Magazine article Musical Times

Fruit of Good Works

Magazine article Musical Times

Fruit of Good Works

Article excerpt

WILLIAM DRABKIN extends a qualified welcome to reinterpretations of masterworks by Beethoven

The Cambridge companion to Beethoven Edited by Glenn Stanley Cambridge UP (Cambridge, 2000); xiii, 373pp; L40 / L14.95. ISBN 0 521 58074 9 / 0 521 58934 7.

SOME YEARS AGO I walked the Pennine Way, braving the elements, the deprivations of youth hostel cuisine and the consequences of a poor choice of walkingboots. That I survived the ordeal, and even gained some satisfaction from it, can be attributed in part to my taking with me A. Wainwright's A Pennine Way companion. It was from Wainwright that I learned what pleasures - and disappointments awaited me each day of the fortnight's expedition. The legendary fell-walker's geographical and political background knowledge of the region was expressed with great authority and flair, and his sumptuous drawings and handwritten maps were a delight for trekkers, readers and cartophiles alike. More than any other guide to a long-distance footpath, Wainwright's Companion put my footsteps in context, thus giving my walking greater enjoyment; it has deservedly achieved classic status in its field.

Are the Cambridge Companions to composers (a tiny part of the Press's companionship initiative) similarly meant to give us added pleasure when we listen to their music? What exactly are these companions for? Or should the question be: `For whom are these companions intended?' Appreciative listeners are naturally drawn to biographical and historical material, even when it is incidental to the listening process; in this respect they are perhaps not very different from the walkers for whom background information on the farmlands, forests, industrial works and MOD installations between Edale and Kirk Yetholm is likewise incidental to the primary goals of exercise, enjoyment and endurance,

The Cambridge companion to Beethoven is for the musical trekker, seeking more to assign meaning to the composer's achievements than to concern itself with the person. This cannot be a bad thing, as there are many biographies and handbooks that provide substantial factual information. For the events and data of Beethoven's life, readers are well served by The Beethoven compendium, edited by Barry Cooper (1991). For biography, with and without music, William Kinderman's Beethoven (1995), David Wyn Jones's Life of Beethoven (1998) and Cooper's Master Musicians Beethoven (2000) are merely the most recent additions to a seemingly inexhaustible field.

Opening with `Some thoughts on biography', The Cambridge companion to Beethoven appears to share the broader remit of these books; but the thoughts are mainly about the early-middle-late partitioning of his oeuvre, and the appended 'Chronology' concentrates on Beethoven's activities as a musician: concerts and concert trips, contacts with professional musicians and aristocratic patrons, and the illnesses that impeded progress on major projects. (If Napoleon and Archduke Rudolph make an appearance here, it is to allow Beethoven to tear up the title-page of the 'Eroica' Symphony, or to get behind schedule in composing the Missa solemnis.) For the reader in search of paths leading to Heiligenstadt, to the 'Immortal Beloved' and nephew Karl, the other books will be more useful: the Cambridge companion reinterprets Beethoven's masterful music, not his disastrous personal relationships.

IN SURVEYING the major genres to which Beethoven contributed, and in summarising his creative process and the critical responses to his music, this companion approaches the composer in much the same way as did Denis Arnold and Nigel Fortune in their venerable Beethoven companion. That book appeared in 1971, when a `new wave' of scholarship was on the horizon; but not only does the new companion take account of more than a generation of new research, it is also acknowledges the changing roles of musicology in explaining music. Considering the time that has elapsed between the two projects, the general plans of the two companions are remarkably similar: only the general application of theory and analysis to the repertory and the consideration of Beethoven influence outside of music criticism are new to the Cambridge companion. …

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