But in the midst of the 250th (and if you know anything about Beethoven then I don't even need to explain the number further) it can be easy to read praise of Beethoven and see how right-thinking progressives can regard Beethoven as the emblem and symptom of everything regarded as wrong with American music education in post-secondary contexts.
At the fourteenth exhibition of the Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession, held between April 15 and June 27, 1902, the German sculptor Max Klinger unveiled his monument to Ludwig van Beethoven. Conceived as a tribute to Beethoven, the entire celebratory program determined to effect an artistic synthesis, integrating architecture, painting, sculpture, design, and music into a unified aesthetic vision, with Klinger’s statue providing the focal point.[i] Klinger exalted Beethoven as an artistic hero, fittingly enshrined among the gods.
We'll come back to that later but for now I'm still quoting extensively from Beethoven panegyric:
He sought to infuse his music with the most advanced expressions of intellect and emotion, asserting that music was “a higher revelation than the whole of wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electric soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, invents. Philosophy is a striking of music’s electrical spirit. . . . So art always represents the divine, and the relationship of men toward art is religion: What we obtain from art comes from God, is divine inspiration.” [x] Yet, Beethoven was not trying to turn music in particular, or art in general, into a secular faith. A devout, if somewhat unorthodox Roman Catholic, Beethoven believed that music was the way in which human beings came to know God. At the same time, the Romantic Movement that he helped to initiate became a substitute for traditional religion and, whatever his intentions, Beethoven was its priest and prophet.
In the annals of what Richard Taruskin has called Matthew Arnold style art religion the high priests of this Western art-as-religion in the 19th century were arguably Beethoven and then Wagner, the self-selected prophet-priest-kings of art-religion and music-as-the-sublime-art. Should we ever forget there are writers that can remind us. Since this is a piece in The Imaginative Conservative there's room to note that not all of the legacy of this divinization of the European composer as artist was necessarily good:
The Romantic Movement, (or perhaps more accurately the Romantic state of mind, since Romanticism was amorphous and no organized movement at all), immeasurably enriched Western thought, literature, music, and art. It fashioned new idioms, new musical structures (or infused a new level of emotion into traditional forms), new combinations of color, and new perspectives on the individual, society, and God. Romanticism sought to validate spontaneity and passion without, at the same time, precluding reason and introspection. It ventured to enlarge human experience and to deepen human understanding. Intellect alone was not sufficient to the task. In short, Romanticism offered a host of novel possibilities to thinkers, writers, composers, and artists who wished to see the world with fresh eyes, and to expand their vision of reality.
Now Beethoven actually is a composer I have a great deal of admiration and respect for. His final piano sonata is a remarkable piece of music and I've written about how part of what makes that sonata remarkable is how he shifted the weight of developmental episodes outside of the development section of his sonata movement into the transitions. Manipulating the conventions of form and sound themselves, however, was very often in the Romantic era presented as if it were ignoring the conventions and rules of stifling society.
I'll quote Meyer extensively before long but I think it's necessary to point out that while Beethoven seemed to be breaking the norms and propriety of the 18th century he was still following the conventions of counterpoint and harmony and melody. He was messing with conventions about form and size but to put it in terms of American fast-food, he didn't invent french fries, he just biggie-sized them and nobody had biggie-sized french fries the way Beethoven had done up to that point so it was new and daring. As European tuning systems became more uniform across Europe it was easy for philosophers in Europe to regard their continent's music as a universal language able to speak from heart to heart because Western European music had a history of borrowing across ethnic and national divides--Bach's sound was a synthesis of English, German, French, Italian, Polish and Austrian sounds to put it in contemporary terms, but that final fusion became emblematic of the German sound. That the grand unity of Bach's styles was possibly a post hoc constrution of 19th century theorists and pedagogues would be something for other posts and more formally scholarly writers, too.
Beethoven was free to "break the rules" because he was pushing the envelope of size and breaking the proprietary guidelines for when and where to do things that, in and of themselves, were still perfectly normal things to do within even 18th century musical practice. He wasn't about to pull an Anton Reicha and write a 5/8 fugue in A major whose answer comes in the key of E flat.
So we should remember that although Beethoven broke certain conventions and blazed new trails he upheld others. As the ur-Romantic artist as prophet-priest-king of the soul he's useful to consider in light of Western art-religion even for those who regard Western art-religion as an ultimately negative thing. But now, finally, let me get to Meyer:
STYLE AND MUSIC: THEORY, HISTORY AND IDEOLOGY
LEONARD B. MEYER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
COPYRIGHT (C) 1989 BY LEONARD B. MEYER
But the romanticism that we will be concerned with--the movement begun in the eighteenth century and continued into our own time--is not merely different. It is not just that it seems more extreme and pervasive. Rather it constitutes a radical departure--a difference in kind.
The latest romanticism differs from all other romanticisms in this: Instead of being but a phase within a periodic swing in the inclinations and beliefs of the artistic/intellectual community, this romanticism formed part of a profound change--revolution is not too strong a term--in social, political, and ideological outlook. ... At its core, I will argue, was an unequivocal and uncompromising repudiation of a social order based on arbitrary, inherited class distinctions. This rejection was not confined to the arts or philosophy; rather it penetrated every corner of culture and all levels of society. It was, and is, Romanticism with a capital R.
Although the roots of this Romanticism extended back to the Renaissance and Reformation--for instance, to the growing emphasis on the worth of the individual, the widened perspective fostered by the discovery of new lands and cultures, and the dazzling achievements of the natural sciences--its prime driving force was a political and social radicalism that defined itself "as the antithesis of feudal Christianity ... ."
Which could be why, no surprise, contributors to The Imaginative Conservative might find the net and cumulative effects of that kind of Romanticism to be mixed. Perhaps the bitterest irony of the Romantic era European white guys who inveighed against the corruptions of residual feudal Christendom and clericalism is that over the course of a century or two it seems as though the prophet-priest-king artists and poets and musicians managed to replicate the vices they saw in the ancient regime. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss as a famous rock song puts it.
... The Romantic affirmation of the primacy of unconscious, spontaneous inspiration growing out of individual emotion, and the concomitant denial and denigration of the claims of consciousness and shared rationality, result in a curious, almost paradoxical dichotomy between the creative act and the aesthetic object. For though reason plays virtually no role in inspired creation, the relationships that are prized in works of art result from the inevitability and inner logic of organic development.
... Emphasis on the centrality of concealed underlying processes or principles has continued, affecting twentieth-century thought in many fields of inquiry, including, for example, linguistics (deep structure), psychology (Freudian theory), and anthropology (structuralism). In aesthetic theory, as elsewhere, there tended to be reification; the concealed principle, instead of being understood as a provisional hypothesis inferred from actual perceived phenomena, became what was real, while the sights and sounds of the world were appearance--surface manifestations of a more fundamental principle. From this point of view, organicism is Platonism in biological clothing.
Both the composition of music and especially the concepts informing theory and criticism were, as we shall see, significantly affected by this strand of Romanticism. In composition, the ultimate consequences were methods such as those of serial and statistical music in which the compositional "seed" was explicitly and consciously contrived--an ironic outcome for an ideology that particularly valued unconscious, spontaneous inspiration! The same ideological strand was at least partly responsible for the exegetic character of much music theory and criticism. For if the principles governing relationships in music lie concealed behind less important surface features, then it becomes the task of the theorist and critic to reveal this inner essence, wheter it be Schenkerian Ursatz, a motivic germ, or a Fibonacci series. Thus theorists and critics become comparable to theologians or seers interpreting the divinely inspired message of the creator.
The stance and style of 20th century high modernism was ultimately Romantic, which was why Meyer saw fit to refer to the likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg as late late Romantic composers. He even went so far as to suggest that on the basis of the ideological and aesthetic stance of John Cage that Cage was the archetypal Romantic. I've written about Cage and Meyer and the self-extinguishing potential of the avant garde elsewhere. Meyer pointed out that while the Romantics repudiated convention at an ideological level they found themselves in a tight spot when it came to figuring out how to organize their music, art and poetry.
... the Romantic repudiation of convention (and especially of neo-Aristotelian aesthetics, which had been associated with the ancien regime), coupled with the denigration and weakening of syntactic relationships, highlighted the presence of diversity. As a result, the basis of coherence and unity became an issue: How did disparate and individualized themes, diverse modes of organization, and contrasts of expression--all intensified by the valuing of originality--form an organic whole? How did the several parts of a set of piano pieces or the different movements of a symphony or chamber work constitute a cohesive composition?
The problem was especially acute in the aesthetics of music. In literature, significant weakening of syntactic constraints and hierarchic organization were never really viable options, and in the visual arts, at least until the twentieth century, coherence was significantly dependent upon iconicity. In both realms, the representation of human and physical nature--often with convention disguised by historical or ethnic exoticism--played an important role in creating artistic unity. But in instrumental music, "unity through representation" was not a possibility, except of course in program music. And it is not implausible to argue that program music flourished in the nineteenth century partly because the use of a program was a way of establishing coherence and, in particular, accounting for the juxtaposition and succession of palpably different moods, connotations, and the like.
A variation of "let me tell what is going to happen and what it's going to mean so that when it happens you get what was supposed to happen". The program of the music was the insurance policy against the possibility that the music as music might not send a message from heart to heart after all.
The valuing of individual inner experience is evident in the shift from the eighteenth-century idea that music represented emotions (affects) to the nineteenth century belief that music expressed the feeling of the composer.
Feeling is all in all; the name is sound and smoke, obscuring heaven's pure glow.
The nicest way to interpret this sentimentalist glop is to propose that what the Romantics aspired to was that what Daniel Kahneman called System 1 could be allowed to do the majority of the work in appreciating and apprehending the cosmos.
The most potently distilled observation Meyer made about Romanticism as a group of ideologies in the arts may be the following:
In music, one of the discoveries of Romanticism was how to hide convention, yet have it too.
Of the many factors serving to disguise the presence of schemata in nineteenth century music, perhaps none is more obvious than magnitude. ...
Magnitude tends to mask schemata, --especially those defined by syntactic relationships--because of the constraints of aural memory. ...
They were officially repudiating conventions while at a practical level they were disguising the conventions they leaned upon. Yes, yes, I know that there was a trajectory away from the circle of fifths to chains of thirds in tonal organization and I'm reading George Rochberg's writing on that shift and why it was really revolutionary in Western music to switch from music defined by assymetrical scalar organization to increasingly symmetrical scalar systems. But Meyer and other scholars have a point in pointing out that a lot of the revolution of the Romantics was, I'll put this indelicately, posing as much as composing. It's not a surprise to me if in revolutionizing some aspects of music the Romantics became really boring in other realms. They were revolutionizing harmony, I grant, but for me their overall rhythmic approach could often feel tedious. Big soaring plangent endless melodies and, meh. Chopin, I grant, wrote a lot of fun music, though.
I'm not categorically against 19th century music, but I think I've been clear so far that what I dispute is the whole six-pack of ideologies associated with the Romantic era. I love a lot of music from Josquin up through Beethoven and then I start to get bored in the 19th century and I find Wagner tedious musically and aggravating personally. Then we get to about Brahms and Debussy and I'm okay with composers again and we get to Stravinsky, Bartok and Hindemith and I am more excited about where music goes.
Perhaps I can put it like this, Beethoven is like a Stanley Kubrick for music. I don't mind his work but I find the preening elitism and self-congratulation of his fans generally insufferable. That Beethoven more or less billed himself as the prophet-priest-king of music the supreme art is so inextricable from his legacy and what academics now refer to as the reception history of the Beethoven cult it would be hard to separate the egoism of the artist-genius cult from the music itself.
I like Rick Robinson's ideas that we find ways to advocate for this music of the past without relying on superlatives but relying on the superlatives is pretty clearly what a range of conservative or "conservative" writers do, even those who are persuaded to the bottom of their souls they stand for Enlightenment ideals. You can only go so many centuries with this kind of post-Beethoven cult of the artist-genius before others qualify for the status or people object to the nature of this kind of cult-forming tendency in letters.
I still admire Beethoven's music. The Op. 111 piano sonata is a great deal of fun and has moments of striking beauty and violent activity. Beethoven's Grosse Fugue can be heard in all its complexity as taking the shape of a giant contrapuntal five-part rondo. We don't have to only talk about his music as though "nobody got it" in his day. Clearly many people did, as noted in the article at The Imaginative Conservative.
But as I get older I find that though I still like Beethoven half the time I find his choral music insipid and awkward, whereas Haydn continues to grow on me and I've loved Haydn's music since my twenties. In an era in which popular and concert music traditions have ossified and insulated and the balkanization of their advocates has gotten seemingly as bad as it can get, a composer like Haydn who, as Charles Rosen put it, wrote in a learned style that was suffused with the virtues of street song seems more what we "need". We "need" composers who are not continuing the artist as prophet-priest-king in the post-Wagnerian Art-Religion of Beethoven and Wagner, but can retain some kind of populist interest (which Beethoven did have, a bit) in conciliating a variety of styles that partisans want segregated. Particularly since the election of 45 I have noticed that there has been a tendency among professional artists to define populist concerns in such pejorative terms that you'd think that a large swath of college-educated professional musicians have collapsed any notion of populism with the current executive.
Beethoven's iconic status as an iconoclast has become a paradox, a double-bind in which the rule-breaker has been regarded as the norm-maker but the maker of forget-the-norms-and-express-your-heart. The likelihood that most of us love and like in terms of cliches doesn't have much room for a post-Beethoven cult, a cult that Meyer described in his monograph on Romanticism as the ideology of elite egalitarians. Two and a half centuries since Beethoven's day a potentially impassable rift between the elite accomplishments of canonized artist-heroes and the egalitarian impulses they formally expressed may remain impassable. The mixture of head and heart that was, in his time, though perhaps more powerfully in posthumous glory, achieved by Beethoven through his music hasn't been replicated. Many musicians and music scholars would ask why it even needs to be reproduced in our time.
But it has been, arguably, in figures like Michael Jackson or The Beatles. The grand act of reconciliation valued in Western arts shifts and the "what" of the reconciliation can change. In Beethoven's time maybe the great rift was between "head" and "heart" within an intra-European set of concerns. In the twenty-first century, however, with a probably declining United States at the focal point of a crumbling Atlanticist alliance it may be that the problem hasn't been Beethoven but the obsolescence of the Beethoven cult and of the Romantic nexus of ideologies that have catalyzed Western art. The taste-makers and power-brokers of our epoch don't find Beethoven as useful as The Beatles or Michael Jackson or Madonna or Elvis or Beyonce.
As Beethoven's music became more daring and rarified in his later career whatever delicate balance of learned technique and populist appeal that Rosen found in Haydn and Mozart began to get cast aside. Beethoven solved the great aesthetic challenges that people felt needed to be addressed in his time and place, but the Beethoven cult has created a set of problems for which academic musicologists and music historians seem unable to find solutions to. Nor should we expect academics to find solutions to the kinds of problems that, were we to take some of the Beethoven cult of the artist arguments at face value, only the artists can solve. It's left, then, to people who write about music more than they write music to perform some mixture genuflecting before or fulminating against figures like Beethoven, their music, and their reception history.