Beethoven, part 1

This article needs to start with a disclaimer, namely that I don't imagine that I have anything particularly new or stimulating to say about Beethoven. His music has been discussed in great detail, and many insights have been given. However, that is partly the point here, as my remarks will serve to place my other views in the context of the more extensive discourse surrounding Beethoven. In short, the following paragraphs will say more about me than they do about him, and rightfully so, as it is the nature of art at the highest level to condition its subsequent environment and indeed to reflect even more forcefully upon its perceivers. Beethoven is central to any study of Western music, not only because several of his works retain a position among the most popular for their repertory, but because he has forged our very ideas about what composing is. He also stands squarely and imposingly near the beginning of the modern concert repertory as such, and perhaps more significantly the retention of old music before the public. Beethoven was both novel and old-fashioned, and able to focus and influence the subsequent history of music as few composers have. As a view which might merit future expansion, I can name only Machaut, Dufay, Josquin and Monteverdi to join Beethoven in such a group. As the most recent, he holds such a strong sway that it is still impossible to look past him without first coming to grips with his musical output.

I want to outline some thoughts on Beethoven's music as a whole, add some specific remarks about individual works, as well as include some perhaps-incidental recording preferences. From there, it will perhaps be easier to return to other repertories without naturally viewing them through the distorting lens of Beethoven. When it comes to interpretation, there is a welcome variety of first rate performances available. To someone who spends most of his time on early music, the sheer number of quality renditions brings a sense of relief. While one must frequently be happy with EM recordings which show only a nominal acquaintance with the works being performed, there are dozens of insightful renditions of every major Beethoven work. I confess to jealousy, and of course within this magical world of supreme performer attention, distinguishing between one such performance and another takes on no sense of urgency for me. There are still readily available readings which seem insipid or even willfully wrong, but they worry me little. When it comes to the music itself, there are several pieces I particularly admire, yet I do not feel touched on an especially personal level. The command of form is certainly stunning, yet the melodic material can be crude. Pomposity never seems too far gone, and so there are even works as popular as the Piano Concerto #5 which I find painful to hear on account of it. One can of course find much of the composer's evident frustration justifiable, yet it is transcended only in the most arduous terms, ones which I find ultimately unsatisfying. Listening to Beethoven's music always brings a net agitation for me, and can only be done sparingly.

Much has been made of Beethoven's unidiomatic vocal writing, and I also do not enjoy it. Others have defended it, and probably rightly... there is no question but that Beethoven wished to bend any "instrument" to his will, and the strain of the voice works successfully toward that expression. One can perhaps look more fruitfully for his "voice" in the piano compositions, and I have always found the sonatas the most stimulating, idiomatic, and fully satisfying of his works. The innovations in the sonata argument appear here first without ever being too obtuse, and the textures themselves can be intriguing on their own terms. The latter is too rarely true elsewhere. For interpretations, I have long favored Alfred Brendel, and must put in a strong recommendation for his newest Philips set. It is a decided improvement in both sound and performance over the previous one, and contains my favorite performances of several of the major works. Among the individual works, the last three sonatas have perhaps stereotypically been my favorites, especially the marvelously compact Op.110 Sonata. The long "Hammerklavier" leaves me cold, although I continue to find the famous "Appassionata" & "Waldstein" sonatas consistently appealing. This is still the heart of Beethoven, and I have a special attachment to the Op.54 Sonata from that sequence. Among the early sonatas, the "Pastorale" seems like a special point of arrival, and a summation which triggers many of the later experiments in form. I usually look to find Beethoven in these works, and find little about which to be ambivalent. There is a tenderness in some of these works which I have not found elsewhere.

A major factor contributing toward broad appreciation of Beethoven's music is his ability to express a range of emotion, and especially to project a lack of certainty which reflects a real human ambivalence. In that sense the excesses of passion or of self-assuredness can be forgiven, and the variety even welcomed. While Mozart had perhaps foreshadowed it through his human frailties, Beethoven firmly establishes the idea of the artist in need of redemption. There is something very personal about Beethoven's music, and his willingness to bare his soul shows someone of remarkable inner strength. Unfortunately this breakthrough also opened the door for a stream of pathetic ramblings, and I am not comfortable with the idea that one should dwell so heavily on weakness. It is usually self-fulfilling, and the transcendence remote indeed. What makes Beethoven so remarkable was his ability to broach these ideas while retaining a strong sense of concision and decorum. For me, that is critical to appreciating an art to which one does not necessarily aspire.

The remainder of this column will appear next week, with remarks on the Symphonies and Quartets.

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Todd M. McComb