A Terry Teachout Reader, my self-anthology, came out sixteen years ago. I’ve published hundreds of pieces on various subjects since then, and I have no plans to put together a sequel to the Teachout Reader, so I’ve launched a series of occasional posts drawn from my fugitive essays, articles, and reviews. I hope you like this one, which came from a 2002 Commentary essay about Beethoven.
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Late in his own life, Igor Stravinsky paid this extraordinary tribute to Beethoven’s late quartets:
These quartets are my highest articles of musical belief (which is a longer word for love, whatever else), as indispensable to the ways and meanings of art, as a musician of my era thinks of art and has tried to learn it, as temperature is to life.
It is startling that the giant of modernism who declared that music “is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all” should have written so passionately about the greatest works of a composer whose music is so palpably expressive of the deepest human concerns. But, then, Stravinsky’s best music, whatever he may have thought or wrote about it, is in fact as expressive of those same concerns as is Beethoven’s. The composer of Symphony of Psalms and the composer of the Ninth Symphony were in some fundamental sense speaking the same language.
This spiritual continuity—this unswerving faith in the universal power of beauty to relieve and transcend the earthly woes of mankind—is Beethoven’s message. Small wonder that its unabashed idealism should make postmodernists so uncomfortable. Disbelieving as they do in the possibility of truth and beauty, they therefore have no choice but to seek to explain away the Ninth Symphony, a universal masterpiece whose very existence is a definitive refutation of the nihilism that informs their view of the world.
The abolition of the Ninth Symphony is, to say the least, an ambitious critical project, and one may take leave to doubt that it will be completed any time soon. As Scott Burnham writes, “Perhaps when that happens, the Western world will truly have passed into another age.” But until that nightmare should come to pass, it seems far more likely that Beethoven will remain, as the New Grove still proclaims him to be, the most admired composer in the history of Western music—past, present and future.