Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven's Programs: What Is Provable?

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven's Programs: What Is Provable?

Article excerpt

In the tenth year of Beethoven's life, Johann Jacob Engel's forty-eight page booklet, On Musical Painting,1 was printed in Berlin. Though "painting" in music - more soberly known as the representation by composers of extra-musical ideas - was nothing new, it was to become a distinctive tendency of the Romantic movement, touching Beethoven just as surely as it touched many other composers working in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The composer's oft-cited and seemingly guarded statement that the Pastoral Symphony was more a matter of feeling (Empfindung) than of painting (Malerei) has befuddled many a listener upon noticing the overt bird calls and wave-like undulations of the second movement, the thunder of the fourth, or perhaps even upon recognizing the ranz des vanches of the finale. Nonetheless, the exploration of the extent to which each of Beethoven's instrumental works might have been based upon a story, a poetic work, or simply an extra-musical idea or program has proven to be one of the most intricate and uncertain pursuits of Beethoven scholarship.

Several of the composer's contemporaries alluded to extra-musical references in his compositions. The composer's former pupil and subsequent biographer, Ferdinand Ries, wrote that "When he was composing, Beethoven often had a definite subject in mind, even though he frequently laughed at and inveighed against descriptive music, especially of the trivial sort."2 Another pupil, the distinguished pianist Carl Czerny, commented concerning the "Appassionata" Sonata:

Perhaps Beethoven (who was ever fond of representing natural scenes) imagined to himself the waves of the sea in a stormy night, whilst cries of distress are heard from afarsuch an image may always furnish the player with a suitable idea for the proper performance of this great musical picture. It is certain that, in many of his finest works, Beethoven was inspired by similar visions and images, drawn either from reading or created by his own excited imagination and that we should obtain the real key to his compositions and to their performance only through knowledge of these circumstances, if this were always practicable.3

The essence of the later statement finds confirmation in other quarters, including that of Beethoven's onetime self-appointed friend and amanuensis, Anton Schindler. Though Schindler's biography of the composer has been greatly discredited, his comments regarding Beethoven's programmatic intent in no serious way conflicts with that of Czerny:

What would, for example, the Pastoral Symphony, indeed the Eroica itself, be without the assertion of such a notion? What an eye-opener for both player and listener is the simple expression of sentiments which Beethoven has indicated in his Sonata, Op. 81: (Les adieux, l'absence et le retour).4

...I once asked Beethoven why he had not indicated the poetic ideas for the various movements of his Sonatas, in that these ideas might impress themselves to some extent on the mind of the thoughtful listener? He answered: "that the age in which he had written his Sonatas was more poetic than the present (1823); in the former period such explanation would have been superfluous."5

On occasion, Schindler made more specific claims; when he asked Beethoven about the meaning of his Fortepiano Sonatas, Opus 57 and Opus 31, no. 2 (Opus 29 in Schindler), for example, the composer was claimed to have retorted, "Read Shakespeare's Tempest."6

The late German musicologist, Arnold Schering, devoted a remarkable amount of energy, inspired by the claims of Schindler and others, in trying to show that the greater part of Beethoven's instrumental oeuvre was programmatic, and that an enormous number of his works were based specifically on famous poetic masterpieces. The "Moonlight" Sonata, e.g., was purportedly based upon Shakespeare's King Lear, the "Appassionata" upon Macbeth; the String Quartet, Opus 95, on Falstaff and Opus 131 on Hamlet; a further case was built for the String Quartets, Opuses 132, 133, and 135 having been based on scenes from Goethe's Faust; the programs of other works were attributed to the likes of Cervantes, Jean Paul, Homer and Friedrich Schiller. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.