Beethoven: The Last Decade, 1817-1827, by Martin Cooper

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Beethoven: The Last Decade, 1817-1827, by Martin Cooper. London: Oxford University Press, 1970. 483 pages. ISBN: 0193153106

Martin Cooper is one of the few writers in recent years to publish a large-scale study of both Beethoven's life and works. This book reflects the author's belief that there is a "deep, unmistakable unity between the man's character and work, especially during his last years." The first part of the book contains a biography starting in 1816 and three chapters on "Social and Political Attitudes," "General Culture," and "Religious Attitudes and Beliefs." The second part, almost three times as long as the first, contains fairly detailed discussions of the Cello Sonatas, Op. 102 of 1815, and all the major works of 1816-1826. The book concludes with a chapter on the "Characteristics of the Late Style," and an appendix on "Beethoven's "Medical History" by Dr. Edward Larkin. The author states that his study is addressed to the "ordinary intelligent music lover," rather than to the professional. However, he frequently quotes orchestral scores and describes the music in technical terms.

The biographical and historical chapters and the medical appendix are by far the most valuable parts of the book. Cooper, who is the author of French Music: From the death of Berlioz to the death of Fauré, a volume on Gluck, and other works, writes with great fluency and is able to combine biography with social, political, and intellectual history. In his chapter, "Social and Political Attitudes," the author effectively contrasts the "benevolent and farsighted" government of Bonn with the illiberal regime in early-19th-century Vienna. He believes that this contrast explains "the violent political jeremiads of Beethoven's last years." The chapter on "Religious Attitudes and Beliefs" examines various currents within Austrian Catholicism during the early nineteenth century. It also considers the religious books known to be in Beethoven's possession and the prayers that occur in his notebooks. Cooper concludes that "the humility and sense of personal relationship found in both writings and music suggest belief in an omnipotent, personal God; transcendent yet approachable . . . . " Yet, Beethoven seems to have had "little use" for organized religion. In the appendix on "Beethoven's Medical History," Dr. Larkin clearly and vividly describes Beethoven's illnesses. He points out that "Beethoven suffered wretchedly all his adult life, so much so that it is necessary to know his medical background to appreciate his personality."

The author's treatment of Beethoven's music is much less successful and is marred by a large number of errors. Not only are intervals frequently misnamed ("diminished fourth" for augmented fourth, p. 210, "augmented third" for major third, p. 391), but the music is often described inaccurately. For example, Cooper asserts that "the first movement [of the Piano Sonata, Op. 101] contains not a single fortissimo marking . . . ," despite the ff in bar 86. In his discussion of bars 65-74 of the opening movement of the String Quartet, Op. 127, Cooper refers to the "unexpected key of G minor, which persists unbroken throughout the rest of the exposition and is heavily reaffirmed in the last cadential bars . . ." (p. 351). A glance at the score, however, reveals that bars 69-74 are in G major, not G minor.

More serious than these inaccuracies are the misleading statements about musical forms. For example, Cooper observes that in both the Piano Sonatas Opp. 13 and 111, "the first movement is followed by a theme and variations" (p. 200). However, the second movement of Op. 13 is not a theme and variations, but a type of rondo. The first return of the theme (bars 29-36) is not a variation, but an almost literal duplication of bars 1-8. In his discussion of the third movement of the String Quartet, Op. 130, Cooper describes bars 17-19 as "three bars that usher in the development section (p. 376). Yet these and the bars immediately following are part of the exposition and are heard again, a fourth higher, in the recapitulation (compare bars 17-27 with 52-62).

Even when the analytic comments are accurate and show some musical insight, one is rarely led to a real understanding of Beethoven's compositional procedures. This may be seen in Cooper's discussion of the introduction to the finale of the Piano Sonata, Op. 101. This introduction is unique among the piano sonatas in that it quotes the opening four bars of the first movement (bars 21-24). The melodic fragment e2-vol11id5032-b1 from the last bar of this quotation (bar 24) is used to lead into the finale (bars 25-27). Cooper notes that "this apparently tentative approach to the finale, which is almost the rule in Beethoven's last works, often conceals close thematic relationships . . ." (p. 153). He then points out that the minor third (incorrectly called "major third"!) e2-vol11id5032 of bar 24 is related to the upbeat e3-vol11id5033 which begins the first theme of the finale. Though correct, this observation is misleadingly incomplete since the first two bars of the finale are derived from the entire melodic fragment e2-vol11id5032-b1 of bar 24.

Unfortunately, many more inaccuracies and misleading statements could be cited from the chapters on the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony. The only chapter dealing adequately with the music is that in which Cooper describes the characteristics of the late style. It is indeed a pity that the author's discussion of individual works is so much less successful than his examination of Beethoven's life and times.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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