It is time again, next fall, for me to teach my Analyzing Beethoven class, which I am always happy to do. But I have been threatening for years to make it a Late Beethoven class, and I am on the point of succumbing. Every time I’m frustrated at how little of the late music I get around to teaching. I always spend two weeks analyzing the Hammerklavier and at least a week on Op. 111, and we go quickly through the C#-minor Quartet and the Grosse Fuge. Maybe I can get through the Kyrie and Gloria of the Missa Solemnis, and one year I dawdled for quite awhile on the “Archduke” Trio. I use Beethoven as my sonata form class, and it takes weeks of early Beethoven to get through the sonata-allegro possibilities, the five types of slow-movement form, and so on. But next semester I’m determined to start with the “Archduke” and not listen to or analyze anything written before 1811. So, damn the Eroica and Appassionata, I’m going to get through all five of the late quartets and the last six sonatas if it kills us.
I started looking, though, at the list of works Beethoven wrote from 1811 to 1827, and I got fascinated by all the incidental pieces: the multitude of canons, the dozens of Irish and Scottish song arrangements, the little cantata for Princess Lobkowitz’s birthday, the funeral pieces for multiple trombones, the tritely conventional choral works and marches. I think students should know about those, and hear some of them, to flesh out their ideas of what even a great composer does with his time. When Beethoven’s English publisher complained that a folk song arrangement was too virtuosic, he politely wrote a new one, and when the publisher asked him to find some German, Venetian, Polish, Russian, Tyrolian, and Spanish folk songs for the collection, Beethoven didn’t write back, “I’m goddamned BEETHOVEN, you nitwit, and I’m working on the frickin’ MISSA SOLEMNIS, go find your own crappy folk songs!”, but rather cheerfully asked around and found just the items needed. Even the greatest composers have things to do, often for money, besides sitting around writing masterpieces and torturing their nephews. At the risk of once again diluting my late-masterpieces class, I think the students should know that.
I also swore that I wouldn’t teach a Beethoven course again until Jan Swafford’s Beethoven biography appears in print, and happily it is scheduled for availability in early August. At 992 pages, it’s a hefty prospective sidebar for a theory class, but judging from Jan’s magnificent Ives and Brahms biographies, I expect it to be far more astute and readable than any other I’ve read. (Even freshmen found the Maynard Solomon biography psychologically obtuse.) But I’ve been looking through the Barry Cooper biography, too, which is shorter and entirely serviceable as a detailed record of all the compositions, as well as being extremely well-documented in its revisionism. Someday, perhaps, I will teach my intensive seminar on every aspect of the late quartets and piano sonatas – I guess I’ve really got a graduate-level seminar in mind – but I’m getting there by stages.