Friday, May 20, 2016

Beethoven's Humanity vs. Mozart's Divinity

In my previous post, I looked at an article written by someone who probably does not have much experience covering classical music (at least, judging by the other articles she's written). It addresses some of the problems that arise when publishers assign staffers who do not have the background to write knowingly about their given subject. For this post, however, I examine an article by The Telegraph's regular classical music critic, Ivan Hewett. While his article also contains historical falsehoods, I'm more concerned about the way Hewett resorts to the most familiar stereotypes to preach to the choir.

First, some background: In a survey conducted earlier this year by Classic FM, a UK-based radio station, Beethoven had more compositions on the favorites list than Mozart. This was the first time this has happened since the annual survey started in 1996, which is enough of a change to warrant some comment. The first article The Telegraph ran on this coup, "Beethoven beats Mozart to be crowned most popular composer for first time," offers an explanation: Beethoven's seventh symphony serves as the soundtrack to an intense scene in the popular movie The King's Speech, which prompted people to seek out more of his music.

Perhaps this article was a bit too dry in its cold reporting of facts and analysis. Where is the breathless adulation of these Great Masters? So, Hewett offers his own explanation in "Why Beethoven rules supreme over Mozart."  Rather than discuss why people might have adjusted their answers in the poll, he effectively proclaims that the poll has finally gotten it right.

"Beethoven is classical music's titan. More than that, he is the perfection of the romantic artist-hero," Hewett declares. Here's where my perspective as a musicologist differs from that of most music fans. I cannot argue against Beethoven being a "romantic artist-hero," but rather than using that as proof of his greatness, I see it as an interesting product of nineteenth-century culture. Our concept of the "artist-hero" is based on the Romantic perception of Beethoven, so of course he's the best example of it; it's a tautology. This statement should be unpacked and explored, not taken as evidence in itself.

Hewett uses the word "perfection" twice more in the article, both in reference to Mozart. This is the dichotomy he establishes: Mozart is divine perfection, but Beethoven is human struggle. Therefore, we respond more to Beethoven (except for all those years when we didn't, apparently). But any time you attempt to place artists into neat little categories like this, you oversimplify and deny the complexities that make them so compelling. I could go on to list counterexamples of "perfection" in Beethoven and "humanity" in Mozart, but ultimately I don't think that would prove anything. I reject the premise that those descriptions are useful.

In extolling the greatness of Beethoven, Hewett cites an anecdote:
One biographer tells us Mozart heard the young Beethoven play, and afterwards said: “Mark that young man, he will make a name for himself in the world.” So they must have had a lot in common, to recognise each other’s talent. 
As nice as this story is, it most likely did not happen. There are no contemporary records of Mozart saying that about Beethoven. The story first appears in a biography by Otto Jahn from the nineteenth century. (Have you noticed yet how often that century is the source of these myths?) Sure, Hewett is hedging by saying that "one biographer tells us" that, but his comment after the quote implies that the reader is to accept this story as the truth. As such, Hewett intends for it to reveal how great Mozart and Beethoven both are--Mozart for recognizing talent, and Beethoven for having the talent being recognized.

The article is filled with little details that aren't completely right, though they aren't exactly wrong. He mentions "fate knocking at the door" in Beethoven's fifth symphony, an interpretation of the four-note motive that pervades the work. This phrase probably originates with Beethoven's secretary Anton Schindler, not Beethoven himself. The idea has been welded to the symphony in the public imagination, and Hewett reaffirms it.

More phrases bolster this familiar image: Beethoven is "a rule-breaker, an iconoclast" (whereas Mozart is "conventional"). His symphonies are "Immortal" with a capital I. The first symphony is a "shock"; the "Eroica" is also a "shock." He writes things "in a way never before heard in music." To anyone who has heard anything about Beethoven, these descriptions would not come as a surprise.

Which brings me to my main issue with this article: Who is the audience? I don't get the impression that this is intended for someone new to Beethoven, looking to find out more about his music. Instead, I think Hewett is addressing people who regularly follow classical music in the news and like being told how great their taste in music is. He's recycling the same stories and phrases that have been used in conjunction with Beethoven for two centuries to reassure the reader that Beethoven is just as wonderful as he's always been.

I don't want to be the dowdy academic raining on people's parade and telling them that, "Well actually, Beethoven isn't as great as you think." I love Beethoven's music! It's my love of the music that urges me to find things that my readers might not know, that will prompt them to think about Beethoven in a broader context.

This article features the type of writing that I want to challenge in this blog. Hewett relies on clichés and apocryphal history, which makes the readers complacent rather than curious. We can write better.

"Why Beethoven rules supreme over Mozart" by Ivan Hewett in The Telegraph

"Beethoven beats Mozart to be crowned most popular composer for first time" in The Telegraph

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