Thursday, October 23, 2014


Reading this Alex Ross New Yorker piece which argues that the  (deserved) deification of  Beethoven has had a stifling effect on the art form LVB helped to invent, i.e. classical music...

... it struck me that The Beatles have a similarly problematic place in rock history as deities casting a daunting shadow.

The parallels recur throughout the piece 

[Beethoven] not only left his mark on all subsequent composers but also molded entire institutions....  After Beethoven, the concert hall came to be seen not as a venue for diverse, meandering entertainments but as an austere memorial to artistic majesty. Listening underwent a fundamental change. To follow Beethoven’s dense, driving narratives, one had to lean forward and pay close attention. The musicians’ platform became the stage of an invisible drama, the temple of a sonic revelation.”

substitute long-playing 33rpm record for "concert hall"
Above all, Beethoven shaped the identity of what came to be known as classical music. In the course of the nineteenth century, dead composers began to crowd out the living on concert programs, and a canon of masterpieces materialized, with Beethoven front and center. As the scholar William Weber has established, this fetishizing of the past can be tracked with mathematical precision, as a rising line on a graph: in Leipzig, the percentage of works by deceased composers went from eleven per cent in 1782 to seventy-six per cent in 1870."
More than anything, it was the mesmerizing intricacy of Beethoven’s constructions—his way of building large structures from the obsessive development of curt motifs—that made the repertory culture of classical music possible.... No composer labors so hard to stave off boredom, to occupy the mind of one who might be hearing or playing a particular piece for the tenth or the hundredth time.”
And so Beethoven assumed the problematic status of a secular god, his shadow falling on those who came after him, and even on those who came before him.” 
Another parallel is the way that The Beatles (and Dylan) (and the Stones) instigated, catalysed, but also necessitated, demanded a new kind of criticism -- rock criticism (before, there was no rock'n'roll criticism, as such - just music biz reporting, gossip, entertainment journalism profiles).  So Ross says of E.T.A. Hoffman’s early 19th Century hype 'n' hosannas re. Ludwig Van “this is criticism in a new key. Music is being accorded powers at once transcendent and transformative: it hovers far above the ordinary world, yet it also reaches down and alters the course of human events. “ 
He further notes how Beethoven’s music has subsequently come to soundtrack world-historical events, as if his compositions  bottled the lightning that is the world-will..... making it abstract but thus suitable for applying to later weighty occasions of grand drama upon the stage of history.
Yet the idolatry has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory. As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN”emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say.
"For this conundrum—an artist almost too great for the good of his art—Beethoven himself bears little responsibility. There is no sign that he intended to oppress his successors from the grave.”
In Ross's account there is an echo of the argument in Retromania that it is above all the decade of the Beatles - the Sixties - that in a twist of ghastly irony generates retro culture through its very "charisma" as an epoch, its hold on the imagination.  Neophilia begets necrophilia.

How did Beethoven become “BEETHOVEN”? What prompted the “great transformation of musical taste,” to take a phrase from William Weber—the shift on the concert stage from a living culture to a necrophiliac one? The simplest answer might be that Beethoven was so crushingly sublime that posterity capitulated.

Yet he argues that Beethoven was the creation of his time as much as a force shaping it. Just like those Beatles

The scholar Mark Evan Bonds, in his new book “Absolute Music,” describes the “growing conviction at the turn of the nineteenth century that music had the capacity to disclose the ‘wonders’ of the universe in ways that words could not, and that the greatest composers were in effect oracles, intermediaries between the divine and the human.

Even the self-deprecating comments Beethoven made about his own work find a parallel in Lennon (and also Harrison’s) frequent disparagement of many Beatles tracks, including the ones they wrote, as “rubbish”, “garbage”, “junk”.
A final parallel: Beatlesology is a book-trade industry, and likewise “the continuing strength of the cult is evident in the accumulation of Beethoven books”. Ross mentions recent efforts by  Jan Swafford, John Suchet, Matthew Guerrieri, Michael Broyles, and  Sanford Friedman -- which “join a library of thousands of volumes."
This tasty apercu from Mr Ross - 
 "The canon is a grand illusion generated by the erasure of a less desirable past"

 - emerges from the suggestion that we better understand Beethoven in the context of all the now forgotten music made by others at that time, as well as his own failures, botch jobs, hackwork.

So listen to Beatles, but also to Moody Blues, Hollies, Herman's Hermits, and The Temperance Seven 

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