Beethoven's Critics: Aesthetic Dilemmas and Resolutions During the Composer's Lifetime, by Robin Wallace

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Beethoven's Critics: Aesthetic Dilemmas and Resolutions During the Composer's Lifetime, by Robin Wallace. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986. viii + 184 pp. ISBN 0521386349.

It was prudent of Robin Wallace to advise the reader that this book on the reception of Beethoven's music in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century claims neither to be about Beethoven's music nor to be comprehensive in scope. Indeed, a study of such magnitude in the still young discipline of Rezeptionsgeschichte is unthinkable until virtually every document buried in the pages of countless periodicals and daily newspapers has been brought to the light of day. While one might not agree with Wallace that such a task would be a thankless one (p. 4), increasing musicological efforts in recent years have been moving towards the realization of that goal.1 Reaping the early harvest of this scholarship, Wallace has formulated certain hypotheses that carefully tread a path through a territory fraught with obstacles. Thanks to his grasp of contemporaneous philosophical issues and concepts, he has succeeded to a large degree.

No small part of the problem is the fact that professional musical criticism as we now understand it was itself a relatively new discipline during Beethoven's lifetime. The "oldest" of the journals studied in Wallace's book, the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (AmZ), first appeared in 1798, precisely at the moment when Beethoven's star was in its ascendant. But we are at a loss for any clear critical perspective dating from earlier times. The fact that music criticism was a new "art form" may be telling in its own right. Increasing interest in music by a larger and more diverse populace, as well as more serious attention paid to the power that music held on its growing clientele, led to a revitalized interest in the philosophical nature of the art. (Aestheticians may respond by pointing out that philosophers dating back at least to Plato took music very seriously indeed; but the issue here concerns the expectations of eighteenth-century audiences in regard to music, and more precisely in regard to Beethoven's music.)

Beethoven entered the musical world at a time when Enlightenment theories held sway. Many musicians, however, continued to perceive their art in terms of the eighteenth-century Affekten. We know that Beethoven took more than a passing interest in both theories. But the world as it existed by the time of Beethoven's death was decidedly a Romantic one. No less important is the fact that the writers examined in Wallace's book were trained musicians, some—but not all—of whom were conversant with the philosophical language of the day. Opposing concepts such, as "ideal and real," "expression and form," "absolute and programmatic, "and "contrast and unity" were lively issues for these critics. Beethoven's music thus became a lightning rod for the testing of these ideas. Wallace tells us that a common thread in contemporaneous reviews of Beethoven is the struggle between analysis and interpretation. He has discovered that all of these critics attempted either to arrive at some kind of coordination of these two different modes of criticism or to weave a synthetic pattern using both strands while at the same time creating a new, and sometimes mystical, vocabulary for writing about music.

Wallace's first chapter traces the evolving Beethoven criticism found in the Leipzig AmZ, arguably the most important of the nineteenth-century musical journals. The author concentrates his examination on two critics in particular, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Amadeus Wendt. There is one compelling reason for him to do so: Hoffmann and Wendt are among the only Leipzig AmZ critics for whom a positive identification is possible. An attempt at ascribing earlier reviews to Friedrich August Kanne is based on speculation with insufficient archival evidence to support this assumption. Of Hoffmann's five reviews of works by Beethoven, his best known is the essay on the Fifth Symphony (July 1810). Although a more thorough analysis of this essay is reserved for Chapter Five, Wallace develops Peter Schnaus's idea of Hoffmann as synthesizer of analysis and interpretation.2 Readers familiar only with the excerpted form of the essay found in Strunk's Source Readings in Music History may be surprised at Hoffmann's ability to use technical vocabulary to support his fantastic descriptive language. Wallace's admiration for Hoffmann's ability to use theory and language in the service of interpretation never is in doubt.

Wendt differs from Hoffmann in that he viewed Beethoven's music with texts with greater esteem than his instrumental music because the presence of words renders the musical expression more accessible. Even more important is Wendt's notion that these texts impose a unity on Beethoven's music, a sense of which eluded the composer's contemporaries in his purely instrumental works. Wendt shared in the Kantian ideal of a high moral imperative in art. His admiration for Fidelio becomes understandable in this light. Wendt also was one of the earliest writers to compare Beethoven to Shakespeare in that both authors introduce the jarring element of contradiction by giving artistic expression to the most unpleasant side of existence in close juxtaposition to life's gentler aspect. Wallace warns the reader that if this notion is taken at face value, the door is opened to "a re-evaluation of musical aesthetics on literary terms" (p. 30). What he fails to mention is that this is precisely what occurred in the criticisms of writers, such as Wolfgang Robert Griepenkerl, who develop a hermeneutical approach to music criticism in a highly specific manner.3 What does emerge from Wallace's comparison of Hoffmann and Wendt is a clearer appreciation of the difference in approach between, on the one hand, a mode of criticism grounded in the "subjective experience of the listener" (Hoffmann) and that rooted in the dramatic unity of the composer (Wendt). What unites these seemingly opposing views is the merging of objective and subjective vocabularies. Wallace calls the inability of the Leipzig AmZ to retain writers of the ability of Kanne, Rochlitz, Hoffmann, and Wendt the "tragedy" of this journal in the years that followed.

Wallace next turns his attention to the writings of the Berlin AmZ and its gifted editor, Adolph Bernhard Marx, best known today as a theorist and as one of the earliest biographers of Beethoven. Wallace's examination of Marx's aesthetic and its relation to that of Hegel is one of the most clearly drawn chapters in the book. Marx's ideas of "progress" inform his peculiarly evolutionary view of music history, and in particular his view of Beethoven's progression from the mastery of the expressive capabilities of instrumental music leading next to vocal music as an expression of humanity. It is not surprising, then, to learn that Marx viewed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as the composer's ultimate achievement. This assertion, in fact, remained far from axiomatic among Marx's contemporaries. The means by which Marx arrived at his conclusion, despite the echoes one hears later in Wagner, are highly idiosyncratic. Unfortunately Wallace takes no notice of an interesting article published by Marx in the Leipzig AmZ (of all places) that compared the Ninth Symphony with Mendelssohn's Lobgesang, reinterpreting Beethoven's choral symphony in light of Mendelssohn's "Symphony-Cantata."4

A large portion of Wallace's third chapter is devoted to the controversies that surrounded Beethoven's "late" music, and the Ninth Symphony in particular. He turns here to other German sources, including Caecilia (published in Mainz by Schott, the publisher of many of these later works of Beethoven) and the Vienna AmZ, edited by Kanne. Here Wallace takes into account for the first time reviews of Beethoven's music deriving from performances in addition to those essays that attempt to explain or analyze this difficult repertory based on published sources. Kanne's review in the Vienna AmZ is an example of the former, while Wallace uses a long essay by Franz Joseph Fröhlich published in Caecilia as an illustration of the latter. In attempting to clarify the aesthetic issues raised by the Ninth Symphony for these and other writers through highly useful citations of specific passages from their reviews, Wallace warns the reader to beware the wrong-headed notions fostered by Schimpflexica such as Slonimsky's popular Lexicon of Musical Invective that would have us believe that Beethoven's music received only negative notices in the musical press. Using the case of Carl Maria von Weber as a specific example, Wallace reminds the reader that some of the sources for these diatribes are not to be trusted.

The chapter that deals with Beethoven criticism in France is a judiciously conceived essay that correctly focuses on the personality of individual critics instead of seeking an elusive "French" interpretation of Beethoven. The task is made easier because the identities of the critics in France are known, in contrast to the large number of unsigned reviews in German (and English) sources.5 The voices of Fétis, Berlioz, François Stoepel, and Chrétien Urhan dominate these pages. Wallace succeeds in pointing out that the aesthetic issues raised in the French press differed little from those found in the German sources, and I find myself in agreement with the author's statement that "it was the personality of the critic, rather than his philosophical stance or nationality, that determined which music he preferred and why . . ." (p. 123). Again Wallace points the reader's attention to the various ways in which nineteenth-century critics sought to use both analysis and interpretation as mutually supportive tools for arriving at an understanding of Beethoven's music.

In the fifth chapter, Wallace seeks to clarify the various aesthetic issues raised throughout his book by means of a detailed investigation of three reviews of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, by Hoffmann, Marx, and Berlioz respectively. The stated goal of the chapter is to illustrate what modern musicians might learn from reading nineteenth-century criticism, and Wallace's criteria for selecting these particular documents make good sense since each one was written at unusual length and with considerable richness of detail. Using recent articles by Ian Bent and Leo Treitler as a background,6 Wallace proceeds to take us through Beethoven's Fifth Symphony movement by movement while juggling the comments of his three critics. While his method yields certain valuable insights, it succeeds only in part. The greatest weakness here is the omission of complete texts of any of these reviews, either in the original language or in translation. It may be argued that many readers have relatively easy access to the complete documents, but without their inclusion in the book, we are at the mercy of Wallace's own selection of relevant passages, chosen, one suspects, with certain goals in mind. If the issues raised by the nineteenth-century writers are worthy of our consideration today (and I agree with Wallace that they are), then he ought to have presented these examples of criticism in their entirety.

What finally emerges from the rather dense forest of prose in this book is the age-old question of how one is to write about music in a useful way. In a sense, Wallace is in step with Treitler and Kerman in warning of the limitation of modern analytical technique, especially when it is used as an end in itself. If a synthesis, or rather a coordination, of analysis and interpretation is a goal for the future of "contemplating" music, then perhaps we can learn much from those voices of the past century who struggled to come to terms with Beethoven, a composer whom they without exception reckoned to be the most powerful musical mind of their age. Beethoven's Critics merits the attention of any scholar or performer who wishes to place the composer's works in their appropriate aesthetic context. This is to say that it should reach a very large audience indeed. Readers may expect to find it a thoughtful and provocative book, marred only occasionally by errors of detail.7 In light of recent interest in early nineteenth-century performance practices, it is unfortunate that Wallace does not take these issues into consideration since contemporaneous performances of Beethoven's works played a large role in the formulation of opinions on his music.8 It would seem that the practitioners of the historical performance movement and scholars of Rezeptionsgeschichte might have much to learn from one another.


 

1David B. Levy, "Early Performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: A Documentary Study of Five Cities" (Ph.D. diss., University of Rochester, 1979).

2See Peter Schnaus, E.T.A. Hoffmann als Beethoven-Rezensent der Allgemeinen Musikalischen Zeitung (Munich and Salzburg: Katzbichler, 1977).

3Wolfgang Robert Griepenkerl, Das Musikfest; oder, Die Beethovener (Leipzig: Wigand, 1838). See also David B. Levy, "Wolfgang Robert Griepenkerl and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony," in Essays on Music for Charles Warren Fox, ed. Jerald C. Graue (Rochester: Eastman School of Music Press, 1979), 103-13.

4A.B. Marx, "Über die Form der Symphonie-Cantate, auf Anlass von Beethoven's neunter Symphonie," [Leipzig] Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 21: 489-98 and 28: 505-11 (both July 1847).

5Unfortunately Wallace takes no notice of the interesting and informative reviews of Beethoven's music found in nineteenth-century British journals such as The Harmonicon.

6Ian D. Bent, "Analysis," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, 20 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1980), 1: 342. Leo Treitler, "To Worship That Celestial Sound: Motives for Analysis," Journal of Musicology 1 (1982): 153-70.

7In his bibliography, for example, Wallace incorrectly retitles my own dissertation a "Comparative Study" instead of "Documentary Study."

8Recording projects of Beethoven's symphonies on period instruments are currently under way by The Academy of Ancient Music, The Hanover Band, and others. Especially successful is the recent recording of the Ninth Symphony conducted by Roger Norrington, with The London Classical Players and the Schütz Choir of London, EMI, CDC 7492212, 1987, for its attention to Beethoven's metronome markings.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

David B. Levy

David B. Levy is an Associate Dean of the College and Professor of Music at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. He also is the Program Director of Flow House, Wake Forest’s study abroad program Vienna.  He written articles and reviews for several journals, including 19TH Cemtury Music, Beethoven Forum, Historical Performance, College Music Symposium, and NOTES. Levy is the author of Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony (Schirmer Books, 1995; Revised Ed., Yale U P, 2003). He also has contributed articles to Nineteenth Century Choral Music (Routledge, 2013), Berlioz Studies (Cambridge U P, 1992), the Dictionnaire Berlioz (2003), and The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He is a founding member of the steering committee for the annual New Beethoven Research conferences and is working on a new book on the Beethoven Symphonies.

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