Tuesday June 7, 2005
It's Beethoven week on the BBC. By midnight on Friday Radio 3 will have filled six days of airtime with every single note the composer wrote - every symphony, every quartet, every sonata and lots more besides. This coincides with a series of three films on BBC2 in which the conductor Charles Hazlewood tells us about the composer's life, and three programmes of musical analysis on BBC4.
It's good to see classical music getting some coverage on primetime TV, but the relentless focus on Beethoven is dire. Not all fans of classical music are members of the Beethoven cult. Some of us even think he did more harm than good to classical music.
Beethoven certainly changed the way that people thought about music, but this change was a change for the worse. From the speculations of Pythagoras about the "music of the spheres" in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer's idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.
This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven's fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven's original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.
This is not to deny Beethoven's genius, but simply to claim that he employed his genius in the service of a fundamentally flawed idea. If Beethoven had dedicated his obvious talents to serving the noble Pythagorean view of music, he might well have gone on to compose music even greater than that of Mozart. You can hear this potential in his early string quartets, where the movements often have neat conclusions and there is a playfulness reminiscent of Mozart or Haydn. If only Beethoven had nourished these tender shoots instead of the darker elements that one can also hear. For the darkness is already evident in the early quartets too, in their sombre harmonies and sudden key changes. As it was, however, his darker side won out; compare, for example, the late string quartets. Here the youthful humour has completely vanished; the occasional signs of optimism quickly die out moments after they appear and the movements sometimes end in uncomfortably inconclusive cadences.
It's instructive to compare Beethoven's morbid self-obsession with the unselfconscious vivacity of Mozart. Like Bach's perfectly formed fugues and Vivaldi's sparkling concertos, Mozart's music epitomises the baroque and classical ideals of formal elegance and functional harmony; his compositions "unfold with every harmonic turn placed at the right moment, to leave, at the end, a sense of perfect finish and unity", as the music critic Paul Griffiths puts it. Above all, Mozart's music shares with that of Bach an exuberant commitment to the Enlightenment values of clarity, reason, optimism and wit.
With Beethoven, however, we leave behind the lofty aspirations of the Enlightenment and begin the descent into the narcissistic inwardness of Romanticism. Mozart gives you music that asks to be appreciated for its own sake, and you don't need to know anything about the composer's life to enjoy it. Beethoven's music, on the other hand, is all about himself - it is simply a vehicle for a self-indulgent display of bizarre mood swings and personal difficulties.
Hazlewood claims, in his BBC2 series, that music "grew up" with Beethoven; but it would be more accurate to say that it regressed back into a state of sullen adolescence. Even when he uses older forms, such as the fugue, Beethoven twists them into cruel and angry parodies. The result is often fiercely dissonant, with abrupt changes in style occurring from one movement to another, or even in the same movement. Hazlewood is right to describe Beethoven as a "hooligan", but this is hardly a virtue. In A Clockwork Orange it is the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that echoes in the mind of Alex whenever he indulges in one of his orgies of violence. Alex's reaction may be rather extreme, but he is responding to something that is already there in this dark and frenzied setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy; the joy it invites one to feel is the joy of madness, bloodlust and megalomania. It is glorious music, and seductive, but the passions it stirs up are dark and menacing.
I won't be able to resist tuning in to Beethoven at times this week, but I'll need to cheer myself up with something more optimistic and life-affirming afterwards.
Dylan Evans is a senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems at the University of the West of England