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Beethoven: Canonic Iconoclast

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Beethoven: Canonic Iconoclast

As we swing into the Beethoven 250th anniversary year (I tried to put that into Latin a while back with mixed results), it might be interesting to look at the current reception of the Viennese master. The celebration itself is a bit of a slap in the face to the new musicologists who poo-poo the whole notion of a canon. Beethoven, like Bach, Mozart and Schubert, looms so large that no matter what you say about him, he will continue to be at the core of the canon.

I define "canon" as simply those works of music that are truly indispensable, ones that are performed very frequently and that all young players have to come to terms with. Ones that listeners consistently seek out decade after decade. The canon is always in flux, of course, as composers wax and wane in the estimation of musicians and audiences. Concert promoters and orchestra managers are always reviewing attendance figures to see what music and what performers are popular. If your music remains unpopular or receives unenthusiastic response for long enough, you will slowly fall out of the canon.

I think that this is what is happening with Mendelssohn, though this may be just a personal opinion. What is happening with him is that he used to be in the front rank of composers based on a lot of very charming music and a wide appreciation of his whole oeuvre. More and more, however, much of his output has fallen by the wayside. Some of his symphonies are rarely performed. His "Songs Without Words" for piano used to be much more popular than they are. What does get performed is a pretty short list consisting of the Violin Concerto, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, a couple of symphonies and the Octet. This is how a composer fades, with only a few works remaining in the active repertory. (Please vehemently disagree with me in the comments.)

Some other composers slowly fight their way from obscurity to prominence and one of these is Shostakovich. I was having lunch with a patron of the arts last week and she declared that Shostakovich was one of her favorite composers. This was not always so! When I was an undergraduate he was never studied and rarely mentioned except in connection with a supposed satire of him in the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Now his symphonies, concertos and string quartets are performed in virtually every concert season and music festival.

Schubert, now in the very front rank of composers, was once considered to be second rank at best. He was known only for a couple of symphonies and a host of lieder. But in recent decades his stature has grown and grown as his chamber music and piano music has become better and better known.

But Beethoven, since his debuts in early 19th century Vienna, has been, along with Bach, simply the most important composer in classical music. With the exception of opera, where he only wrote one significant work, he looms large in every genre: his symphonies are unexcelled, as are his string quartets, piano sonatas and concertos. He is at the center of musical thought and the only reason that more musicologists are not cranking out books on him is simply that they have written so many already. The one piece of music that seems to lie at the core of classical music is the Symphony No. 9 of Beethoven whose theme is used as the anthem of the European Union. I am rather looking forward to hearing the Vienna Symphony perform it in August at the Salzburg Festival as I have never heard it in concert.

While other composers rise and fall, for the last two centuries Beethoven (yes, along with Bach and Mozart) persists. He will be with us for a long time to come. So why do I call him an "iconoclast"? For a long time, the basic narrative assigned to Beethoven, based on some empirical evidence, was that he was a revolutionary, someone who uprooted music and rewrote all the rules. This, while containing a grain of truth, is only part of the story. If we consult Donald Francis Tovey we find the other side of the coin: for him, Beethoven's music was built on a solid foundation of musical "normalcy" not tortured dysfunction. What Beethoven did more and more as he developed as a composer, was delve into the very depths of musical expression and structure. As his music became more transcendent it became more profound--just one of those contradictions we find in art.

This is Riccardo Muti conducting the Chicago Symphony:

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