The Genius in His Spare Time

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.

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  1. says

    Using Beethoven to teach sonata form must be like using Schubert to teach strophic form, but of course on a much larger scale. They both cracked the forms wide open and turned them inside out.

    KG replies: Well, I teach it from William Caplin’s book Classical Form, which starts from the standpoint of describing everything that every sonata-form piece by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven ever did. So in that sense, what Beethoven did defined sonata form. Except to leave out the more normative early and middle pieces may be a little difficult, but what I’m most interested in is the connections among movement and raw compositional material.

  2. says

    the issue seems to be about the identity of the course, Kyle. Over the years, I’ve been in similar quandaries when I have approached single-composer courses (Ives, Grainger, Berio, etc) and how to create a totality of the genius of each in 12 weeks, or whatever. But when someone pointed out that I should narrow the field of vision to “Folksong and Memory in Ives/Grainger” or “The Literary Berio” or whatever, it all came together quickly. So, save yourself the angst, and re-brand the course as “Beethoven’s Late Quartets” or something more catchy. And, by the way, I look forward to the book of your ruminations about Beethoven some day. There must be one, surely??

    KG replies: Well, that’s a good idea. The problem is that I’m being a little dishonest with myself, refusing to commit to either a history course or a theory course, and trying to combine the two. I could easily teach the course as I’ve taught it before, but I’m trying to maintain my own interest. I have a lot to say about Beethoven, but I don’t think any of it’s original. I’m just well-read on the topic. And there are so, so many good composers out there about whom no one has written anything intelligent yet.

  3. Joseph M. Colombo says

    It would be hard to over-state how excited I am for Jan’s new book. I was lucky enough to take his Brahms class the same year I studied with him privately, all the whilst he was in the middle of his decade of work on this. If this book is a fraction as entertaining as it was to hear Jan talk about everything, it will be a home-run.

  4. says

    Would you by any chance be willing to share the syllabus to this Beethoven class? I’d be greatly interested.

    KG replies: Well, thanks. I’m sure the syllabus will be written in a hurry the day before next September’s first class, and my syllabi are not very enlightening, usually just a correlation of class dates and pieces to be analyzed.

  5. says

    I like the idea of giving more attention to both late Beethoven and workaday Beethoven. It’ll make for an entertaining syllabus at the very least! (Week 6: the Große Fuge; Week 7: Wellington’s Victory)