As research for next fall’s Beethoven class, I just finished reading Barry Cooper’s Beethoven. Excellent book: crisp, intelligently revisionist, scrupulously factual, devoid of any retro sentimentality. I highly recommend it. I’m going to take exception to examples in it of the way we talk about classical music, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m criticizing Cooper, or even disagreeing with him. He does something we all do, and it’s not necessarily a wrong thing to do, but I think we should think about the ramifications.
In his thumbnail analyses of myriad Beethoven works, even the most humble, Cooper is constantly drawing out interesting key relationships. For instance, the Op. 77 Fantasia, not a very characteristic work for Beethoven, nor in my opinion a very compelling one, opens in G minor and ends in B major, a surprisingly distant key – but Cooper notes that in the progression of tonalities (g, Bb, d, b, B), each tonic triad shares a pivot note with its predecessor (p. 202). Even when dealing with separate works, he finds key correspondences among the three Razumovsky quartets, and notes that the third of them begins with the melodic notes E and F, which are the keys of nos. 1 and 2 (p. 174). Nothing wrong with that, I do it myself. We all know to use that disturbing C# at the beginning of the Eroica as a pointer to the long passage in Db later in the movement, as a kind of structural resolution.
But the unacknowledged implication is that these seemingly coincidental correspondences, many of which no listener would ever notice (and in fact, Beethoven doesn’t even use those available pivot notes when modulating in the Fantasia) are subtle evidence of Beethoven’s mastery. The argument in the back of the classical-music mind seems to run something like this:
1. We all know that Beethoven was a great composer.
2. Great composers presumably know profound secrets of how to make music great.
3. One can find aurally unnoticeable long-range correspondences in Beethoven’s music.
4. Those correspondences must be Beethoven’s secrets, and therefore evidence of his greatness.
5. Ergo, Beethoven, even in his lesser works, was a great composer.
There’s nothing necessarily untrue about any of this, except that the argument begins with, as premise, the conclusion it sets out to prove. To make my point, I could do this very thing with the music of any number of recent composers. I could go through Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes, find an Eb and F# in one, then find it in another, and, with little more than an implied raised eyebrow pointed at the reader, silently plant the idea in the reader’s mind that that’s why Duckworth is a great composer. All that’s missing to complete the circle is the tacit premise accepted by the reader that Duckworth was a great composer. For that matter, consistently changing tonalities via pivot note is something I’ve sometimes done myself, most ambitiously in my chamber opera Cinderella’s Bad Magic - and without any idea that Beethoven had ever done such a thing.
Ergo, if Beethoven’s use of pivot tones to control a series of distant modulations is evidence of his greatness as a composer, my independent use of that identical technique must of necessity be evidence of my greatness as a composer as well. If you are inclined to accept that argument, then I’ll thank you to read no further. But it might be more accurate to say that, in a piece that wanders far from its opening tonality, having some kind of control over the tonal shifts is a stabilizing technique, and that Beethoven and I happened to chance on the same one – and it doesn’t prove “greatness” for either of us. For all we know, many, many pieces by second- and third-rate composers may well use the same device. Either Beethoven or I might have decided on a different one without our respective pieces suffering (or improving) for the change.
It is part of the classical-music mind that certain composers – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms – are assumed great from the beginning, and so everything found in their music must be evidence of that greatness. I once read some celebrated musician’s explanation that “the reason” Beethoven’s quartets are so great – the reason – was that he uses the entire range of each instrument. That sent a chill up my spine. Does my quartet music, I thought, use the entire range of each instrument? On the other hand, all I have to do in my next quartet is use the entire range of each instrument, and then it will be great! Right? But by knowing in advance that the composer is great, and assuming that every device we find will constitute evidence for that greatness, we musicologically heap more and more greatness over the decades on Mozart, Beethoven, & Co., and make it more and more impossible for current and future composers ever to live up to that exalted standard. Myriad other composers, in whom we could doubtless find similar devices, are denied that rank merely because they lack the initial presumption of greatness.
We poor composers are all, on some level, in competition with Beethoven, and it doesn’t help that so many music writers are willing to pile their thumbs on his side of the scale. His large-scale structural techniques, his harmonic correspondences, are of course of interest, as are those of many, many other composers. They are not automatically the reason for his greatness, which is more likely to reside in the surface elements that millions of listeners have responded to. I enjoyed the Eroica long before I learned about the C# (which I never thought was that shocking) and the ensuing passage in Db; if that passage was in D-natural, would I love it less? Every composer needs some kind of conceptual scaffolding to build a large piece upon, and composers have an interest in learning what kinds of scaffolding have worked for other composers. That doesn’t mean that the scaffolding makes the piece. Dull pieces have been written on sound theoretical principles, and fantastic ones on pure, whimsical inspiration.
Part of the problem, I think, is that critics and musicologists (Richard Taruskin being the outstanding exception) rarely know enough about composing and theory to distinguish a brilliant structure from a standard one, and either of those from an underlying design that the composer relied on conceptually but never expected to be perceived. What feeds into it is the rather maudlin adoration that classical-music types love to pour onto a few long-dead heros, against which more recent music will always be at a disadvantage. I could write this way about recent composers, too, but I wouldn’t have the reader’s ingrained sentimentality to back me up; to the classical music world, every article praising a recent composer is fundamentally a defense. We could level the playing field somewhat by not overinterpreting the evidence in only a few selected, invariably ancient cases. And maybe just by retiring the concept great.