Beethoven books

November 19, 2020

Impressions by his Contemporaries
O.G. Sonneck (Ed.)
(Dover, 1967) [1926]
272 p.

The Beethoven Quartets
Joseph Kerman
(OUP, 1967)
380 p.

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony
And Other Writings
Ralph Vaughan Williams
(Oxford, 1953)
172 p.

The Year of Our Lord 2020 has been many things, most of them not particularly endearing, but it has had this going for it: Beethoven, had he lived somewhat longer than he did, would this year have celebrated his 250th birthday. To mark the occasion I took up a few books about the great man.


The Dover volume is a delightful treasure-chest: it gathers up the personal recollections of many people who met Beethoven, or knew him well, giving us an unusually intimate angle on the man and his life. The recollections range from the rough and simple — from an old man, for instance, who lived across from the Beethovens when Ludwig was a boy — to the highest of high brow — Goethe. Some were written by Beethoven’s intimate friends, some by his compositional rivals, and some by mere admirers who happened to meet him once and remembered it for the rest of their lives.

When we think of Beethoven, we (or, not to generalize unduly, I) tend to think of the brash, proud artist who dominated European music and knew it. That Beethoven is here, to some extent. We hear, for instance, the famous anecdote about the time he refused to give way in the street to the Empress and a group of Dukes, saying to his companion, “Keep hold of my arm, they must make room for us, not we for them.” We get the story about how, upon being told that certain intervals in one of his pieces were forbidden “by all the theoreticians”, he responded, “But I allow them!” We hear a few stories about how he tweaked the vanity of his compositional rivals (by, for example, on one memorable occasion, improvising a cheeky musical commentary on a theme of a rival played upside down).

Other well-known stories about Beethoven appear in this volume: his angry cancellation of his third symphony’s dedication to Napoleon, his humiliated reaction to the failure of the premiere of his opera, his rather humorous antics at the podium when conducting his music (and the manner in which the comedy turned to pathos when he lost the ability to hear the orchestra he was leading).

We also get a few glimpses of Beethoven the mystic, the musical genius who bestrode his age and whose musical utterances were treated as oracles in certain quarters. The composer Ignaz von Seyfried, for instance, recollecting one of Beethoven’s famous piano improvisations, wrote that:

When once he began to revel in the finite world of tones, he was transported also above all earthly things; — his spirit had burst all restricting bonds, shaken off the yokes of servitude, and soared triumphantly and jubilantly into the luminous spaces of the higher aether.

We also learn that Beethoven was a

man filled with a sacred fire, who bore his God in his heart, and in whose soul, perhaps, there blossomed forth a springtime of paradisiacal mildness amid all this uproar of the elements.

At least he said “perhaps”. My appetite for this sort of thing is quite limited, though it would be churlish to doubt that Beethoven’s piano recitals were memorable and moving occasions for many of those who heard them.

At the other end of the spectrum, we read about how Beethoven’s late compositions challenged the expectations of his listeners, many of whom received them as evidence of his decline. Louis Spohr, himself an accomplished but conservative composer, described the finale of the Ninth Symphony as “monstrous and tasteless”, and Beethoven’s late works in general as “wanting in aesthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful’. It’s hard not to smile at such appraisals now.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the stories here gathered together is that the Beethoven they reveal is actually quite a different sort of man from the “revolutionary artist” reputation that he had, then and now, in certain quarters. We hear from a number of people who, seeing him seated alone and looking surly, were afraid to speak to him — a man too great, it seemed, for the hoi polloi. But almost without fail that forbidding exterior dropped away when the man was actually approached and engaged: he was generous, kind, happy to talk, and seemed genuinely appreciative of the attention. He sat alone and looked surly, perhaps, because he couldn’t easily carry on a conversation. (Those who did try to talk to him had to write down their side of the encounter.) It was cheering for me to see this side of Beethoven appear so often and to so many different admirers.

Best of all are the anecdotes that reveal Beethoven’s own love of music, and the love his music engendered in others who heard him with understanding and appreciation. I was surprised to learn that Beethoven regarded Handel as “the master of all masters”, and, we are told, even quoted from Messiah on his deathbed (saying, “My day’s work is done; if a physician still can be of use in my case (and then he lapsed into English) his name shall be called wonderful.”). Beethoven once, as a young boy, improvised at the piano for Mozart, and in his maturity regarded “The Magic Flute” as Mozart’s greatest work; “Don Giovanni” he apparently disliked, mostly on account of its subject matter. And I would not have guessed that he would name Cherubini as the greatest opera composer of his day, but he did. I laughed at the story of how Franz Liszt, as a boy of just 11 years, played for Beethoven; Liszt recalled that

Beethoven asked me whether I could play a Bach fugue. I chose the C-minor Fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavichord. “And could you also transpose the Fugue at once into another key?” Beethoven asked me. Fortunately I was able to do so.

Of course you were, Franz.

Beethoven’s health took a turn for the worse late in 1826. A long parade of people, distinguished and not, came to pay their respects. He passed away on 26 March 1827, one of the most celebrated men of his age.


The biographical side of Beethoven, be it ever so interesting, is nonetheless only a sideshow. The music is the main thing. I’ve been celebrating this anniversary year with a lavish listening project that has taken me through all of the symphonies, piano sonatas, piano concertos, major choral works, and string quartets. It was to help me better appreciate the latter that I picked up Joseph Kerman’s volume. Kerman was reputed one of the best musicologists of his generation whose writings were accessible not just to scholars but to educated music lovers as well. It is a very good book.

It is also, to my detriment, a rather technical book. Kerman is a capable analyst of the harmonic structure of Beethoven’s quartets, and devotes a healthy chunk of the book to that happy pastime. I, however, was not able to follow him beyond the shallows. Consequently I eventually fell to skimming over these sections, without much benefit. I will also note an odd thing: the book is full of musical examples in score, but the text itself does not reference the examples; presumably I am meant to know which example is pertinent to the particular point he is making, but, more often than not, I did not know.

Kerman’s love for the quartets comes through strongly. He is not afraid to point out weaknesses where he sees them, but he knows that he is grappling mostly with masterpieces. (His favourite, by the way, appears to be Op.131.) I can’t say that reading the book has greatly increased my appreciation of the quartets, but while I was reading I listened to them a lot, and that has increased my appreciation. Count this one a second-hand victory.


Kerman is an able critic, but I picked up Vaughan Williams’ little book to learn what a great composer thinks of Beethoven. I admit I came away somewhat disappointed. Not to spoil the book for prospective readers, but Vaughan Williams likes the Ninth Symphony, for the most part, although there are bits that he doesn’t like. You don’t say? He gets a little technical, but not anything like Kerman. The most endearing parts of the essay are those in which he takes some good spirited digs at the modernist composers, such as Debussy and Stravinsky and Prokofiev, for whom “every other two bars of their compositions could be cut out without losing any music”. It’s not true, but I don’t mind it coming from Vaughan Williams.

More interesting to me have been the “Other Writings” collected in the same volume. There is a short piece on the simple joys of sound and harmony, a defence of nationalism in music, and in particular of an English preference for English music, a warm appreciation of the music of Gustav Holst, and a spirited, if finally unconvincing, argument in favour of playing older music, such as that of Bach, with modern instruments and with modern sensibilities.

One of the best pieces is an essay on the challenges and rewards of composing music for films; he proposes that music should be part of the organic structure of a film from the beginning, not pasted on at the end, though I think it is still true today that film music is normally an afterthought. Even those filmmakers who make best use of music — Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino — usually do so with pre-existing music, rather than music composed specifically for the film.

Vaughan Williams worked for several years on a hymnal for the English church, and he has a fine little essay celebrating the beautiful hymn tunes produced over the centuries by English church musicians. (His exemplar is “Miles Lane”.) He remarks that spending time with those tunes did more for his composing than any amount of formal study could have done, and praises the value of hard work in a practical music context, which, he notes, in another grumpy appraisal, turned even Mahler into “a very tolerable imitation of a composer”.

After the lead essay, the longest in the collection is a “musical autobiography”, in which he traces the course of, and notes the primary influences on, his musical development. His education intersected with the lives of Stanford, Parry, and (or nearly) Elgar, and I found it a quite fascinating story. But, I admit, it is a story that takes us down an inexcusably tangential path when our attention is supposed to be on Beethoven, so I will save it for, perhaps, another time.


For an envoi, let’s hear the Op.131 quartet, played here by the Alban Berg Quartet. Happy birthday, Beethoven.

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