer documentation. The social history of reception can certainly increase our understanding of music, but it provides neither a simple nor an infallible method of identifying the significance of any body of work without reference to the music itself.
It would be grand to have a social history of music, but before it can be realized, the sociologists will have to take music more seriously.
November 14, 1996
It is disconcerting to note that all of her references to the most important music journal from the end of the eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, are derived from quotations by later authors, and she misses several important references in assessing Beethoven’s reputation. ↩
The most exaggerated formulation of DeNora’s thesis concerns the piano contest between Wölffl and Beethoven: she claims that “the serious music ideology as represented by Beethoven can be further clarified as the property of Vienna’s old and highest aristocracy.” ↩
How close to Beethoven Mozart continued to appear as late as 1812 is seen in a dialogue about music by the poet Ludwig Tieck in which someone says: “If we may call Mozart mad, Beethoven often cannot be distinguished from a raving lunatic.” ↩
The process is similar to the one that Samuel Schoenbaum observed in Shakespeare biographies. Every biographer thinks that Shakespeare is just like himself: for Leslie Stephen he was a sensible man observant of all the intellectual currents of his time without being a fanatic; for Oscar Wilde, he was sensitive and interested in young men of the lower class, etc., etc. ↩
I have quoted his letter to Goethe at greater length in The Frontiers of Meaning (Hill and Wang, 1994), pp. 69-70. ↩