By the Book

By Graubart, Michael | Musical Times, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

By the Book


Graubart, Michael, Musical Times


Late Beethoven: music, thought, imagination

Maynard Solomon: University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 2003); xi, 327pp; £19.95, $29.95. ISBN 0 520 23746 3.

Beethoven's Ninth: a political history

Esteban Buch, translated by Richard Miller University of Chicago Press (Chicago & London, 2003); 327pp; $27.50. ISBN 0 226 07812 4. (Originally published in 1999 by Editions Gallimard as La Neuvieme de Beethoven: une histoire politique.)

Beethoven: the music and the life

Lewis Lockwood

Norton (New York & London, 2003); xix, 604pp; £28, $39.95. ISBN 0 393 05081 5.

By the book

MICHAEL GRAUBART addresses issues of meaning raised by three recent additions to the Beethoven literature

'MEANING' can mean two things: signification (extrinsic, referential) and significance (intrinsic, possessing perceptible order). That music has meaning in the latter sense is indubitable; it is how we distinguish it from noise. 'New musicologists' like Lawrence Kramer,1 however, are mainly concerned with the former. But what gives meaning to what? We know Beethoven because of and through his music: Beethoven is constituted for us by his music. It is the music that gives meaning to Beethoven and not Beethoven to the music, and it is the works we know that make him great, not our knowledge of his personal qualities that make the works great.

Does knowing about the context (personal, musical, social, historical) in which it was composed give meaning to music? Is it being told that classical concertos begin with an orchestral ritornello in the tonic key that gives the beginning of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto its affective power, untranslatable into words, or our aural experience and internalisation of classical concertos? What we are told informs us about Beethoven: his independence of mind and, more subjectively perhaps, his self-image, subsequently confirmed by the slow movement, as a lonely artist set against the social mass.

It is music's affective power that reaches out beyond its intrinsic, formal meaning. Music evokes in the listener the exact and unique shade of a feeling; words like 'sadness' or 'joy' are blunt instruments which signify mere generalities. But to define what person, concept, scene or event the emotion is about requires words, sung or in a 'programme'. (And affect may itself be generated by a deviation between the expectation aroused by the words and the character of the music: an example might be the bleak G minor beginning of the 'Et resurrexit' in Haydn's Theresa' Mass.)

Maynard Solomon's new book is horizonexpanding, informative, over-written yet often beautiful, controversial in its wealth of speculative interpretations and implications of referential meanings. It does for Beethoven what Nicholas Till's did for Mozart a few years ago,2 presenting him, despite being plunged at an early age into professional music-making, as widely read in literature and philosophy - ancient, esoteric and oriental as well as mainstream European; and Professor Solomon's own erudition and breadth of reference are exhilarating. We are shown another Beethoven, constituted in a different way, and it is for the reader and listener to bring the two together.

The book consists of a prologue and twelve independent essays (some of which are revisions of previously published articles) that together add up to a picture of an ethical, sometimes morally troubled man searching for answers in the world's writings. The prologue, entitled 'A sea change' and written in typically fervent, florid prose, describes the personal, emotional and intellectual crises that formed Beethoven's late style. It does not, however, give enough weight to the separation from society, from listeners to his music, thus from traditional technical and stylistic constraints, that his deafness created.

Chapter 2 revisits the perennial question of Beethoven's romanticism and Beethoven's classicism, while chapters 1 and 9 deal with different aspects of the 'Dabelli' variations. …

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