Magazine article The Spectator

Concentrating on the Sounds

Magazine article The Spectator

Concentrating on the Sounds

Article excerpt

BEETHOVEN: THE MUSIC AND THE LIFE by Lewis Lockwood Norton, 28, pp. 604, ISBN 0393050815

For composers nothing has ever been quite the same since Beethoven died. Until his advent on the musical scene during the last decade of the 18th century, it was more or less taken for granted that somebody who wrote music delivered a product or carried out a service, in the manner of a tradesman, a groom or a cook. Certain masters, it was true, had honour done them by the great ones whose patronage sustained their work. Palestrina was flattered by popes and cardinals, Handel received homage from a circle of aristocratic groupies, and in the case of Haydn the princely Esterhazy family came to realise, better late than never, that the man who wore their livery and furnished them with symphonies and operas was something of a national treasure.

Old Ludwig, peevish, curmudgeonly, half mad as many supposed, put a stop to all this. After his death from chronic liver disease in 1827, the social status of composers dramatically altered. Any musician committing notes to paper became a divinely inspired artist, whose creative impulses were not to be exploited or trifled with by impertinent demands from emperors, archbishops or grand-duchesses. A halfway decent composer nowadays has carte blanche to behave badly, beat his wife, run up eye-popping debts, make embarrassing scenes in restaurants and be spectacularly rude to his admirers. This is how we want genius to go through its circus routines, and we grow tetchy and suspicious if it doesn't.

Beethoven engineered this crucial shift in public perception through his gritty singleness of purpose, in the context of a society where most people depended on others telling them what to do. His contemporaries, what was more, were fully aware of the achievement. In the reactionary Vienna of Metternich and the profoundly uninspiring Emperor Francis I, what other musician would have been accorded so dramatic a funeral, with the national bard Franz Grillparzer providing an oration and a crowd of almost 20,000 flocking to the cemetery?

The tendency, enduring ever since, towards deifying composers, so that every fugitive sketch and afterthought, every march, minuet or nursery sonatina is hailed as a flash of white-hot inspiration, has been on the whole very bad for music. Think of those psychotic Wagnerians for whom Parsifal or the Ring cycle lie well beyond tc limits of reasoned critical discourse, or of the nauseating Glyndebourne-dinner-interval Mozart worship represented by the umpteenth appearance of `Soave sia il vento' on Desert Island Discs or by that embarrassing witches' brew of cliche and vulgarity which is Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. …

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