Questioning the deification of Beethoven

Posted on: October 16, 2014

“Beethoven is a singularity in the history of art—a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force,” writes Alex Ross in the October 20 issue of The New Yorker. “After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. Listening underwent a fundamental change…. A canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center … and Beethoven assumed the problematic status of a secular god.” Ross notes the “continuing strength of the cult” in Beethoven books published in the past three years by Jan Swafford (Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph), John Suchet (Beethoven: The Man Revealed), Nicholas Mathew (Political Beethoven), Matthew Guerrieri (The First Four Notes), Michael Broyles (Beethoven in America), and Sanford Friedman (Conversations with Beethoven). The article includes reviews of each of the books and notes that politics—the Napoleonic Wars and the end of the Holy Roman Empire—“also assisted in Beethoven’s elevation.” Ross recalls that as a teenager contemplating being a composer, he saw “with wonder and dismay” the proscenium arch of Boston’s Symphony Hall, “the single name ‘Beethoven’ emblazoned” on it. “ ‘Don’t bother,’ it seemed to say. For this conundrum—an artist almost too great for the good of his art—Beethoven himself bears little responsibility. There is no sign that he intended to oppress his successors from the grave.”

Posted October 16, 2014