Political Beethoven: time for truth

Do modern times sometimes upset you? seeking to escape?

It’s a nerdy question naturally.  If you’re alive, you’re in modern times, no matter how preoccupied you allow yourself to become, lost in a video-game, biography, opera DVD, soap opera… (you name it).

A friend posted a Facebook quote that seems apt here.  My friend Romy Shiller said “Facing mortality makes you realize there’s no time for bullshit”.  BS takes many forms, but I’d summarize them all as the ways we distract and delude our minds, to lose sight of the here and now.  Sometimes even the moments from centuries ago can be the “here and now” that’s been lost.

Nicholas Mathew (click for bio)

The headline of this piece, read superficially might mislead you, precisely because we are so habitually inclined to miss the truth.  Indeed, I rarely use the word “truth” without some sense of irony, because I am so unsure what truth is, so hesitant to endorse any viewpoint without hesitation.  Let’s therefore understand that the word is used in an ironic way, as if to hold up a mirror to BS.

Nicholas Mathew’s new book Political Beethoven is like a bracing glass of lemonade, cleansing the palette, making one’s sense of taste sharper and more discerning.  I love Mathew’s reminder of the pieces Beethoven wrote that are like parodies of the composer we celebrate (or a heroic style), pieces such as Wellington’s Sieg for instance, that musicologists quietly ignore as anomalous, while celebrating compositions that display more of what Mathew calls “the rhetoric of resistance”.

Mathew brings up the additional –and troubling—dynamic of collaboration to further cloud the mix, even though he stops short of the kind of speculative fantasy I wouldn’t be able to resist.  I suppose I can never ignore the elephant in the room, which for me in any thinking about the mature Beethoven is the man becoming deaf.  When he’s writing a piece for theatre it’s not enough to be articulate on the page, given the usual give-and-take that’s necessary in live theatre.  Does the comparative banality of some of Beethoven’s music ever have to do with his communicative faculties?  I wonder.  Or maybe I’m being simplistic & reductive (unlike Mathew).

I consider Mathew’s book properly fourth dimensional, in its ability to show us glimpses of the conversation in the Napoleonic era, the Viennese society that the composer inhabited, and the historical conversation since.  We’re presented with the mythology and a patient but irresistible deconstruction of that –pardon my French—bullshit.  It’s polite, it’s respectful, yet the layers of falsehood are lifted from the surface of this story like the residue of last night’s dinner washed out of your mouth by the morning’s orange juice.  I’ve been seduced by these familiar tales, for instance, the image of the Eroica as an icon of individuality, a “radically autonomous” work of resistance.  Mathew brilliantly conflates the famous story –the composer’s erasure of the original title—with the realities of composition & publishing:

The history of  the Eroica thus mingles uncomfortably with its mythic aesthetic: the sources of the symphony and the copious criticism that the Eroica has generated present a scrawl of erasures and re-writings, assertions and retractions, open secrets and encrypted public pronouncements.  The figure of Napoleon has hovered on the fringes of the debate about the symphony ever since the early nineteenth century—a connection that critics, like Beethoven himself, seem to assert and then retract, write about and then cross out.  One can only read the history of the Eroica under erasure.  (Mathew)

I have much here to re-read and re-think.  I’m especially fascinated right now with Mathew’s understanding of the late works, especially in response to Adorno’s commentaries.  I have to also factor in my own responses to those pieces, responses that aren’t necessarily harmonious to those I’m reading.  The discourse across decades with admirers & critics is ultimately one I find stimulating and even intoxicating.  I find myself wondering if I even know what I mean by such adjectives as “political” or “personal”.

Oh well. It won’t be the first time a book knocked me on my can, and got my to let go of some assumptions.  It’s not so bad if I’m moved to re-evaluate what I thought I knew.

Mathew’s book is very helpful, very stimulating, and unquestionably worth reading, especially if you love Beethoven.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Reviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Political Beethoven: time for truth

  1. Pingback: Ethics and aesthetics | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Ethics and aesthetics in the news | barczablog

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