Beethoven, Performers, and Critics: The International Beethoven Congress, Detroit, 1977, edited by Robert Winter and Bruce Carr. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980. 269 pp. Foreword by Antal Dorati. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1980. 221 pp. ISBN 0814316581
During the first weekend in November 1977, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Wayne State University hosted a Beethoven Congress, held in conjunction with a festival of the composer's symphonic and chamber music. This integrated concept, suggested by DSO music director Antal Dorati, was an admirable one. As a member of the audience for much of the weekend, however, I must report that the Congress sessions themselves were a mess, a confused combination of scholarship and media hype run wild.
In the McGregor Conference Center on the Wayne State University campus about 200 people jammed into stiflingly cramped quarters to hear papers delivered by some of today's finest Beethoven authorities, none of whom unfortunately were chosen from the Midwest itself. Due to excessive media coverage—supposedly in preparation for a PBS television broadcast of the sessions—the experience was neither as pleasant nor as rewarding as it should have been. Floodlights illuminated and heated the room to an unbearable degree; cameras, both stationary and roving, blocked the narrow aisles; a maze of cables made walking to a seat a hazard, even after one mentally battled a regiment of other standees for its occupation. During the question and answer period, cameramen and microphone jockeys made mad rushes around the hall to televise the curious inquirer, while some of the more unfortunate members of the gathering were nearly throttled by wires or assaulted by heavier equipment as they sat vulnerably in their seats.
This was not really a "congress," this was an "event," staged for the media. Even in the lobby during breaks in the sessions, one could not escape. Mini-cams and remote microphones (the ones which look like small radar dishes) were carried about, recording the movements and idle conversation of anyone who looked remotely authoritative. With the mobile equipment came trailing cables, which often became entangled in the feet of those humans who inconsiderately stood in their way. In the melee, it was all too easy to forget that the object of this event—excuse me, this Congress—was Beethoven!
The papers and discussions themselves, as much as could be seen and heard of them under such adverse conditions, ranged from the brilliant, enlightening, and exciting to the dull, overlong, and (in the case of one senior Beethoven scholar) embarrassingly sloppy. They made for an alternately inspiring and frustrating three days.
Months later the videotapes of the DSO's performances of the Beethoven symphonies were played over Public Television. If the Congress sessions were ever broadcast, I did not see them. More's the pity (after all the inconvenience to those present), because by then I had formulated some serious questions about what I thought I heard during the hubbub of hype, and would have welcomed a bit of déjà vu.
Three years later the proceedings, entitled Beethoven, Performers, and Critics, have been published. I am gratified to report that the volume includes most of the best and none of the very worst material presented at the "Event." With this in mind, let us look at its tantalizing contents:
MICHAEL STEINBERG: Writing about Beethoven
DOUGLAS JOHNSON: Music for Prague and Berlin: Beethoven's Concert Tour of 1796
PANEL DISCUSSION: Historical Problems in Beethoven Performance
EVA BADURA-SKODA: Performance Conventions in Beethoven's Early Works
OTTO BIBA: Concert Life in Beethoven's Vienna
JAMES WEBSTER: Traditional Elements in Beethoven's Middle-Period String Quartets
PANEL DISCUSSION: Future Directions in Sketch Research
KARL-HEINZ KÖHLER: The Conversation Books: Aspects of a New Picture of Beethoven
MAYNARD SOLOMON: Beethoven and Schiller
ROBERT WINTER: The Sketches for the "Ode to Joy"
Michael Steinberg's article focuses on a mythical review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as it might have been written in about 1810 by a Hoffmannesque critic. Douglas Johnson in his historical article traces Beethoven's northern journey of 1796, and determines by use of watermarks and other evidence the works written for and during it.
The ensuing panel discussion begins a trio of articles which could profitably be read together, as they complement one another nicely. The participants include Owen Jander, Ilse von Alpenheim, Eva Badura-Skoda, Malcolm Bilson, John Hsu, Sonya Monosoff, Daniel Stepner, and James Webster; the most talkative members of the group seem to be divided into two camps, the "performers" and the "performance practicists." They must build ivory towers (and budgets!) high at Wellesley College, from whence hails Professor Jander, chief among the Performance Practicists and author of the following: "When you are talking about the three periods of Beethoven's piano music, you are talking about three different pianos. And a properly equipped music department of the future will want three pianos." This attitude affords little comfort for those of us whose home institutions are having difficulty maintaining properly their modern Steinways and Baldwins.
One wonders too if Malcolm Bilson is not carrying self denial a bit too far when he says, "I like tone life [on a modern piano], but it prevents me from playing the Pathétique. . . . The Tempest Sonata is one which is, as far as I'm concerned, absolutely not possible to do on the modern piano." Messrs. Schnabel, Arrau, Brendel, Barenboim and others, please take note!
To illustrate one of his points, Bilson played an excerpt from the Pathétique Sonata on the fortepiano and then once again on the Steinway, in a manner which did not resemble that of the fortepiano. Eva Badura-Skoda allowed that the same effect could be achieved on the modern instrument; Bilson maintained that it could not be, whereupon Ilse von Alpenheim (the pianist wife of Antal Dorati) went to the Steinway and virtually duplicated the passage as Bilson had originally played it on the fortepiano. The transcription does not indicate (nor need it have) that many in the audience applauded her demonstration of the "authentic" capabilities of a modern instrument in the hands of a sensitive performer.
One-upmanship aside, there is of course a larger issue at stake here. Thirty years ago Bach's keyboard music was still widely played on the piano; today, with their heightened awareness of authentic performance practices, many reputable pianists do not risk performing Bach in public. Given the fundamental differences between harpsichord and piano, this is perhaps a wise decision. In some areas of the country today, however, flute, oboe, or violin players must think twice about performing Bach or Telemann on modern instruments for fear of haughty sneers from "performance practicists." Where is this trend leading? Now that Bach has virtually disappeared from the pianist's repertoire, will Beethoven's music (as Professors Jander and Bilson imply) be denied the pianist of the future because he does not own a replica (or two or three!) of the composer's own instrument?
Whatever his viewpoint, the reader will find much to ponder in this panel discussion. Eva Badura-Skoda's article complements the foregoing in a practical way; while most of her material deals with piano works, she digresses revealingly into the realms of Beethoven's vocal and instrumental music. Hers is no detached, academic discussion of ornaments, balances, and performance environment, but rather one which can be applied by today's practicing musicians. Otto Biba carried Badura-Skoda's brief remarks on performance environment one step further with a study based on little-known documents of Viennese local history. This article is highly recommended for its methodology alone, taking "extra-musical" sources and obtaining most convincing musical interpretations from them. The interested reader might then want to seek out a companion article by Biba, "Schubert's Position in Viennese Musical Life," (19th Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 2 [November 1979], 106-13), originating from a similar Schubert Congress held in Detroit the following year. All four items would make compelling outside reading assignments for undergraduates, and could in some cases serve as models of research methodology for graduate students.
James Webster's article is a substantial contribution to shaking the Schauffler image from Beethoven by showing many elements in the middle quartets to be logical continuations of what had preceded them. From the second panel discussion and Karl-Heinz Köhler's article, the student may obtain a relatively accurate picture of the Beethoven-created documents which are still fertile fields for original research, the sketch books and conversation books, both in light of what exists (or is thought to have survived) and what can be derived from them. Psychological biographer Maynard Solomon and musicologist Robert Winter conclude the book with two valuable studies pertaining to the origins of the finale of the Ninth Symphony.
Thumbing through the Congress' program booklet, I find one paper which is lamentably missing from the present volume, "The Genesis of Beethoven's Second Symphony," by Sieghard Brandenburg of the Beethoven-Archiv in Bonn. I understand that the author neglected to submit a copy for publication. This is to be regretted, as I recall it to have contained major revisions in the chronology of the symphony's composition, based on sketch study. Doubtless this material will appear somewhere in the German language, but an English version would have been a welcome addition to the Detroit proceedings. We know that every whisper of this Congress was recorded for posterity; indeed the two panel discussions included here are transcriptions of what was said and done on the stage. What a shame then that the editors did not see fit to transcribe Brandenburg's informative address as well.
About the physical book a few complaints must be registered. The most important of these is that the footnotes, so often necessary to understanding the text, have been placed at the end of each article. The "Contents" pages are also something of a jumble, difficult to scan quickly for the location of any single item. Some of the musical examples far exceed the established margins, but I would rather have them looking a little odd on the page than not at all. The general index does not include the names of the participants or their contributions to the proceedings, regrettable when one considers the inherently disorganized sequence of "authors" in the panel discussions. For instance, while Brandenburg's article is missing, he did contribute briefly to the discussion on sketches, a fact unnoted by the index. Editor Winter's name does appear in the index, evidently because he referred to himself in the third person in the Introduction. Illustrations are included as necessary, but tell us please the source of the portrait on the dust jacket. On the whole, Wayne State University has produced an attractive volume and at $16.95, a relatively sensibly priced one, given current economic factors of publication.
Unlike many collections of essays on this composer, Beethoven, Performers, and Critics is, with very brief lapses, eminently readable from cover to cover, with no attendant loss of scholarly import. Here is an enjoyable book you would not regret adding to your personal collection or recommending for your college library's purchase.
Wayne State University Press: May we now have companion volumes stemming from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's subsequent Schubert and Brahms Congresses? I hope so!