Book Review: Carl Dahlhaus's Ludwig Van Beethoven: Approaches to His Music
Bazzana, Kevin, The Beethoven Newsletter
Carl Dahlhaus. Ludwig van Beethoven: Approaches to his Music. Translated by Mary Whittall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. xxviii, 254 pp. 16 plates. $39.95 cloth.
THIS BOOK FIRST APPEARED IN 1987 as Ludwig van Beethoven und seine Zeit, part of the Laaber-Verlag series "Große Komponisten und ihre Zeit"; the English translation appeared two years after Dahlhaus's untimely death in 1989 at the age of sixty-one. The Beethoven book takes its place among the numerous works by Dahlhaus that have been made available to English-speaking readers in the last decade or so, and that have made Dahlhaus perhaps the most widely read and cited among recent musicologists. Indeed, in an obituary in 19th-century Music 13 (1989): 57-58, he is referred to as a scholar "whose accomplishment dwarfs that of any other musicologist of our time so obviously as to require no comment." That Joseph Kerman could make this remark gives us some idea of just how significant that accomplishment is.
Kerman reminds us that Wagner and Schoenberg were the figures around whom Dahlhaus's life-work centered: he wrote a book on each Richard Wagner's Music Dramas (1971 ; English edition 1979) and Schoenberg and the New Music (1978; English edition 1979) - and each plays an important role in his monumental Nineteenth-Century Music (1980; English edition 1989), as well as in other of the studies of nineteenth-century music on which Dahlhaus focused so much of his attention. His interest in these two figures was, of course, part of a larger interest in issues of historiography and aesthetics that arose from his practical work in musicology, and that resulted in such fascinating books as Foundations of Music History (1977; English edition 1983). The complexity of Dahlhaus's thought (which owes much to Theodor W. Adorno, for one), and its invariably dialectical bent ("on the other hand ...," "at the same time ..."), make his writing often dense and difficult, and to understand fully a particular point often requires a knowledge of the theoretical background that informed his musicology. (Readers cowed by that prospect might consult the fine concise summary of Dahlhaus's thought in James Hepokoski's article "The Dahlhaus project and its extra-musicological sources," 19th-century Music 14 (1991): 221-246; his appendix ("An overview of the Dahlhaus project," pp. 244-46), surmounts the unenviable challenge of condensing Dahlhaus's thought into three pages.
If Wagner and Schoenberg are central to the Dahlhaus project, so too, I think, is Beethoven. If Wagner was the archetypal representative and Schoenberg the logical culmination of nineteenth-century music and musical thought, Beethoven might be considered, in large part, its source. In Nineteenth-Century Music, Dahlhaus opens with Beethoven and the Beethoven Myth, and he never loses sight of him when discussing the various Romantic composers (Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms) who admitted a debt to Beethoven. (Both here and in his essay "Issues in composition" in Between Romanticism and Modernism (1974; English edition 1980), Dahlhaus shows how both Liszt's and Wagner's "modulating sequence" and Brahms's "developing variation" were solutions to the same musical problem of preserving Beethoven's motivic integrity in a postClassical milieu.) In fact, the late appearance in Dahlhaus's career of a book-length Beethoven study seems to underscore that Beethoven was an especially significant figure to him, to be addressed only after prolonged reflection. Certainly this is suggested by Dahlhaus's interest both in the musical and intellectual features of Beethoven that would prove historically important, and in the aesthetic issues raised by the music.
In this sense, the original German tide of the book was apt: as much as he analyzes the music on a nuts-and-bolts level, he interprets it with due regard for its historical position - for example, its relationship to contemporary music theory. But as the translator notes (p. …