Coming to Beethoven (by way of Mendelssohn)

‘The British don’t know much about music, but they like the noise it makes’.

This dictum, usually attributed to the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, is worth treating rather more seriously than it might seem to deserve. Even while they ‘like the noise it makes’, it is noticeable how often people seem to feel the need to apologise for not knowing anything about ‘classical’ music, or being able to appreciate it properly – to ‘understand’ it. An admission of ignorance about cricket or the offside rule will similarly be offered, but usually without the same sense of guilt or personal regret. There are of course plenty of others who are completely untroubled by such things, and for whom ‘classical’ music is simply a closed book; however much noise it may make, it holds no meaning for them.

That question of meaning is crucial. A more profound and elegantly expressed version of Beecham’s view is to be found in some comments of Felix Mendelssohn in a letter of 1842: ‘People usually complain that music is so ambiguous, and what they are supposed to think when they hear it is so unclear, while words are understood by everyone. But for me it is exactly the opposite . . . what the music I love expresses to me are thoughts not too indefinite for words, but rather too definite’.

As is obvious, Mendelssohn was writing here about instrumental music, music without words (he was of course the great master of that peculiar and characteristic keyboard genre, the Lied ohne Worte, or ‘song without words’). And behind what he had to say there lies a veritable revolution that can be traced across the nearly three decades separating the years 1790 and 1818. Not a bloody revolution on the streets, as had begun in France in 1789; this was a revolution in thought, thought about instrumental music. What was such music, and what could it do? While generalisations must always be treated with care, this shift in thinking can be neatly summarized in the opinions about music of two of the greatest philosophers of the period. For Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), writing about the arts in his Critique of Judgement (1790), music in general was a mere play of sensations. For Kant, instrumental music was the lowest of all the fine arts because it lacked any moral aim (‘it is enjoyable rather than civilising’); words were essential to imbue it with any kind of meaning or purpose.

The view from 1818 could hardly have been more different. ‘Music is thus in no sense, like the other arts, the image of ideas, but the image of the Will itself’. So wrote Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) in his treatise The World as Will and Representation, published in that year. So far from being broadly enjoyable empty noise (as Beecham might have summed up Kant’s position), instrumental music now gave access to the ultimate reality of things, precisely those things that, as Mendelssohn knew, could not be captured in mere words.

What drove this remarkable shift in thinking? Once again, generalisations are dangerous and no single cause can explain the matter. But there is a possible one-word answer that is not entirely wide of the mark: Beethoven.

Born in Bonn in 1770, Beethoven was still living there in 1790, when Kant’s treatise was published. His move to Vienna in 1792 was yet to come, as was all the instrumental music for which he is best known today, although he had already, two years before, begun working on what would eventually become his Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19. The year 1790, in fact, saw the composition and performance of two little-known but significant texted works, the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, WoO 87, and its companion Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II, WoO 88. The former piece is especially important not only in that it is the source of some of the melodic material in Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (1814; originally Leonore, 1805–6) but also in that it is the first extended example of Beethoven’s so-called ‘C minor mood’, a key that evidently held a particular charge for him. The best-known example is of course the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, the opening of which is known to millions, whether or not they can name the piece from which it comes. Nonetheless, the symphony is only one of a rich corpus of pieces that explore the expressive potential of this particular key, from the early Piano Sonata Op. 10 No. 1 (?1795–97) to the very last Sonata, Op. 111 (1821–22) via the Coriolan Overture (1807), the Choral Fantasia, Op. 80 (1808) and so many more.

The Fifth Symphony, composed in 1807–8 and premièred at the notorious 4-hour-long concert in freezing conditions in Vienna on 22 December 1808, brings us back to the shift in responses to instrumental music sketched above. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s famous critique of the symphony, first published in 1810, pre-empts Schopenhauer in claiming that instrumental music ‘is the most romantic of all the arts . . . because its only subject is the infinite’. As for Beethoven, ‘his instrumental music opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable’. Hoffmann is here allying Beethoven’s instrumental music to the aesthetic category known as the ‘sublime’; and his essay, which does not neglect to outline some of the intricate motivic connections threaded through the symphony, is the earliest account of what has become known as Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ style.

The ‘heroic’ style is so named because it makes its first and most  unequivocal appearance in the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, composed in 1803. Characterised by massive dimensions (the ‘Eroica’ was far longer than any symphony hitherto composed, and considerably challenged its listeners’ hearing capacity), driving rhythms, motivic complexity and goal-directed structures that are conveyed almost viscerally to the listener, the ‘heroic’ style is apparent in many of Beethoven’s most public works of the decade following the ‘Eroica’, up to and including the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. As with the ‘C minor mood’, it is closely associated with the key of the ‘Eroica’, E flat major: that same key would be used in 1809 for the no less heroic ‘Emperor’ Concerto, Op. 73, though it is worth pointing out that other works in the same key, such as the ‘Harp’ Quartet, Op. 74 of the same year, and the Piano Trio in E flat, Op. 70, No. 2 (1808) employ a different emotional palette (or maybe just a quieter kind of ‘heroism’).

A more recent commentator, Scott Burnham, writing in his influential, ‘Eroica’-based book Beethoven Hero (1995) has simply claimed that ‘the values of Beethoven’s heroic music have become the values of all music’. Certainly, Beethoven’s music, and the ‘heroic’ music above all, often conveys a sense that ‘this is how it is’, that things somehow cannot be otherwise in this musical universe. Many find this compelling in an utterly positive, thrilling way; others report a sense of unease, feeling that this music is somehow coercive, and not necessarily always in a good way. Despite having famously denounced Napoleon as a tyrant, and withdrawn his name from the title of his Third Symphony, has Beethoven somehow stepped into that tyrant’s shoes?

By 1818, when Schopenhauer’s treatise appeared, Beethoven was embarking on his grandest piano sonata, the ‘Hammerklavier’, Op. 106. It is not without its heroic aspects – the style remained available to Beethoven, and resurfaces in the Ninth; but Beethoven’s life and music had undergone radical shifts in many respects since 1812, not least of which were the famous affair of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ and the struggle for guardianship of his nephew Karl, to say nothing of his now almost total deafness, and the ‘late’ music is shot through with uneasy ambiguities. Still to come, along with the Ninth, were the Missa solemnis, the last three piano sonatas and the late string quartets. Given Beethoven’s unchallengeable role in the establishment of a certain kind of instrumental music as perhaps the epitome of ‘classical’ music (and much of it certainly makes a lot of noise), there is perhaps an irony in that words increasingly make an appearance in his musical scores: Schiller’s An die Freude in the Ninth, of course; but also the vexed question and answer, ‘Muß es sein? Es muß sein!’ appearing above the finale of the last quartet, Op. 135, and the remark prefacing the Kyrie of the Missa in Beethoven’s manuscript: ‘From the heart, may it reach again to the heart’. Those words, indeed, perhaps go to the very heart of the matter; even so, Mendelssohn still got it right.

© Nicholas Marston, 2019