Book Reviews: Recent Chapters on Beethoven by Kinderman, Kramer, Subotnik, and Wolff

By Bazzana, Kevin | The Beethoven Newsletter, Spring 1992 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews: Recent Chapters on Beethoven by Kinderman, Kramer, Subotnik, and Wolff


Bazzana, Kevin, The Beethoven Newsletter


Konrad Wolff. "Beethoven" (pp. 110-159), in Masters of the Keyboard: Individual Style Elements in the Piano Music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms. Enlarged edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990. xii, 314 pp. $35 cloth; $14.95 pbk.

William Kinderman. "Beethoven" (pp. 55-96), in Nineteenth-Century Piano Music, edited by R. Larry Todd. Studies in Musical Genres and Repertoires. New York: Schirmer Books, 1990. xvi, 426 pp. $42.00.

Lawrence Kramer. "Beethoven's two-movement piano sonatas and the Utopia of romantic esthetics" (pp. 21-71) and '"As if a voice were in them': Music, narrative, and deconstruction" (pp. 176-213), in Music as Cultural Practice, 18001900. California Studies in 19th Century Music, edited by Joseph Kerman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990. xv, 226 pp. $24.95.

Rose Rosengard Subotnik. "Adorno's diagnosis of Beethoven's late style: Early symptom of a fatal condition" (pp. 15-41), in Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 1991. xxxiv, 372 pp. $39.95 cloth; $16.95 pbk.

MASTERS OF THE KEYBOARD first appeared in 1983. The present edition is a substantially unchanged reprint, with some errors corrected and with the important addition of new chapters on Chopin and Brahms. As Wolff writes in his original preface (p. x), the book is a collection of essays "dealing with the five composers without comparing each one's music to that of others and without attempting generalizations about style" - that is, stressing what is unique in each man's musical style.

Wolff thus takes an approach contrary to that of his mentor Artur Schnabel, who "was convinced that what two or more composers have in common is more important than what separates them" (p. xi). (Incidentally, Wolff is the author of an excellent little book entitled Schnabels Interpretation of Piano Music (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979), in which he draws on his own experiences as a student of Schnabel to create a rich composite picture of the great pianist's aesthetic of performance.)

Masters of the Keyboard is aimed primarily at piano students who, though well trained and well educated, may still lack insight into "the general aims - different in each case - that were in the minds of the great masters as they turned to keyboard music" (p. x).

Wolff's long Beethoven chapter is divided into eight topics: the phenomenon of Beethoven (his individuality, thematic invention, and three style periods); "Two principles" (the tension between "pleading" and "resisting" in his music); symbolism (of musical elements including diminished seventh chords, major and minor modes, dotted rhythms, registral shifts, and polyphony); vibration (i.e., repeated-note figuration); vibration and instrumental rhythm; harmonic language; melody and texture; and problems of performance practice (tempo, dynamics, pedaling, technique).

Masters of the Keyboard has received some excellent reviews, and Wolff's experience and insight as a pianist are obvious; yet, I do not feel that this chapter makes an important contribution to our understanding of Beethoven. Considering that the book proposes to deal with the individuality of its subjects, there is a good deal of old news here. The short and very conventional description of Beethoven's three style periods, for example, is simply dated, taking no notice of the crucial refinements of the usual scheme made in recent decades by Charles Rosen, Maynard Solomon, Joseph Kerman, and others. (This is not the only case of an important subject being scantily treated in this book.)

The chapter is disorderly, too, moving from point to point without suggesting a controlling thesis. And the writing can be awkward, as in this reference to contrary motion: "After using this compositional technique in the Sonatas, op. 14, Beethoven permanently adopted opposite directions between the top and bottom of the musical texture as a structural principle" (pp. …

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