Beethoven’s Symphonies: Nine Approaches to Art and Ideas, by Martin Geck, trans. by Stewart Spencer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 197 pp., $26.00). Beethoven wrote his nine symphonies between 1800 and 1824 at the height of the Romantic movement that overlapped the end of the Enlightenment. In Professor Geck’s opinion, the “First Symphony marks the beginning of a new period in the history of the symphony and arguably also in the history of classical music in general”; a period whose spiritual motto was, in Geck’s formulation, “Every rational person can advance society, and a person of genius can unhinge the world.”
For the Romantics, Geck says, creative genius comes against its own limitations when “contemptible everyday reality intrudes upon it.” Beethoven himself “goes to the very heart of this contradiction: the victories that his symphonies celebrate are hard won or else they are invoked by means of resources available only to music—especially his own.” The composer, who resented his princely patron the Archduke Rudolph of Austria for his hereditary status, admired Promethean figures like Napoléon Bonaparte and Philip of Macedon who realized their genius through their own efforts and compelled the world to recognize it to the point of self-comparison with them. “It’s a pity that I do not understand the art of war as well as I do the art of music,” Beethoven is reputed to have said of Napoléon. “I would conquer him!” Thus in the field of symphony and overture the composer’s work is notable for what Geck calls “gesture[s] of power” directed at the political and social conditions of the early 19th century but also, Geck argues, to “the idealized picture of classical antiquity in which statesmen were artists and philosophers or at least were inspired by such artists and philosophers to pursue loftier goals.” (Geck suspects that Beethoven had in mind at one time to be appointed Napoléon’s court composer.)
There is no doubt that the profession of faith that Beethoven addressed to Archduke Rudolph in 1819 sums up the whole spirit of the Age of Napoleon: “In the world of art, as in the whole of our great creation, freedom and progress are the main objectives.”
Beethoven considered himself the Napoléon of music. A perceptive visitor once remarked, “Is that not called action with you: composition?”
The greater part of Geck’s book is taken up by an investigation into Beethoven’s compositional and developmental strategies as a symphonic composer, strategies that were misapprehended in his time and have been since.
[W]hat was so new about Beethoven’s symphonic style was not just its greater symphonic weight but a musical language highly differentiated in terms of detail and far more varied in terms of its semantics—what it was trying to say—than that of any of his predecessors.
Geck analyzes all nine symphonies in the order of their composition to explain their structures and their nearly unfathomable complexities. His analyses are always insightful and sophisticated but not terribly technical, and relatively easy for readers who are not themselves musicians to grasp. The concluding chapter, dealing with the Ninth Symphony, is superb. Here the fourth movement, the choral treatment of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” has always been of special note, even controversial, for its inclusion in an orchestral work.
The final movements of the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies had all set out to demonstrate that the age of salvation had dawned, but even if they had failed to achieve this aim, then a choral final, no matter how monumental, could hardly be expected to do so.
Yet Geck, in a way, gives the last word on the matter to Ernst Bloch, who wrote that the “true finale” of the Ninth is really the Adagio, the third movement, one of the “slow miracles of music” that “aim beyond time, therefore also beyond passing away.”
The accomplishment of this superb small book is nothing less than to explain what makes Beethoven Beethoven.
Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker Murders, by John Harmon McElroy (Tucson: Penmore Press; 249 pp., $18.95). In Philadelphia in the year 1785, the bodies of two murdered women are discovered on the property of a Quaker stonecutter. Public opinion holds that the stonecutter, Maul, must be guilty of the crimes. Benjamin Franklin thinks otherwise. Being too old, at the age of 79, to do the legwork himself, he hires Capt. James Jamieson, wounded in action during the American Revolution, to investigate the case under his direction, the two men meeting at regular intervals to consult on the Captain’s findings and their significance, discoveries that point finally to a different culprit for whom Franklin devises a punishment to fit the crime. McElroy’s idea is an original one, and his plot engaging.