Martin Geck: Beethoven’s Symphonies

Sometimes the release of books and records seems serendipitous.  If I look closer at the process I might start to feel cynical. I will cling to the positive magic implicit in serendipity, naive though it may seem. geck

For instance, here I was, beginning to work my way through the new Tafelmusik complete Beethoven Symphonies just released this fall, and what should I see on the new books shelf at the Edward Johnson Building Library?  Beethoven’s Symphonies, a new book from Martin Geck, translated by Stewart Spenser.  The German edition came out in 2015 so it really is quite new.   A book like this, however musicological and rigorous it may be, feels like a bigger better version of liner notes for a record, especially when you’re listening to the recordings every day.

Maybe it’s not such an unlikely coincidence, considering how much keeps being written about Beethoven.  At the very same time that I noticed Geck’s symphony book, I also spotted Barry Cooper’s The Creation of Beethoven’s 35 piano sonatas, another book that can legitimately carry “2017” on its call number.   There’s always lots of Beethoven study in the world.  I’ve been through the symphony set, one end to the other twice, listening to each of them twice along the way, so I’m fairly swimming in Ludwig van B.  Mostly it’s a constructive – additive sort of thing, where having the music saturating my ear complements the reading.

For the most part Geck seems to have a rare understanding of the composer, in a book full of insights.There have been moments when I pushed back a bit.  When Beethoven was being extolled to the skies at the expense of Franz Schubert I had to push the pause button for a moment.  Must we play those 19th century musicological pissing contests, declaring that my composer pees further than yours ergo he’s better? It’s tricky because Geck has a very ironic style at times, and I’m decoding a translation that might have emasculated or embellished what he actually meant.

Can’t we all just get along?

In a chapter segment titled “Delusions of Virility: A Constant in Beethoven’s Symphonies?” –a segment proposing an intriguing frame for Beethoven’s symphonies– we see the following from Geck:

Are delusions of virility a characteristic of Beethoven’s symphonies as such? Strictly speaking, there is no “As such” because each work merges with its own reception to such an extent that it is almost impossible to separate the two. Even so, comparisons are still possible –not only between Beethoven and his contemporaries but also between Beethoven’s individual works.  Against the background there is no denying that Beethoven’s symphonic music admits of far more gestures of power than Schubert’s, for example, and that Schubert was able to achieve the mellow calm of his great C-major symphony only after he had failed to achieve the heroic Beethovenian ideal in his unfinished symphony in B minor, a failure that he himself saw in an entirely positive light.

It’s really hard to argue when you’re inside someone’s head, wondering just what he means. We’re less in a scholarly discussion and more in a kind of poetic labyrinth of allusive phrases.  I wish I knew what was really meant by “gestures of power”, as I can’t really calibrate such moments as the powerful fanfare that opens the first movement of Schubert’s 9th, or the call to battle that opens its finale. Surely those are gestures of power…? Perhaps it’s problematic because some of this virility is not at all delusionary, leading us away from the big metaphor Geck is creating.

I made this quote and took issue with it not so much to take Geck down, as to suggest another way to read this book.  When I recall my joyful experience with the Tafelmusik CDs, it places this book into a slightly different category, less musicology than entertaining guidebook.  If Geck isn’t required to explain what he means, then it’s wonderfully enjoyable as a way to open up the conversational space, rather than to close & conclude the discussion.  I’m far happier with that tendency, as though the symphonies are prayers or meditations and Geck’s commentary the marginal gloss, illuminating our reading/ prayer. It really does work, as one doesn’t have to fight when the commentary is presented in a somewhat non commital and ambivalent tone; even the Schubert quibble I mention above ceases to be problematic if we see this as Geck’s celebration of the achievements of the era (and of both composers) rather than anything precise or definitive.

One has to let go of one’s rigor, to “lighten up”.

So when Geck asks about the sequence of keys for Beethoven’s symphonies, it’s more of a provocation than the introduction to something rational; and no wonder that the question is posed in a chapter segment titled ”On Idle Speculations.” First time through, especially after the recent conversations I’ve had with Jenna Simeonov about keys (see her recent piece here, and something I suggested she read, from a few years before), I was almost angry that the writer seemed to be copping out, ducking the question altogether:

C major, D major, E-flat major: these are the tonics of the first three symphonies. But why is the next symphony in B-flat major rather than the expected F major? And why is there no G major, but instead two symphonies in F major and one each in C minor and D minor in addition to C major and D major?

Argh…!  Wrong question surely. It’s already profoundly remarkable that the first three symphonies have this sequence. Does it mean anything? Must it mean anything at all?  How about asking those questions, framed against the certain knowledge that no composer had ever set symphonies in this kind of sequence.

AHHH..! but then again, if we back off lighten up, and allow Geck to have his fun? if we stop treating this as musicology and instead let it be a bit of a romp –albeit with a Beeethoven soundtrack—I think we’re in much better shape, and far less likely to have our noses out of joint.

One of the things I really love about this book is how new it all sounds, how fresh and modern Beethoven seems in Geck’s eyes and by implication, in those new recordings that I’m playing.  Geck has us immersed in the cultural preoccupations of the time as to make the symphonies sound fresh and even radical.     So go get this book as your companion to listening to the symphonies, whether it might be the new Tafelmusik recordings or something older.  No matter what recording you put on, Geck makes the music sound fresher and newer.

That’s a good thing.

Martin Geck’s Beethoven’s Symphonies, subtitled “Nine Approaches to Art and Ideas” is from University of Chicago Press, translated by Stewart Spencer.

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