A Century of Beethoven

I

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN died in 1827, just a hundred years ago on the twenty-sixth of March, and therefore special efforts have been made to revive Fidelio out of its state of being a mere ‘series of overtures’ and restore it in extenso to the operatic repertoire.

This entirely to be expected manifestation of the centenary habit would itself bear investigation. For why should one care for Fidelio in 1927 who did not care for it in 1926? Doubtless for the same reason that a merchant takes account of stock in January. He does not know whether he cares for it or not, but, having carried it faithfully for a year on his books, decides to see.

Certainly we have been carrying the old thunderer of Bonn faithfully on our books, have listened with awe to what we have heard of him and with a good deal more of awe to what we have heard about him. The end of a cycle, however, suggests inventory, so strong is the notion that a period of time expressible in round numbers is a veritable circle. Beethoven rises from our subconsciousness like the paddle of a water wheel set in a river. So we ask ourselves: Is there anything still genuine in our old enthusiasm? The newspapers break out in a rash of paragraphs. A new emphasis is laid upon the fact that Beethoven symphonies and sonatas appear upon programmes. And critics who last year would have been present perfunctorily or not at all now lean forward as if with stethoscopes to their ears, listening, listening for some sign that the heart of this familiar — and sometimes unfamiliar — music has or has not ceased to beat.

One naturally approaches the inquiry fearing the worst. So much has happened since our uncouth Ludwig, interrupted in the midst of a sonata by the late arrival of a countess, told his horrified contemporaries that he would no longer play for such swine. The incident sounds modern enough, save for the presumption of the countess; but when we remember that this same Ludwig nearly broke his heart when a court of law informed him that the noble von which he was in the habit of prefixing to his name had no right there, and should be replaced by the plebeian van, a sense of age reasserts itself. True, posterity has reversed the decision of the court, awarding him the von on all but the most carefully worded programmes. It has been kind to the memory of the man. But has it been equally kind to the composer?

I remember, when I was a very small boy, being led to the Moonlight Sonata — the slow movement — and then being held back for many months because the author of those melancholy, brooklike triplets, and of the melody which erects itself above them like a stationary shadow, was a god whom it was simply forbidden to understand. The triplets, it appeared, could not be played slowly enough. Was n’t it Beethoven? And was n’t it adagio? The latter word has a fearful content to my mind even yet, and never shall I forget the shock of first hearing one Venetian gondolier hurl it profanely at another.

In the case of Shakespeare, chance permitted me to come upon a tattered volume in the garret, its title-page blessedly missing. So I fell in love with Juliet and shuddered over Lady Macbeth before I knew they were more than the heroines of a couple of ‘penny dreadfuls’ — as we called papercovered literature in those happy days. But I never did learn to play the adagio of the Moonlight Sonata even passably well. And as for the second movement, it just happened that Hans von Bülow appeared in New York at the critical moment with an equally pedantic interpretation, and he was Authority. How much better he played the then uncanonized Brahms!

Beethoven himself, they say, started the fashion of these funereal tempi by abandoning in his later days the more sprightly habits of his youth and lingering inordinately over every tone. Poor man, he was only trying to hear, trying to pierce the acoustic veil of his growing deafness. But the story went forth, and became likewise Authority — to the great delight of music teachers, who wanted to give Beethoven to pupils lacking sufficient technical preparation.

Pianists play fast enough now, in all conscience, but the reverential interpretation lingers yet, especially in the orchestral field. It even peeps out now and then from such masterly solo performances as those of Schnabel. It appears to be quite impossible for a German to play German music without trembling a little before German greatness. He will not permit himself to forget that in four-four time there are four beats to the bar; in three-four time, three; and so on to the fatal end. Fortunately for Beethoven, however, there is Italy.

He owed much to Italy in the beginning. If the purple chords were his own, the singing melody was not all Papa Haydn. Even Naples crept into it — by telepathy, perhaps — enough to keep early Beethoven from being simply lesser Haydn dipped in dye. And Naples is irreverent — pious but irreverent, and unkempt, and beautiful, and so keeps its soul alive.

Unkempt, irreverent, and pious according to his lights, the German Ludwig, — he was Dutch as to his inherited hormones, — having duly imitated his great master and wisely burned most of the manuscripts, set about writing his first symphony, and began with a dominant seventh chord. The critics described it otherwise. They said it was an insult.

Probably in all the range of gainful occupations there is none so utterly worthless in its output as music criticism. Schumann and Wagner wrote it, but that only shows that it is possible to be entertaining or instructive while dabbling in philosophy or some other irrelevant matter, and one of them had drama to deal with. True music criticism, beyond a bare ’I like it,’ or ‘I like it not,’ should be written on five lines and the intervening spaces — should be a comment scored for the praising brass or the complaining flute. The attempt to say anything about music itself is like describing a painting in Braille. And how well our own James Iluneker knew it, with his personalities and adorable ravings about a number of unfiddleable things.

Beethoven fared marvelously well with the clan, all things considered, and if it was said of him that he was too noisy and prolix, jumping from one tune to another just as the listener’s interest was getting aroused, the same had already been said of the pellucid Mozart. Noisy, prolix, insulting to the ear — what are words like these in the bright lexicon of the pundits? Listen to what Zelter, teacher of theory to Mendelssohn, had to say of Berlioz. This music was ‘d’expectorations bruyantes, de croassements, de vomissements, d’excroissances, et de résidus d’avortement résultant d’un hideux inceste.’ He said it in German, but it sounds rather better in French. In English it might seem a little rude.

II

There is a popular tradition to the effect that Beethoven was a very unfortunate, unhappy, and unpopular man, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was a prodigy, whose career began with encomiums from Mozart. He never suffered from neglect or lack of recognition. His income was enormous for an artist of his day, his social position like that of a cabinet minister. Women smiled on him to such an extent that his success among the fair titled ones of gay Vienna was notorious, not to say scandalous. But he had a scapegrace nephew, Carl; he became deaf; and his music had content as well as form. So he is usually spoken of as a Prometheus bound to the rock, with vultures feeding upon his liver.

For this idea the content — accented on the first syllable to show its autonomous relation to the same word accented on the last — is chiefly responsible. One can forget the worldly troubles of a composer. But there was this Weltschmerz, fairly sobbing through his music. It must have come, men said, from a broken heart. And up till about 1890 that was what the world chiefly heard — the Beethoven of the ‘broken sighs.’

One would have to be fresh from a bath of the eighteenth century to realize how poignantly that same Weltschmerz struck the contemporary ear. Beethoven had gone through such an astounding apprenticeship that his genius, refined in the pedantic furnaces of Pfeiffer, Van den Eeden, Neefe, Schenk, and the mighty Albrechtsberger, — to say nothing of the composer’s father and Papa Haydn himself, — entered the world like a wedge, thin edge first. Its revolutionary character was not very apparent. And yet there were passages even in those first pianoforte sonatas which startled the ear. It was not so much that rules had been violated as that, without such violation, this music carried a burden of personal emotion. His editors altered his scores. They were not bitter theorists whose nonsensical formulas had been exposed; they simply could not believe their eyes — already taxed by the sputtering Beethoven penmanship.

The romantic school was in full swing when he died, so it was but natural that moonlight should be turned on all his works. In an age which loved nothing so much as to read how the Abbé Liszt had ordered his piano carried to the top of a hill so that he could rhapsodize ’Hungariously’ for the valleys and the forests, legends grew like fungus. And none of them were more fungoid than that of the Moonlight Sonata itself, already editorially christened with a ridiculous name. The inspiration came, it was said, through the open window of a countess while Ludwig paced in her garden or in the street outside, victim of a hopeless love. I have forgotten what countess — it was always a countess of some sort with this man of the people — and what she is supposed to have been doing. I used to think of her as playing the Moonlight Sonata, but that seems to be a mixing of cause and effect and a putting of the cart before the horse. The sad truth probably is that Ludwig was neither in the street nor in the garden, but in the boudoir, and hopeless of nothing but getting away.

The only one of these stories I like is the one about the conception of the four-note theme of the Fifth Symphony — how it came to him as he was crossing a crowded street, ’like death knocking at the door,’and nearly resulted in his being knocked over by the Vienna traffic as he paused to write it in his notebook. That has something of the rugged, boisterous, real Beethoven flavor, and might have happened. It was not an age of automobiles — another instance of the Beethoven luck.

Luck may seem a strange word to apply to a musician whose hearing began to fail when he was but thirty, continued to fail for nineteen years, and left him totally deaf for the final eight years of his life. But it cannot truly be said of Beethoven’s deafness, any more than of Milton’s blindness, that it was an unmitigated calamity. We might not be willing to lose our eyes for the sake of a Paradise Lost, but most of us would give our ears, I think, to write an Eroica. And that Heroic Symphony was the first echo, heard within, of the silence which was to hush the clamors of the world.

It was also to have been a monument to Napoleon, had the composer not learned to despise the conqueror before the date of publication and torn his name from the title-page. But the Funeral March of a Hero was never Napoleonic save in name. It was the March of the Renunciation of Hearing. We are now at the beginning of the famous second period, when the content was getting ready to break bounds. Something else had died besides Beethoven’s hope of passing his days as a well-hearing man, and the real candidate for funeral honors was classical music. Form had a rival. It was as if someone had come and said that a beautiful woman should have thought and feeling, even though they made lines in her face.

It is odd to think that the old sonata form should have had mourners. For myself, I should as soon think of mourning over the demise of a patchwork quilt. Yet people lamented it, and of course it was a form which at one time had to be. Nothing further could be done with the fugue, after Palestrina, conscious of original sin, had soared with it in fearful ecstasy to heaven, and the Bachs, always conscious of a state of grace, had poured all its liquid voices into one great and satisfying river of consolation. Handel was content to give it a Miltonic pomp. But Haydn must abandon it for a pieced-out invention of his own, made by tying together the dancing feet of the ancient suite. If Haydn had not been one of the world’s greatest masters of counterpoint and of melodic invention, he never could have made the sonata go down. He did not make it — not down to our day. Who now plays Haydn’s sonatas? Or Mozart’s?

Yes, the string quartette is a sonata, and so is the symphony. But I am speaking of the monophonic composition for a single instrument. Nobody ever attached that dreadful name to a solo opus without at the same time signing its death warrant — Beethoven and his successors alone excepted. And he did it only by insulting its limitations with codas longer than the bodies from which they were supposed to wag, and by ‘development portions’ which run their wild way into sheer fantasy.

To take this disjointed snake which he inherited, and convert it into a living, wayward thing of life, a fancyfree improvisation upon a dual motive with no proportions but its own, was Beethoven’s great feat of creation. And the dual idea, once appearing, haunted him till the end, even when his sonatas refused to ‘sonatify’ at the hands of the cunningest analysts. It became his philosophy— the two horns of human destiny, full grown at last in the Karma and Nirvana movements of bipartite Opus 111.

I do not belittle Beethoven’s sufferings, but they were of the spirit and he met them with a rugged courage which inspires envy rather than pity. The long-drawn-out nephew episode was the single exception, the source of that ‘sordid’ element we used to hear so much about, and it was but the justice of nature, which, having spared him matrimony, unloaded upon him a brother’s son by way of offset.

What would have happened to Beethoven had he married is a tempting subject for cynical speculation. As bachelor in every instinct as was the mountain-climbing Brahms, a wife must inevitably have been a tragedy. But the Beethoven luck held true. He was so filled with the aristocratic ideas of his times that he could not look at a woman unless she had a title, and — thanks to those same aristocratic ideas and to his blessedly plebeian origin — those lovely countesses could not look at him as a husband. The combination of circumstances enabled him to be ‘nearly always in love,’ as one biographer puts it, and yet go his triumphal way, ‘unirapped, untrammeled, and unstung.’

Looking back over my own recollections, I find that I reached the real Beethoven not by reading his biographies— they were so full of Carl that they repelled me — but by escaping from my teacher and plunging headlong into a four-hand pianoforte arrangement of the symphonies. I took the primo part because I had a rather facile right hand, and my sister played secondo, she being the better reader. She also manipulated the pedal, her legs being then somewhat longer than mine. And between us we did murderous things, aided and abetted by a Hazelton square piano whose white keys were mother-of-pearl. Much to our surprise, we discovered tunes, and a certain ingenuity which we could understand. Those duets ruined my hopes of becoming a pianist, for I discovered that I could devise chords and phrases of my own and improvise in the Beethoven manner — as I thought. But they initiated me into music.

I do not know that music is a good thing. It enables one to escape from the troubles of life perhaps too easily, like opium. The unmusical have to overcome their troubles. The musical — I do not mean the professional musician, who is a thing apart — dream past them, doubtless missing much wholesome moral discipline, to say nothing of worldly success. I tremble to think how happy I might have been if I had continued to read at sight and to improvise, and had not become a critic.

There are compensations, however, even in this rôle, where one has to choose between neurasthenia and the unlimited use of the cliché, and I can still shiver with delight at the recollection of one unforgettable Sunday afternoon in San Francisco when I heard Josef Hofmann play Opus 111 in a shed. For it was in those happy days shortly after the great earthquake (brought about, I have heard it alleged, by the way Caruso sang Faust there the night before), when a style of temporary wooden architecture, as cheap as it was beautiful and as simple in its lines as a Greek temple, held a momentary — alas, how very momentary! — sway. Rain pattered upon the unceiled shingle roof, and perhaps this accompaniment hypnotized me. But for once a pianist seemed to have worked the miracle of making those chains of trills express what they were meant to express — the thrill of that joy which lies beyond all desire or understanding.

It was another rare event, also at San Francisco, when Bauer and Mischa Elman played the Kreutzer at a concert they gave for fun and the edification of sundry kindred spirits. Tolstoi, though he named a novel after this same sonata, thought that it — or Beethoven in general — marked the beginning of a decadence of which he never lived to think he had seen the end. There have been times when I thought he was right. Such excess of emotion creates a reaction in the breasts of any but the hardened professional, and he — as is the way of his kind — only notes whether the form and the technical execution are bearing up under the strain. Did you never notice how impervious musicians are to the sensuous torture of sound? They never get the primitive appeal of a composition, never fail to protect their ears with the muffler of theoretic understanding.

I have not been able to comprehend the Mencken dictum, ‘Of all forms of the uplift, perhaps the most futile is that which addresses itself to educating the proletariat in music.’ It seems to me, on the contrary, the one form of uplift most likely to be successful. One cannot follow Dante without at the same time knowing something of ancient Greece and Rome, of the scholastics, of thirteenth-century history, and having more than a smattering of what to most of us is a foreign language. But to enjoy any piece of good music, all that is necessary, if one be not totally tone deaf, is to hear it a few times.

III

Beethoven was born at Bonn, Germany, December 17, 1770 — or at least he was baptized on the eighteenth, and biographers are united in the rather gratuitous supposition that the rite trod thus briskly upon the heels of birth. His father and his grandfather were both singers in the local Electoral Chapel; and his father, who, to put it bluntly, was a ‘soak,’ designed him for the career of child prodigy — with the hopeful intent of living upon his earnings. This father was such a bad teacher that neighbor Tobias Pfeiffer, who was a fairly good one, is commonly said to have ‘rescued’ the precocious Ludwig. And then came the Elector, who rescued him a second time for good by sending him to Vienna, where he spent practically the rest of his days — the great Vienna of 1787, the Vienna of Gluck, Mozart, and Haydn. There he proceeded to astonish Mozart with his improvising, enrolled himself as a Haydn pupil, and, finding Haydn no great pedagogue, sneaked off secretly for lessons from Johann Schenk until a tour of the great master enabled him to study openly with Albrechtsberger.

The young man prospered, which is no great wonder inasmuch as he was not only an accomplished pianist and composer but the protégé of the Elector, who in turn was an uncle of Leopold II, the ruling emperor of Austria. He became so popular, in fact, that when another city tried to steal him away a pension of four thousand florins a year was settled upon him. It may be imagined how many doors were closed to him. Nevertheless his manners, temper, and way of dressing continued to be atrocious, which probably accounts for the now very general idea that he was a species of Republican. But it does not account for the very marked approval of the women. This, which all contemporary accounts call attention to, seems to argue a particular personal charm. What woman, indeed, could have helped loving the helpless, lubberly man who could write, in that tattered diary which an accommodating antiquarian has just resurrected for the centenary: —

Feb. 15 — Engaged cook.

Mch. 8 — Discharged cook.

Mch. 22 — Engaged servant.

Apr. 1 — Discharged servant.

And so on, to monotonous infinity. Luckily he did not often have to dine at home.

Yet he remained faithful to his earlier friends of Bonn, to Count Waldstein; and only death ended his regard for Leonora, widow of Stephan von Breuning, and for her children. Of his brother Carl’s son of the same name, the less said the better. The boy’s mother seems to have had no discernible virtues, and the boy ran true to maternal form. He contracted debts for his uncle to pay, and, having been rewarded by adoption, went so far as to commit forgery and to attempt suicide.

And, having endured these things, and enjoyed a great many more, — and incidentally having celebrated the downfall of the once-worshiped Napoleon with the composition of a Battle Symphony, hugely successful but admittedly eine Dummheit, — Ludwig van Beethoven died, at Vienna, March 26, 1827, ‘during a great thunderstorm.’ That is all one needs to know about the man in order to enjoy the Pastoral Symphony, the sonata known as ‘Adieux, Absence, and Return,’ or anything else he ever wrote. Try reading Dante, or Vergil, or any great user of words with a similar stock of outside information!

But, after all, the question is not whether we understand Beethoven, but whether we still thrill to him. And the answer, I think, is that the average audience cares very little for his songs, very little more for his pianoforte sonatas, but positively delights in his symphonies and reveres the great Mass in D.

I confess that I do not quite know why this should be. The neglect of the songs may be accounted for by the rivalry of Schumann, by the extraordinary demands they make upon the vocalist, by — in the case of ‘Adelaide’— a certain old-fashioned loveliness which is not yet quite oldfashioned enough not to seem quaint. The sonatas would certainly get more votes if the average pianist would occasionally deign to play one written before 1816, when the third and ‘difficult’ period begins. But they scorn even the second period, and as to anything below Opus 50 — it simply never occurs to their minds. But the fact is, Beethoven is not effective as a technical bravura stunt, even when adequate virtuosity is called into play. And as to the real master pianists, who carry the whole series in their repertoires, there are only three or four of them in the world; and the audiences in the great capitals, who alone frequently listen to them, still marvel more at the excellence of the performances than at the music, and are usually handicapped by having to congregate in excessively large halls.

The Mass in D holds a place by itself, and being sacred as to text is difficult to judge as to its purely musical appeal. Societies capable of struggling through Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion could give it very acceptably, and then we should hear it oftener. It is not so difficult. I have heard it rendered, with more piety than perfection, but still very effectively, by the regular choir of St. Stephen’s in Vienna, assisted only by an orchestra of amateurs.

But it is the symphonies alone — and with these I include the concertos — which have actually come into their own and taken their places among the popular music of the day. Certainly the popularity of the orchestra itself has had something to do with this. Even the most mediocre of conductors realizes that he must interpret as well as execute. So it was singularly appropriate that the Beethoven centennial should be inaugurated by the performance of all the immortal nine at a series of concerts at La Scala, in Milan, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, last October. Since the ‘Nerone’ of two years ago, the claim of Milan to be the musical centre of the world has not been successfully challenged, and the centre of Milan, of course, is Toscanini.

‘Whenever I find myself about to conduct this work,’ he said, just before his stick fell to summon forth the opening ‘shuddering fifths’ of the Ninth from the strings, ‘I feel as if I stood facing a great mountain which no man yet has scaled.’

And then he proceeded to scale it. And if there were any passages not entirely satisfactory it was because the deaf old master occasionally wrote that which cannot be sung, or even sounded upon any instrument as yet invented by man.

What those La Scala performances proved was that our Wagners, our Schönbergs, our Stravinskis, our new psychology, and our jazz have done nothing to estrange us from Beethoven. Here was Italy, where music began, giving the finishing touch to that same music made doubly great by foreign hands. The result not only charmed; it was new. These accents were as fresh as flowers. At last the true rhythm was born, not the rhythm of wretched beats imprisoned between bars, but a pulse, innate in the music itself. Adaptability, zoölogists tell us, is the secret of survival, and Beethoven adapts himself to almost any kind of treatment. Aside from a performance once given of the Fifth Symphony by the old Chicago Orchestra, I never heard one of his compositions completely destroyed. It seems to be equally difficult to exhaust him.

The last Mozart Festival at Salzburg showed a certain tepidity of enthusiasm even in music-conserving Austria. Chopin fades. Not even the Wagnerian drug is quite so potent as it used to be. But those scores blotted with corrections and emendations — emendations in which Franz Schubert could see no improvement over the first draft — have thus far proved too hard a morsel for time to gnaw. Beethoven is not only still alive; he has yet to come fully into his stature. And the modern drift of taste toward the eighteenth century is sure still further to favor him, to render more palpable those traces of formalism to be noticed in his earlier works. We shall probably not go so far as to accept that juvenile Beethoven symphony which Henry Hadley once introduced to an American public, but pianists who have learned from Scarlatti how to use their fingers as well as their arms may yet evoke for us the almost forgotten charm of the Waldstein Sonata. On the other hand, the increased resources which are being put into the hands of musical organizations everywhere ensure an increasing frequency in the adequate performance of the later works.

So the Beethoven luck still holds, and every year makes clearer that, of all the musical geniuses that have flourished since the songs of the ancient Greeks were lost, these three are to endure — Palestrina, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Beethoven.