Beethoven and musical invective

Perhaps not every classical music lover considers Beethoven the greatest composer in history, but I’m sure everyone puts  him among their top three or four. Yet in  his lifetime, he got some bad press. Here is a selection of German, French and English reviews written during his lifetime from Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective:

  • Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, which refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect.
  • Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque, takes at times the majestic flight of an eagle, and then creeps in rocky pathways. He first fills the soul with sweet melancholy, and then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords. He seems to harbor together doves and crocodiles.
  • [End of a long review of the Sonata op. 111] . . . and yet the publishers have, in their title, deemed it necessary to warn off all pirates by announcing the Sonata as a copyright. We do not think they are in much danger of having their property invaded.
  • The Heroic Symphony contains much to admire, but it is difficult to keep up admiration of this kind during three long quarters of an hour. It is infinitely too lengthy. . . If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse.
  • The effect which the writings of Beethoven have had on the art must, I fear, be considered injurious. Led away by the force of his genius and dazzled by its creations, a crowd of imitators have arisen, who have displayed as much harshness, as much extravagance, and as much obscurity, with little or none of his beauty and grandeur. Thus music is no longer intended to soothe, to delight, to ‘wrap the senses in Elysium’; it is absorbed in one principle–to astonish.

Slonimsky clearly states his purpose in compiling his Lexicon in his opening essay:

Its animating purpose is to demonstrate that music is an art in progress, and that objections leveled at every musical innovator are all derived from the same psychological inhibition, which may be described as Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar.

In other words, Slonimsky tried to demonstrate that there will always be critics who misunderstand the music of their time and that future audiences will understand it. Yet he prints invective against  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony written as late as 1899. And guess what. That symphony is not universally admired even to this day.

Half a century after the  Lexicon appeared, it is interesting to read the reviews of then-contemporary composers and see how many of the ones Slonimsky thought unfairly maligned have stood the test of time.

I will devote future blogposts to that thought. For now, I would like to propose an alternative viewpoint that at least partially explains some of the criticism of Beethoven. As William Weber demonstrated some quarter of a century after the publication of Slonimsky’s Lexicon, Beethoven lived during a time when a division of taste arose between those who preferred “classical” music  (especially Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven), and those who preferred “popular” music (Rossini and virtuoso pianists like Henri Herz).

Lovers of “popular” music prized novelty (but not too much) and music that they could fully appreciate on first hearing. Then as now, popular pieces did not often retain their appeal for a long time. People tired of them after a few years and sought something new.

Lovers of “classical” music on the other hand, held high artistic ideals and prized music that revealed more of its worth with repeated hearing and careful study. Haydn had sought to please both the serious and casual listeners. Beethoven did not.

Therefore, it seems to me that at least some of the invective leveled against Beethoven’s music during his lifetime and twenty or thirty years after his death requires a different explanation than Slonimsky’s. Some of the authors must have preferred music with a pleasant surface, music with no other intention than to “soothe, to delight, to ‘wrap the senses in Elysium.'” People, in other words, who sought not art but ear candy.

People who write about classical music today must remember this: For as long as there has been a distinction between “classical” and “popular” music, not everyone who commented on “classical” music when it was new was a fan of “classical” music. We need to keep in mind all of the various kinds of music that constituted “popular” music and interpret published musical criticism accordingly.

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