Wagner and Beethoven: Richard Wagners Reception of Beethoven

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The joy of listening to Beethoven is comparable to the pleasure of reading Joyce: the most paranoid, overdetermined interpretation is probably the correct one. The simplest answer might be that Beethoven was so crushingly sublime that posterity capitulated. But no one is well served by history in the style of superhero comics. This composer, too, was shaped by circumstances, and he happened to reach his maturity just as listeners of an intellectual bent, such as E. Hoffmann, were primed for an oversized figure, an emperor of an expanding musical realm.

The disorder of the Napoleonic Wars, which redrew the map of Europe and ended the Holy Roman Empire, caused many to look toward music as a refuge. Amid universal chaos, Beethoven exuded supreme authority. Beethoven, despite his cosmopolitan Enlightenment background, was not immune to such sentiments.

This would seem to be the kind of work that Swafford dismisses as so much posturing, but it sheds new light on the origins of the Beethoven phenomenon. Napoleon occupied Vienna in , amid an upwelling of patriotic feeling in the Austrian population, and Beethoven, notwithstanding his earlier French proclivities, rose with the anti-French tide. Earlier scholars have dismissed these pieces as regrettable detours or treated them as exercises in irony and parody.

Biographers have long argued that the turmoil of the Napoleonic period and the subsequent restoration of traditional monarchic rule led Beethoven to escape into a private, visionary world.

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They also tend to assume that his deafness isolated him from everyday concerns. He portrays a composer perpetually buffeted by political forces from the start of his career: several striking pages of the book evoke the militarized sonic landscape of Vienna in the Napoleonic years, with fanfares, marches, and belligerent songs echoing from all corners.

Beethoven adopted this militaristic vocabulary but translated it into a more rarefied instrumental language. The finale of the Ninth has the momentum of immense forces being called up and mobilized for some mighty task. But what? The aura of history unfolding before our ears, of figures rushing into the future at a prestissimo tempo, sends us into a fury of interpretation.

Here, perhaps, is the core of the Beethoven phenomenon. He achieved unprecedented autonomy, refusing to abase himself before aristocratic patrons even as he took their money. Most of his major scores make their argument in abstract, nondescriptive terms, under the titles sonata, quartet, concerto, and symphony.

Yet a paradox hovers over this liberation from servility and utility: in breaking away from its present, the music becomes captive to its future. Can Beethoven ever elude the fate of monumental meaninglessness to which he seems consigned?

The canon is a grand illusion generated by the erasure of a less desirable past. Classics has done a service in bringing it to light, since intelligent novels on the subject of composers—or musicians of any kind—rarely come along. Furthermore, this Beethoven novel depicts not his years of triumph but his squalid final months, when he often had the appearance of a decrepit monster. Friedman takes inspiration from the notebooks through which Beethoven communicated with friends and acquaintances once his deafness had made ordinary discourse impossible.


WAGNER, R.: Symphony in C Major / Symphony in E Major (fragments) (Leipzig MDR Symphony, Märkl)

Friedman seizes on the frustration and makes it productive. And, despite the oblique method, the voice is all too vividly audible. Johanna had some character flaws—she had been jailed for embezzling a pearl necklace—but hardly deserved to have her son taken away, as Beethoven eventually succeeded in doing.

Else much therein might appear obscure. Let my executors and the world, therefore, know these things :. My native place is a city of fair size in Central Germany. I am not quite certain what the plans of my people for my future had been. All that I recall is, that one evening I heard one of Beethoven's symphonies for the first time ; that I was taken with fever in consequence, was ill for some time, and, when I had recovered, had become a musician.

I suppose it is because of this circumstance that although I have since then learned to know and appreciate much other music that is beautiful, I have, foremost, loved, and honored, and adored Beethoven. This delusion was of a very gentle sort, and it did no harm to any one. The daily bread which I ate during this period of my life was very dry, my wine very thin and watery ; for the giving of music- lessons does not earn much of an income where I live, my dear executors and public! I had been living thus in my little garret for some time when suddenly, one day, it occurred to me that the man whose creations I adored above everything else, was still living.

I could not understand how it was that I had not thought of this before. It had never suggested itself to me as possible that Beethoven could actually stand before one, that he could eat and breathe like an ordinary mortal. And here he was, living in Vienna; and he, too, was a poor German musician like myself! From that instant my peace of mind was gone.

All my thoughts turned into the one wish, to see Beethoven! Never Mussulman more devoutly yearned to make the pilgrimage to the grave of his prophet, than I to the humble chamber where Beethoven dwelt. But how should I manage to carry out such a design?

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The journey to Vienna was a long one, and money was required to make it ; whilst I, poor wretch, was hardly earning enough to keep body and soul together. It was painfully evident that I should have to devise some extraordinary measures, if I hoped to get the necessary travelling-money together. I had composed several sonatas for the piano, in the master's style ; these I carried to a publisher.

But the man curtly gave me to understand that I was a simpleton with my sonatas. He advised me, that, if I expected in time to earn a few dollars with compositions of this kind, I should first undertake to make something of a reputation with galops and potpourris. I shuddered at the thought.

But my longing to see Beethoven conquered. I composed galops and potpourris.

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But during all this time, from very shame, I could not bring myself to even so much as look at my Beethoven ; I shrank in horror from the desecration. Unfortunately, however, I failed at first to get any compensation at all for these sacrifices of innocence. For although he published them, my publisher said he could not pay me for them until I had secured some- what of a name.

Again I shuddered, I succumbed to despair. But despair yielded some excellent galops. I really got some money for them ; and at length the time came when I believed I had amassed enough to execute my plans. But in the meantime two years had passed away ; and during all that time I was in mortal dread lest Beethoven might die before I had achieved a name with my galops and potpourris. Thank heavens! Sainted Beethoven! Ah, what genuine ecstasy!

I had attained my goal! Who in the wide world happier than I!

Now, at last, I could throw my bundle over my shoulder and start on my pilgrimage to Beethoven. I felt a holy thrill as I marched through the city-gates and directed my course to the South. Not because I dreaded the toil of foot-travel for what tribulations would I not eagerly have borne for this dear object! I had as yet accomplished too little for my celebrity as a galop-composer to be able to pay the costly fare. Accordingly, I resolutely faced every hardship, deeming myself lucky since they terminated in bringing me to Beethoven.

O, how I raved! Never lover knew greater bliss, returning after a long separation to the love of his youth. After a time I entered the beautiful land of Bohemia, the home of the harp-players and wandering singers. In one little town I ran across a company of these nomad musicians. They formed a little orchestra, made up of a bass, two violins, two horns, a clarinet, and a flute. There were three women with them ; one was a harp-player ; the other two were singers and had fine voices. They played dances and sang folk-songs ; people gave them money, and they journeyed on. Later I chanced upon them again in a pretty and shady nook, just off the highway.

They were bivouacking and having their dinner. I joined them, telling them that I, too, was a musician. We were soon on good terms. Since they played dances, I asked them, rather timidly, if they had ever yet played any of my galops. The splendid fellows 1 they had never heard of my galops!

Great Composers, Lousy Reviews

What a world of relief this knowledge afforded me! Then I asked if they did not play some other music besides dance-music. They got out their music. I remarked among it the grand septette of Beethoven; surprised I asked them if they played that, too. Enraptured, I seized Joseph's violin and promised to the best of my ability to supply his place ; and we began the septette.

What a delightful experience! Here, upon a Bohemian highway, beneath the open heaven, to hear Beethoven's septette played by common strolling musicians, with a purity, a precision, and a depth of sentiment, as seldom by masterful virtuosi! Great Beethoven! A remarkably tall and remark- ably blond young man lay extended at full length within the wagon, barkened with considerable attentiveness to our music, and then, drawing a note-book from his pocket, jotted down something therein.