Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven and the Creative Process

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven and the Creative Process

Article excerpt

Book Review Barry Cooper. Beethoven and the Creative Process. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990. x, 325 pp. $55.00

SINCE THE RESURGENCE OF OF CRITICAL WORK ON BEETHOVEN'S SKETCHES began twenty-five odd years ago, the course of sketch studies - the central topic of this book - has not always been a smooth one.1 Douglas Johnson's doubts concerning the value of research on Beethoven's sketches and the relevance of those studies to our analysis of the finished works, which were articulated in a famous article in 19th-century Music in 1978, are well known.2 Even if these views are not widely shared today, Johnson's strikingly pessimistic article continues to be significant because it serves to impel scholars who work on music sketches to examine the related concerns of the purpose and the value of their enterprise.

In Cooper's book, however, the value of investigating Beethoven's creative process seems to be taken for granted. Why do we want to know how Beethoven composed? What is the relationship of this knowledge to our perception of the finished work? Would it make any difference to our enjoyment of the music if none of his sketches had ever survived (as indeed is the case with so many earlier composers)? For a book that is the first in modern times to deal with the subject on an extensive scale, preliminary and fundamental questions like these should have been probed rather than ignored.

The task Cooper has set himself is a formidable one. Unlike Paul Mies's Die Bedeutung der Skizzen Beethovens zur Erkenntnis seines Stils (Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1925), which focussed on aspects of style, mainly through a comparative analysis of various sketches, Cooper's attempt to explain nothing less than "the creative process," as well as how it was influenced by biographical matters, is much more encompassing and ambitious. It is also, as I shall argue, uneven. The book is divided into three parts with a Prologue. The way it moves from the broad to the specific may be gathered from the rubrics which head these parts: "Factors affecting Beethoven's creative process," "Beethoven's compositional methods," and "Stages in the compositional process."

Cooper's goals, as set out in the Prologue (pp. 1-2), are as follows: (1) "to bring together now what is currently known on the subject"; (2) "to establish a more up-to-date and comprehensive view, based on a more wide-ranging and detailed assessment of the sources than was possible in Nottebohm's day"; (3) "to see what were Beethoven's chief compositional goals, and what difficulties he had to overcome in order to achieve them"; and (4) to answer questions concerning "why he composed and how he composed" both "generally, about Beethoven as a composer [and] specifically, about a particular piece of music." In view of the fact that most of Beethoven's sketches have not been examined because they are so numerous, so widely scattered over different countries and cities, and so little published, Cooper rightly cautions that "any conclusions reached here must be somewhat provisional" (p.1).

Part One, "Factors affecting Beethoven's creative process," is the least satisfying part of the book. The subject central to two of its four chapters - "Beethoven's artistic aims" and "Extramusical factors" necessarily involves the complex relationship of the nature of Beethoven's psyche to his motivations, both as a composer and as a man of his time, within the context of musical, social and political history. These contextual considerations are unfortunately very much cast aside, and the all too easy and simplistic discussion that Cooper offers leads one to wonder if he indeed appreciates the deeper implications of what he has set out to investigate. Take, for example, the following two statements concerning Beethoven's artistic aims:

"Beethoven's overriding desire was, therefore, not just to create music, but to create music of the highest artistic worth, and it was this which necessitated all the sketching and related labour" (p. …

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