Beethoven: A Documentary Study, compiled and edited by H.C. Robbins Landon

October 1, 1971

Beethoven: A Documentary Study, compiled and edited by H.C. Robbins Landon. New York: Macmillan, 1970. 400 pages. ISBN: 978-0500010587

Originally published in German and then translated into English, this is one of the most elaborate studies of Beethoven to turn up in celebration of the bicentennial year. The book is, nevertheless, a disappointment. According to the foreword, the project originated with some previously unpublished iconographical material discovered in the course of research for George Marek's book on the composer. The idea was to present this material as part of an iconographical study, and then to put together a documentary biography that would shed light on the pictures by relating them directly to Beethoven's life and times. Not all the illustrations are new, of course. The majority, including some 41 portraits and sketches of the composer, have been published elsewhere, for the apparent intention was not necessarily to feature the newly discovered pictures but to incorporate them in a rather large, balanced selection of Beethoven iconography. Since the new portraits are mainly those of Beethoven's patrons, the Brunsviks, Lichnowskys, Liechtensteins, and so forth, we might have expected to find the reproductions of nobility balanced by a full representation of professional friends and acquaintances who figure no less prominently in the composer's life than the patrons. Yet, as it stands the entire selection appears weighted in favor of nobility. To cite an example, it seems questionable to honor the Countess Josephine Brunsvik with two anonymous illustrations (one of which is an unconvincing likeness in pencil) while omitting altogether the well-documented portraits of Clement, Kraft, Reichardt, and Thomson.

The text offers little in the way of new material, drawing mainly on the various published editions of the letters, the conversation books, and the early biographies. Schindler receives special emphasis, and in fact his volume constitutes the backbone of this study. Yet there are a few items of particular interest not to be found in the standard sources. An excerpt from the Viennese Historisches Taschenbuch (1802), for instance, compares Beethoven's First Symphony favorably to the music of Haydn and Mozart, and cites the piece as an example of the Austrians' diligence in instrumental composition, the high quality of which helps compensate for a dearth of good theatrical music.

As regards the organization of material, comparison with the scholarly methods of O.E. Deutsch's documentary biographies may be irrelevant, for surely this book was not intended as a definitive contribution to Beethoven scholarship. Nevertheless, it is the very departures from Deutsch's methods that severely limit the usefulness of the book for laymen and scholars alike. Chronological order, for example, a plan that provides readers of the Deutsch biographies with a built-in system for cross-referencing, is substantially disregarded in Landon's book. This casual policy may be partially justified by the nature of the text, which consists largely of documents for which no exact date can be assigned, such as the descriptive and anecdotal material reported in Wegeler and Ries, Schindler, and Thayer. Still, the order frequently seems arbitrary and sometimes even capricious. Why, for example, were the documents concerning the Third Symphony presented in reverse order, starting with the title page of the first edition (October 1806), and ending with a reference to the first performance in a letter from Griesinger to Breitkopf & Härtel (February 1805)? Following a procedure of annotation modeled on that of the Deutsch biographies, information relating to documents appears in the body of the text instead of being relegated to footnotes. But Landon's annotations seem to miss the point. Descriptive and conversational rather than purely factual, they often tend to raise questions instead of solving them. To cite an outstanding instance, the English edition introduces us to the Mass in C with a paragraph that begins as follows: "Among the many Haydn forms which Beethoven intended to steer clear of was the large-scale mass." In the first place, what is meant by a "Haydn form"? Is the mass a form? Is it Haydn's? Secondly, did Beethoven really set out deliberately to avoid the forms or genres used by Haydn? Such a provocative assertion certainly owes the reader some kind of factual support or clarification.

Occasionally there are factual errors, such as the reference to the "Ersatz finale to the string quartet Op. 135," identified in the annotation as the last piece of music completed by Beethoven. This is probably just a typographical error; surely Op. 130 was intended. Nevertheless, the mistake appears in both German and English editions, and actually receives a page reference in both indexes, a disconcerting lapse of editorial control. Along the same line, two serious technical limitations should be noted. The first has to do with the nature of the index, which fails to give any breakdown for multiple references under a given entry, so that to find a particular passage in Schindler, for instance, might require checking as many as 60 page references. Second, all references to illustrations, both in the index and in the margins of the text, are made in terms of serial numbers rather than pages. This is a less serious handicap in the German edition, which binds all illustrations together in the front of the volume, than in the English translation, which distributes them in several sections throughout the book. This latter arrangement serves only to frustrate the reader by compelling him to scan one section after another in search of a particular illustration, although it is more expensive in production, and doubtless intended as an improvement.

As a reference tool, then, this volume has little to offer; the inadequate index makes it so difficult to use that most of the material is more readily accessible in the parent sources such as Schindler, Thayer, and the Anderson edition of the letters. As a documentary biography, it does succeed in presenting a diverse and colorful picture of Beethoven's career, but because it lacks a truly systematic organization, this text will surely prove confusing to readers not already familiar with Beethoven biography. Clearly, the main value of the study is its attraction as a picture book. For this purpose the German edition, with all 256 illustrations bound together, would seen preferable to the translation, with its rather thoughtless distribution of plates throughout the text. To summarize, Landon's Beethoven emerges as a hastily compiled affair designed for neither the lay reader nor the scholar, but as a coffee-table item for the bicentennial market.

4075 Last modified on November 13, 2018