The fate of the famous in this postmodern and even campy time is problematical. The multicultural agenda is not considerate of the distinguished or of distinctions, and “diversity” imposes quotas on what we may be permitted to admire, to enjoy, or even to know. What’s more, “the melting of forms” characteristic of the 20th century can hardly play to the benefit of one who was so formally obsessed as Ludwig van Beethoven was. These are only some of the reasons why a topic seemingly so obvious as Beethoven is not so obvious, after all.
And there are other reasons. The trivialization of greatness through overfamiliarity and through the mass production that creates a mass culture leads not only to condescension but to contempt and resentment. Charles Schulz’s comic strip character Schroeder, who idolized Beethoven and played him on a toy piano, was a figure not so much of hopeless admiration as of befuddlement before the heroic and embarrassment before the sublime. Words such as universal and even composer are today contested sites. A cultured lady trained in ballet, and whose sister is a violinist, told me the other day that she listens to hip-hop, because classical music is strictly for elevators. Yes, dignity is hard to maintain when your image adorns sweatshirts.
Dignity is also hard to maintain when everyone thinks, thanks to potted history, that he knows your life story. Bad Beethoven! You veiled at your servants; you didn’t pick up after yourself; you cheated your publishers; you left the reeking chamber pot under your piano; you didn’t get the girls; you freaked out about your nephew Karl; and generally you were just bad—a model for sulky teenagers who all think they are inspired and full of feelings.
On the other hand, this bad Beethoven was dealt some bad cards; nearly a lifetime of ill health, topped off by a stroke of fated cruelty—deafness. The legend of Beethoven is not strictly musical, for his struggle to accept and overcome his deafness is a great story of human courage and creativity, and yet that story is subsumed in the even greater story of musical courage and creativity. And we would have to agree with Edmund Morris that the musical story is the most imposing one we know. Beethoven is the greatest of composers, and has not rolled over. Chuck Berry’s admonition notwithstanding.
Edmund Morris has not rolled over, either, but what else would you expect from the biographer of Teddy Roosevelt? Synthesizing the work of Alexander Wheelock Thayer in the 19th century and Maynard Solomon in the 20th, as well as much other recent biographical and musical scholarship, Morris has produced an economical work that covers all the ground, including the ground of Beethoven’s greatness, and he has done so stylishly and dramatically: Beethoven’s life bristles with the tension between art and mere existence. He never flinches from the bad Beethoven of paranoid fits, challenged ethics, and crazed obsessions, as with his nephew. He insists that there is no evidence of improprieties having occurred between Ludwig and Karl (a consideration necessitated by the imperium that requires a sodomitic sanction for cultural achievement). He insists on the importance of the early works as well as those of the middle period, and these overplayed works he rescues from routine. He insists on the visionary and transcendental qualities of Beethoven’s late works and reminds us that the composer was not a romantic, even though we hear through the romantic reception that enshrined the legend. The Beethoven who wrote the last five piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, the late quartets, the Missa Solemnis, and the Ninth Symphony wrote for the future, and even for the 20th century. Late in that century, in a postmodern tour de force, Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon rebuked Beethoven for lacking both a sense of humor and the freedom of jazz that was supposed to liberate us from systems but failed to get the job done, after all. In fact, the allegation that Beethoven had no humor is an absurd charge indicating ignorance of many texts, while boogie-woogie, and even rock music, are implied at the end of the Appassionata Sonata. Beethoven has no more been forgiven for being the first great modern artist than he has been forgiven for knowing his own worth. He claimed the Quartet in C sharp minor. Op. 131, to be his most perfect composition, and he ought to have known. But he refused an opus number to the Thirty-two Variations in C minor because he resented the success of his own piece—he had out-Beethovened even himself! We must therefore rejoice that he wrote the meretricious Wellington’s Victory, for, in such an exposure of fallibility, he did us and himself a favor.
The only modern musician I recall Morris citing is the late Carlos Kleiber, for his recording of the Fifth Symphony with the Wiener Philharmoniker, an admirable piece of work. Yet I do wish that Morris had said something on the subject of access to Beethoven for those who are not themselves musicians. Ordinary performances of Beethoven are better than none at all, I suppose, but we now have a century of recorded Beethoven to consider, during which revolutions in performance practice have occurred. There are examples of 19th-century standards on record from pianists, violinists, and conductors who grew up in the atmosphere that created what we call “Beethoven,” as well as a plethora of performances from modern times.
And that matters, for Beethoven is not finished with us, because we are not finished with him. The most vital reason we still listen to him, in spite of all postmodern resentments, is that he has something that we need: a human achievement, and a musical one, and both of them are grand. I hear a lot said today about “creativity” and “culture,” but I see and hear precious little embodiment of those abstractions. When we encounter Beethoven, however, there is no lack. No wonder the postmodern mentality can only regard him as a reproach. And no wonder that, in masterpieces of the modern era, such as Forster’s Howards End, Eliot’s Four Quartets, and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Beethoven is the image of the redemptive power of art.
[Beethoven: The Universal Composer, by Edmund Morris (New York: HarperCollins Publishers) 256 pp., $21.95]