Music History Minus Beethoven?

Escaping from classical music’s ultimate composer-hero.

Portrait of Beethoven by Karl Joseph Karl Stieler, Wikimedia Commons.

         By Leah Broad

I recently Googled ‘music history without Beethoven’, and the results are hilariously depressing. Of 38,800,000 hits, my top three were: ‘Why Beethoven?’, an academic article stating that ‘there will be no end to our fascination with Beethoven’; and articles entitled ‘How Beethoven’s Symphonies Changed The World’, and ‘Beethoven: How the World’s First Rock Star Changed Music Forever’. The same search in quotation marks yielded a grand total of 0 results. 

The results for ‘composers not influenced by Beethoven’ is no less promising. The top hit is an article by Classic FM called ‘Beethoven’s Influence On Other Composers’, asking the allegedly important question: ‘Had Ludvig van Beethoven never existed, could he have been invented?’

Sure, Beethoven is important in European music history. But is music history without him really inconceivable? Beethoven’s impressive posthumous Google domination is a symptom of a much wider problem with the way music history is written.

‘For nearly two centuries’, musicologist Scott Burnham writes in his book Beethoven Hero, ‘a single composer has epitomized musical vitality, becoming the paradigm of Western compositional logic’. Beethoven’s values ‘have become the values of music.’ All roads lead to, from, and are compared to, Beethoven.

This is problematic for a whole host of reasons. That our tools of analysis, ways of listening, and historical priorities have been so focused on Beethoven means that other composers have been read in comparison, rather than on their own merits. To quote Burnham again, ‘we may read the history of tonal theory in the nineteenth century as a form of Beethoven reception’, and by reading music in this way, ‘we implicitly claim that Beethoven’s music most closely resembles the way music ought to go.’ 

This has produced surprising results; for example, Beethoven’s music has historically been gendered ‘masculine’, leading the music of his contemporary, Schubert, to be gendered ‘feminine’ in response. Robert Schumann wrote of Schubert that he ‘is a feminine character, much more voluble, softer and broader […] in relationship to Beethoven!’ 

This gendered comparison has sometimes led to Schubert receiving short shrift in nineteenth and twentieth century writing; for example in 1883 the music critic H. Heathcote Statham commented that Schubert’s songs leave the listener ‘with a consciousness of having been overdosed with sentiment; of having gone through a great deal of repetition and mannerism, beautiful at first but cloying after a time; with a longing for something more bracing and manly in style and feeling.’ 

Besides ignoring many of the similarities between Beethoven and Schubert, this perpetuates the idea that not only are certain musical gestures associated with gendered characteristics, but that ‘masculine’ features are superior.

Focusing on Beethoven also pushes to one side multiple sources of influence that were nothing to do with Beethoven, giving us a skewed perspective of musical history. It focuses inordinate attention on Austria and Germany, hiding the geographical complexity of many composers’ lives and influences. Particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, composers outside Austria and Germany were in dialogue with music from these countries but were hardly defined by it. They turned to the work of others in their native and neighbouring countries for their primary sources of inspiration, and often expressed ambivalence about Beethoven’s work.

Janáček, for example, wrote that Beethoven ‘illuminates every single cloud and dispels every shadow. But what is the good of that? I want to capture the clouds themselves, I want to sink my eyes into the blue of the sky, I want to bundle the very sunrays into my fist, I want to plunge into the shadow. I want to cry myself into the core of yearning: all this in full intensity.’ Beethoven was one in a plethora of inspirations from elsewhere — Dvořák, Slavic folk music, and Russian composers including Tchaikovsky. 

Sibelius also had a distant view of Beethoven. He wrote in 1894 that ‘I am really a tone painter and poet. Liszt’s views about music are most closely related to my own.’ He admired Beethoven, but wrote in his diary that Beethoven’s technique ‘is often antiquated and not brilliant enough.’ More important for Sibelius were modern composers like Scriabin and Debussy, and authors like August Strindberg, whose writing he greatly admired. Of course, statements like these shouldn’t always be taken at face value, but the wealth of music that these individuals produced that bears little resemblance to Beethovenian models suggest that we do them a disservice by shoe-horning them into a Beethoven-centric view.

But more than this, Beethoven-as-music-history provides blinkers when it comes to deciding what is or can be the subject of music history. We – musicologists, performers, publishers, and programmers – are now paying more attention to composers who do not fit the heroic-white-male-composing-masterpieces-in-isolation model. Composers like Clara Schumann and Julius Eastman are making their way into concert programmes and historical studies more regularly. But to pick just one example, what of Elfrida Andrée, composer, conductor and Sweden’s first female cathedral organist?

Despite a litany of setbacks (including being refused an organist appointment in her twenties because ‘the sight of a woman on the organ stool [would be] indecorous and disruptive of devotion’), Andrée persevered to become the organist at Gothenburg Cathedral in 1867. In a time when it was only considered acceptable for women to write small songs and piano pieces, Andrée composed two symphonies, several chamber works and an opera, writing to her father that ‘It would be easier to tear a piece from a rock than to tear away from me my ideal: the elevation of womankind!’ There’s a wealth of musical figures whose lives and works weave narratives that do not feature Beethoven.

Photograph of Elfrida Andrée, Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, emphasising Beethoven dictates our expectations of what music history can do or should include. What is the point of music history? In his Oxford History Of Western Music, Richard Taruskin writes that the point of a history is ‘to explain why and how things happened as they did’, and that to do so he included music ‘based not on my preferences but on my estimation of what needed to be included in order to satisfy the dual requirement of causal explanation and technical explication.’

It’s easy to poke holes in Taruskin’s History without acknowledging what an extraordinary feat of scholarship this single-author, five-volume series is. But as musicologist Gary Tomlinson puts it, Taruskin’s ‘preferences, he seems to think, are not preferences at all […] History happened thus.’ Beethoven, of course, gets two and a half chapters all to himself, to say nothing of his repeated appearances throughout volumes three to five as an influence on later music. 

But in this ‘catholic’ and ‘near exhaustive’ history of Music And Why It Happened, jazz, collaborative composition, incidental music, and sound art have little or no place, to name but a few. Nor are technologies or economic forces major players in this version of history. And this is perhaps the main problem with considering Beethoven indispensable to what Taruskin labels a ‘true history’. A history that prioritises Beethoven prioritises central Europe, concert halls, notated genres, and composers’ lives and works. And while Beethoven is indispensable to histories with these priorities, there are other narratives to be told in which Beethoven’s name is not so important. 

Our historical standpoints – what we choose as subjects and importantly what we choose to omit – these are preferences. We can seek truths within frameworks, but we choose which frames to look through. In some of music history’s frames, Beethoven is indispensable. But in many more, he’s not. When we stop thinking of Beethoven as the irreplaceable figure of music history, we discover that music history is much, much bigger than Beethoven.

Leah is a Lecturer in Musicology at the University of Oxford, researching incidental music and music from Scandinavia. She is the founder and editor of The Oxford Culture Review, a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker, and winner of the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism 2015. You can find out more about her work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @LeahBroad.