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June 13, 2005

Constructive Hooliganism - Beethoven Week on BBC Radio 3

Posted by David Conway

Beethoven Week on BBC Radio 3
5th - 10th June 2005

Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan, or so argues Dylan Evans in The Guardian. Nonsense, responds David Conway - Beethoven should rather be seen as a constructive hooligan. BBC Radio 3's Beethoven week was a fantastic celebration of Beethoven's work.

There are a very few who can't stand Beethoven's music. They are not all wicked; one of them was the otherwise extremely impressive Head of Music at my children's school, who conducted the school orchestra in almost everyone between Bach and Bernstein whilst studiously ignoring the greatest B of all.

Another however is Dylan Evans - the writer of an article in The Guardian reprimanding BBC Radio 3's six solid days of the Master - who feels that Beethoven led us toward a terrible immorality of thinking and feeling, when we could all have remained in the sunny uplands of Mozart's "unselfconscious vivacity", or "Bach's perfectly-formed fugues" or "Vivaldi's sparkling concerti". The article is headed Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan, and its author - a senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems - writes sententiously "Some of us feel he did more harm than good to classical music".

Nice to see The Guardian taking a stand against hooligans, but Beethoven is the wrong kind. It is certainly true that Beethoven had an almost psychopathic side. In conjunction with the radio Beethovenfest, BBC2 showed a three-part biography of the composer fronted by Charles Hazlewood, which gave a good insight into this side of the composer (such as his obsessive attitudes to his brother Karl and his family) whilst missing a few tricks on how it was linked to his music. For example, we were shown Beethoven's famous piano-'duel' with Steibelt, (portrayed inaccurately as a limp-wristed Parisian lounge-lizard), in which, for simplified TV purposes I suppose, both improvised on a theme of Mozart. The real story is more revealing: Steibelt, in an attempt either to honour or, more likely, to humiliate Beethoven, improvised on a theme from one of the latter's trios. Beethoven, when it came to his turn, seized in a fury the cello part from one of Steibelt's pieces that had been played earlier in the evening, ostentatiously turned it upside down, and developed from the resulting 'tune' a fantasia that completely flattened his competitor.

It is a safe bet that the intelligent autonomous systems programmed by The Guardian writer and his like, when they get round to creating artificial artwork, will ignore any leads that might be given by such artistic aggression, or Shakespeare's depressing tragedies or Rembrandt's portraits of nasty old folk (or for that matter the emotional crises of Bach's St. Matthew Passion or Mozart's 40th Symphony). For those of us, however, who enjoy facing the challenges of real life, are prepared to venture beyond the limits of Classic FM, and were lucky enough to be working at home, last week was a priceless gift from the BBC, enough almost to erase from memory all one's perpetual whinges about this sacred cow.

It was stated that every note written by Beethoven was broadcast. Although I still managed to miss, by waking up too late on Friday, the Duet for violin, viola and obbligato eyeglasses (which perhaps anyway works better as a title than as a piece of music), I can still report a series of consistent highs whenever I switched on BBC Radio 3, whether I was catching something already known to me or an obscure setting of (allegedly) Welsh folk-tunes. Amongst the highlights was a broadcast created in the 1990s compiling and superimposing, without comment, an extraordinary variety of versions of the Fifth Symphony, including versions for brass band, piano duet, jazz orchestra, choir and the immortal commentary on the first movement as an American football game by Peter Schickele (aka P. D. Q. Bach).

It is only I think Beethoven that can deliver such reliable fixes. It is reported that the BBC is now considering having Mozart, Bach or Verdi weeks. Whilst these will be interesting, they will not be as satisfactory as radio – and that is precisely because Beethoven is more prepared to "rough us up"; the variety, the sense that something quite unexpected may be round the corner, will be missing.

Beethoven's music, as a whole, seems an embodiment of Blake's axiom - "Damn braces – bless relaxes". Its difficulty – where it is difficult – is not born from intransigence or self-indulgence, but from the manifest willingness and excitement of the composer to take us with him to places that only he has been able to discover. We can legitimately esteem ourselves for our willingness to take up his challenge and for the rewards we are thereby able to reap. It was this ability to enthuse a following which set Beethoven apart and marked a new era in music (and for the musician). Beethoven cannot be said to have done "harm" to classical music – the charge is meaningless; nor can he held to have betrayed in any way the legacy of the masters who preceded him; but he saw in that legacy, as Michelangelo is said to have seen within blocks of marble, possibilities unimagined by any other.

Certainly others following on from Beethoven expressed the same confidence in their abilities but were not in the upshot – with the possible exception of Wagner - able to deliver the same quality goods. We may be interested, for example, to explore the nooks and crannies of dodecaphony but we would not want to dwell there for any length of time. I cannot see myself signing up to a BBC Radio 3 "Second Viennese School" week.

Amongst the legacies of the Beethoven week is a page on the BBC website from which you can listen to all or any of Beethoven's sonatas in excellent performances by Artur Pizzaro. The BBC is also enabling for a limited period download of performances of Beethoven's symphonies in mp3 format as played by the BBC Philharmonic. These are interesting signs of a new era in dissemination of music which offer much more hope for interest in and knowledge of the classical genre than the few nuggets of music embedded in the general piffle and waffle of the increasingly ossified Classic FM.

I wish I could conclude from all this that BBC Radio 3 is climbing out of its long sleep and once more seeking to inspire as a leader in music-making and thinking. Alas, the recently released programme for an almost deadly-dull season of Proms (which starts on July 15th) has me once more sadly shaking my head. But more of that on a future occasion.

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I'm not responsible for the lurid headline which was attached my article, which suggests that my concern was with Beethoven the man rather than with his music. In fact, what I was objecting to was that there is too much of the man in his music. In other words, the real point of the article was to exhibit the often unstated criterion on which Beethoven's fans base their praise for his music - the criterion of self-expression - and to point out that one can have a very different kind of aesthetics. To my mind, music is demeaned and diminished when it is used as a kind of self-expression, just as other people are demeaned when they are used mere objects for my own satisfaction. Music can take us out of ourselves, but only when it is not about us.

Posted by: Dylan Evans at June 13, 2005 02:59 PM

I apologise for blaming Mr.Evans for the headline he was landed with. But he stumbles if I may say into a similar error by assuming what he admits to be ‘an often unstated criterion’ on the part of Beethoven’s fans, that of ‘self-expression’. I had myself thought that praise for self-expression in its own right, save in the British state education system, had died out some time in the early 1970s. I doubt whether it has been seriously advanced as an argument for the importance of Beethoven’s music since the heyday of romanticism in the mid-nineteenth century.

But I am now not quite clear where Mr. Evans feels blame should be apportioned - to the Romantic movement, for elevating Beethoven as a model artistic Uebermensch, or to some quality of Beethoven's music for inspiring them to do so.

If the former it seems rather unfair to lay into Beethoven himself, or his compositions. There is no evidence that he wrote his music with any purpose of 'self-expression' - rather, he was simply concerned to write what he (and others) thought was damned good music. Let's not forget, as a comparison, that the 'unselfconscious vivacity' of Mozart was often thought by many of his contemporaries to be over-complex and indulgent - 'too many notes and too difficult to be sung' as the Emperor Joseph said of 'The Abduction from the Seraglio'. But we have somehow come to live with it without being contaminated by the self-assertion of Wolfgang’s genius.

If the latter, then we are on the slippery route to the arguments which trace the roots of Nazism to Richard Wagner…….

Music is there to be listened to. Being emotionally affected by music is (to me anyway) part of its joy. In being affected we are inevitably being touched by something which the composer him or herself has felt. The Brandenburg Concerti are as much Bach’s self-expression as the C sharp minor quartet is Beethoven’s. Some may consider allowing these expressions to touch us as 'demeaning'. I think of it rather as communion.

Posted by: David Conway at June 13, 2005 05:59 PM
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