Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803, by Tia Nora

February 28, 1997

beethovenBeethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803, by Tia Nora. University of California Press, 1995. ISBN-13: 978-0520211582.

In a memorable scene from the movie Immortal Beloved, Beethoven, alone in a dim salon in the house of his pupil Giulietta Guicciardi, plays the opening of the "Moonlight" sonata, while Giulietta and her father secretly listen. Beethoven has closed the upper lid of the piano and put his ear to the wood, the better, presumably, to sense the vibrations of the music. Rapt in his own world, he startles violently at the interruption of the Guicciardis, who creep out of hiding to compliment him. He races outside in a panic. This moment in the movie encapsulates the isolation and loneliness of Beethoven's life and reinforces the film's inescapable message that genius depends on solitude and a willful disregard for normal social behavior.

The film's well-worn theme of the alienated genius acknowledges in passing the need for genius to be recognized and thus the existence of social structures devoted to support and promotion. Not surprisingly, Tia DeNora's book, Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), goes much further. She argues that society's function in relation to genius is not simply to recognize it, but to construct it -- both as an abstract notion and as a historically variable set of aesthetic qualities -- to fulfill needs that are only obliquely related to the nature of the art itself. Beethoven "as genius" was, she suggests, constructed -- that is, both enabled and represented -- by the Viennese aristocracy to shore up their social standing and to preserve the idea of social hierarchy.

DeNora concentrates on Beethoven's first decade in Vienna, from 1792 until 1803, the point at which "the cultural machinery for producing and reproducing Beethoven's genius had been assembled" (p.186). Her argument addresses both the changing economic and cultural conditions in Vienna and the ways Beethoven fit into these socio-cultural circumstances. She begins by observing that Viennese musical life was still controlled by the old aristocracy, who could no longer afford to maintain full orchestras and demonstrate their cultural supremacy through sumptuous and "wholly-owned" display. Thus the prestige-giving ownership of musicians was replaced by the ownership of cultural capital -- cultural creators and objects designated as particularly valuable. In early nineteenth-century Vienna, music considered "serious" and "different" was particularly valuable cultural capital, and one of the signal achievements of this book is tracing the rise of "serious music culture." Thus, for an aristocrat or group of aristocrats to subsidize Beethoven, whose music was increasingly considered both bizarre and serious, was to demonstrate those aristocrats' standing. For Beethoven's part, being supported by powerful aristocrats (especially the Lichnowskys, with whom he lived in 1793-95) gave him the economic stability to explore his compositional ideas with less regard to the popular marketplace than he might otherwise have had to pay. It also encouraged him to write music that allowed his patrons to demonstrate their superiority in appreciating and sponsoring it.

It is easy to reduce this argument to the notion that Beethoven was a tool of the aristocrats, pandering to their desires for cultural status. DeNora may have assisted this reduction by comparing Beethoven to Dussek, suggesting that the latter might now occupy a canonic slot similar to Beethoven's had his career -- especially early on -- been as well-supported and as relatively free of market demands as Beethoven's. However, it does not follow that DeNora believes that Dussek's music is "just as good as" Beethoven's, that Beethoven merely "got lucky," or that his music is in some way craven. DeNora's point is related to what feminist historians have long said about women composers_that tangible circumstances, such as repeated opportunities to experiment in rehearsal, to publish, and to respond to criticism, inevitably affect the content and quality of a composer's music, and thus affect his or her place in the pantheon. To regard genius as contingent and to relate it to concrete opportunities and incentives to work on "the products of the mind" is not to make it a fiction, but rather to place it fully in social life, where it surely belongs.

DeNora's book is not primarily "about" Beethoven -- that is, it is not about Beethoven the Man, nor is it about Beethoven's music. DeNora is a sociologist, and as she herself notes in the preface, her book is primarily about the social structures of our "deeply embedded assumptions about value, talent, and creativity," using Beethoven as a case study. One can fruitfully read this stimulating book as a corrective to the Immortal Beloved notion of Beethoven's genius, but it is equally powerful as a fresh and well-theorized avenue into thinking about the standing and significance of composers from Hildegard to Hendrix.

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