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Save Beethoven from His "Friends!"


Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic” as “an author whom everybody praises and nobody reads” is unfortunately as true as it is funny. Is the time approaching when even the great Beethoven will be a “classic” in that sense? There are disquieting signs that it is. A year or two ago a prominent critic, commenting on a festival in a large western city, deplored the fact that the Beethoven program drew the smallest audience of the week. In another city in the East, where a series of Beethoven concerts was given last winter with some prominent soloists, not more than fifty subscription tickets had been sold three days before the concerts began.

Why this strange attitude toward the music of the man who, for more than half a century, has been generally placed above all other composers, as Shakespeare has above all other poets? There are several reasons, concerning which it is time to speak frankly, if we would save Beethoven and restore him to his former popularity.


Some years ago, when the great Bohemian composer, Antonin Dvořák, was director of the National Conservatory, the editor of the Century Magazine asked him to write an article on Schubert. He declined on the ground that he was not a trained writer; whereupon the editor asked me if I would have some talks with Dvořák and put them into magazine shape. I did so, writing down everything Dvořák had said. When he looked over the manuscript a few days later he suddenly stopped, frowned, and said: “This must be left out.” “What?” I asked; and he replied: “My criticism of Beethoven.”

What was this “criticism?” The remark that most symphonies were too long, “even Beethoven’s!” Only this and nothing more!

This notion, current throughout the musical world, that nothing must ever be said indicating that Beethoven ever fell short of absolute perfection in any respect, has done, and still is doing, a great deal of harm. Beethoven himself knew very well that of his compositions many fell far short of his high-water mark; some of them he would have been glad to destroy. But his idolaters worship them all alike.

Such an attitude breeds hypocrisy; and hypocrisy always does harm. Music lovers who hear the weaker works of Beethoven and then are told that these things are miracles of inspiration, say to themselves: “Well, they are beyond my comprehension—I guess I won’t go next time they are played. I have heard them repeatedly and cannot learn to like them.” This is one of the ways the “friends” of Beethoven diminish his popularity.


Among the worst offenders are some of the pianists of our day who seldom play anything by Beethoven except one or the other of his last five sonatas. Now these sonatas, particularly the last three, are not among Beethoven’s most inspired productions, yet the critics keep on telling puzzled newspaper readers that they are the pinnacles of his pianistic art.

One author, Wasielewski, has had the courage, in his remarkable “Life of Beethoven,” to tell the plain truth about these sonatas. They were written, as he points out, at the time when Beethoven was completely absorbed by his Missa Solemnis, which left him little time to bestow on these piano pieces. Moreover, in these last years of his life, he had lost his interest in the piano, which he referred to contemptuously as a “clavicembalo miserabile;” while on another occasion he remarked that the piano “is and remains an insufficient instrument.” In 1811, after completing his Opus 111, he wrote: “No more things for piano except concertos; other pieces only if ordered.”

In such a frame of mind even a genius does not compose masterworks. Beethoven’s heart was not in these pieces.


Beethoven’s sway over the public can easily be restored by recognizing such truths and acting on them by playing in public only his best pieces.

Pianists are not the only offenders. String quartets are too much given to playing the great master’s weaker works. To the “friends” of Beethoven, to be sure, there are no weaker ones. Once when I had ventured to speak of one of the last quartets as not equal to some of the others I received a most ferocious letter, accusing me of trying to destroy Beethoven’s reputation! In truth, I was trying to save it by discriminating between the good and the indifferent.

The time has come when we must admit frankly that as a writer of choral works Beethoven was not the equal of Bach and Handel; that Mozart, Weber, Wagner and Bizet wrote operas superior to his Fidelio; that he wrote no songs equal to the best by Schubert, Schumann, Franz, Grieg and several others; that in chamber music Schubert and Schumann were fully his equals and that, wonderful as are his pianoforte works, Chopin’s, after all, are what Rubinstein called them, the “soul of the piano.”

It is therefore only in the symphony that Beethoven towers above all the others. What he did for the symphony is astounding, prodigious—almost miraculous, when we compare him with his predecessors. For this immortal achievement the world cannot honor him too highly; but the foolish general idolatry must stop. We must cease treating him as if he, and he alone of all men of genius, were above criticism. And we must submit some of his works to editorial revision. Only thus can we keep his bust on the lofty pedestal where it belongs.


No composer ever worshipped another as Wagner worshipped Beethoven. His essay on him—which has been admirably Englished by Dannreuther—is an impassioned dithyramb almost beyond comparison. Speaking of the Ninth Symphony, he once wrote: “Had anybody surprised me before the open score, as I went over it to consider the means of its execution and noted my tears and frantic sobs, he would truly have asked himself if this was the proper conduct for a royal Saxon Kapellmeister.”

That was written at the time (1846) when he undertook to conduct this sublime symphony in Dresden for the benefit of the widows’ and orphans’ pension fund of the Royal Orchestra. When his decision was made known there was general consternation. A deputation was actually sent to Director von Lüttichau asking him not to allow Wagner to carry out his wicked plan. For at that time this symphony was considered dull and incomprehensible. But Wagner persevered and the result was an unprecedented artistic as well as financial success.

What had he done? He had edited and interpreted Beethoven. He wrote expression marks into the orchestral parts; he made slight changes in the orchestration so as not to interrupt the melodic curve, which Beethoven had done because the instruments of his time had not the same compass as those of Wagner’s day. These and the other changes he introduced in order to make Beethoven’s meaning clearer he afterwards described and justified in a long essay of twenty-seven pages—a wonderful contribution to the art of interpretation.

Among those who heard the historic performance of the Ninth in 1846 was a young man named Hans von Bülow, who subsequently won fame by applying Wagner’s principles of interpretation to Beethoven’s symphonies and other works. After him came Hans Richter, Seidl, Nikisch, Weingartner, Mahler, and others, who followed in Wagner’s footsteps and thus won fresh enthusiasm for Beethoven. Weingartner actually wrote a treatise of nearly two hundred pages justifying the editing of Beethoven by conductors.

When Gustav Mahler was conductor of the New York Philharmonic he read the Beethoven works in his own way—a way that simply thrilled his audiences, although many, like myself, had thought they were tired of the Beethoven symphonies, simply because of having heard them so often. In the subjectivity or individuality of his interpretations Mahler did not go beyond Wagner, or Weingartner, or any of the others just named. Yet he was pounced upon by several of the critics like a criminal. The audiences were wild with enthusiasm—but they were not large, because most of the newspapers abused Mahler and denounced his readings for not being literal. Had they done him justice, proclaiming him as an eloquent apostle of the true Beethoven, the houses would have been crowded. It will be remembered that a famous foreign pianist wrote a highly indignant pamphlet against a certain New York critic, who, while posing as a friend and champion of Beethoven, had denounced Mahler in outrageous terms. From such “friends” may Beethoven be saved.


Another great Beethoven interpreter, a pianist, used to be abused like Mahler because he preferred the spirit of that master’s music to the letter. Paderewski was often accused of distorting the Beethoven sonata when, as a matter of fact, he played them in strict accordance with the best traditions.

Hans von Bülow used to warn his pupils against “that tiresome correctness (literalness) which some call the classical style.” It is this dry literalness which gradually reduces the works of a genius to the level of Mark Twain’s definition of “classic” as applied to music—something that everybody praises but nobody wants to hear.

The four things for which Paderewski was most frequently censured were that he used the pedal too much; that he indulged in an unwarranted tempo rubato; that occasionally he lingered too long over a single chord; and, in general, that he was too emotional in his readings. As a matter of fact, these were precisely the four most remarkable traits of Beethoven’s own playing, as attested by his contemporaries.

Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven as well as the teacher of Liszt, recorded the fact that Beethoven used the pedal a great deal—far more than is indicated in his printed works.

Another pupil of Beethoven (as well as his biographer), Schindler, knew him in the last thirteen years of his life; and in that period what he heard him play was “always, with few exceptions, free of all restraint in tempo; a tempo rubato in the most exact meaning of the term;” thus improving on his earlier “less expressively varied” style. Schindler takes pains to make it clear that by tempo rubato he means retardandos and accelerandos of the pace as a whole; in his own words: “changes in the rate of motion—mostly perceptible only to a delicate ear”—and not the ridiculous left-hand in strict time doctrine.

Schindler also calls attention (as I pointed out in my Success in Music)—to the fact that Beethoven sometimes “delayed very long over a single chord,” as Paderewski does; thus treating music, not as a dancing master treats it, but as a great actor treats a speech—respecting the words and the punctuation marks but reading in a good deal between the lines and thrilling the hearer with an occasional rhetorical pause.


The fourth point, Beethoven’s emotional style of playing, is of such supreme importance that a special section must be devoted to it. The Germans, who have produced more great creators of music than great interpreters, are afflicted with a class of pianists who pose as “Beethoven specialists.” Of all unmitigated bores they are the worst. I have heard more than one of them not only play Beethoven, but run down Paderewski’s style of playing Beethoven, utterly ignorant of the fact that he comes a million miles nearer the traditional Beethoven than they do. From the playing of these men all traces of emotion are rigorously banished. Yet Beethoven’s own playing of his works was above all things emotional. To cite a contemporary: “He lost himself in an improvisation the style of which was exceedingly varied and especially distinguished by sudden transitions… . He revelled rather in bold, stormy moods than in soft and gentle ones. The muscles of his face swelled, his veins were distended, his eyes rolled wildly, his mouth trembled convulsively, and he had the appearance of an enchanter mastered by the spirit he had himself conjured.”

As an orchestral conductor he was no less emotional, and his motions were extravagant, as Seyfried relates. “At a pianissimo he would crouch down till he was hidden behind the desk, and then as the crescendo increased, would gradually rise, beating all the time, until at the fortissimo he would spring into the air with his arms extended as if wishing to float on the clouds.” Seyfried recalled a concert given in Vienna, in 1808, at which one of the Beethoven concertos was being played. At the beginning of the first tutti, the composer, forgetting that he himself was the soloist, jumped up and began to conduct in his usual style. At the first sforzando he flung out his arms so violently as to extinguish both the lights on the piano desk. Seyfried, fearing that the mishap might recur, then sent for two choir boys and had them hold the candles; but when the fatal sforzando arrived, one of them received such a smart clap in the face from Beethoven’s right hand that he dropped his light in terror. The audience, naturally, laughed, and this threw Beethoven into such a rage that when he returned to the piano he broke half a dozen strings at the first chords of the solo.

Readers who may desire more of these interesting details regarding this great master’s emotionality may find them in abundance in Ludwig Nohl’s Beethoven Depicted by His Contemporaries (English by Emily Hill) or in Dr. Theodore Baker’s translation of Vincent D’Indy’s charming little book on the great master. Beethoven’s rivals among the pianists soon began to dread him because of his expressive, passionate playing. “He is a demon,” said one of them.

The great master was in love repeatedly, but none of the women he adored would marry him, because he was so ugly, uncouth and eccentric. These, and other disappointments and afflictions he felt deeply, and they are reflected in his compositions. In the words of D’Indy: “The torments of a soul ravaged by feminine charm, the violent passion suffered for women whom he could not wed, the deceitful incapacity of even distinctly hearing the voice of the beloved—all this became music and was translated into masterworks.”

It is these masterworks—the sonatas of the middle period—in which Beethoven recorded his ardent feelings aroused by love of women, love of nature, love of his own country—he lived nearly all his life in the midst of the excitements of war—it is these master-works that the “Beethoven specialists” and others play with the “tiresome correctness” known as the “classical style!” From such “friends,” could he hear them, Beethoven would be the first to wish himself saved.


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