Romanticism and Beethoven: Part One

Return of the Repressed?

In this year, 2011, we might take a moment to mark an important event in music history, one that took place 230 years ago. For it was at some time in 1781 that Ludwig van Beethoven, who was then 11 years of age, came under the tutelage of Christian Gottlob Neefe.

Neefe, the composer for example of the Allegretto in C Major played by a 5 year old girl in a charming video here, was the court organist at Bonn, and he proved a salutary influence upon young Ludwig. Neefe has been described as a “zealous disciple of the Bach school.” Some at the time thought Bach’s music was outmoded, as classical styles had usurped the older Baroque. But Neefe knew better – and perhaps in part due to Neefe’s influence, the coming Romantic revolution in music, a revolution Beethoven led – was in some ways a return of the repressed, the resurgence of the Baroque.

A portrait of the 13-year-old Beethoven by an unknown Bonn master (c. 1783)

The word and the idea of “romanticism” are of course the subjects of a great deal of controversy. What do they mean? What do they include, what do they exclude? But according to one reading, the word refers not merely to a specific movement in the arts and in culture associated especially with the early 19th century – it refers more fittingly to one of two of the ever-lasting possibilities of art. Art is condemned to swing always between the one pole and the other.

For convenience, we may call that sort of art which appeals through simplicity, unity, and at the same time sophistication: the “classical” pole. If we do so, though, we must also name the art that appeals through complex suggestiveness, through the awakening of whole buried ranges of memories: the “romantic” pole.

William James

As the great American psychologist and philosopher William James – pictured left – once wrote, the “classic taste” brands certain effects “as coarse and tawdry, and prefers the naked beauty of the optical and auditory sensations, unadorned with frippery or foliage.”

In the Jamesian sense of the terms, I submit, the Baroque era in European art was already a time of romantic taste, including and exalting in frippery and foliage. The classical period gave its imprimatur to the classical taste James had in mind and exiled the frippery, only to have Beethoven and those who followed in his wake bring it all back in new guises!

Still later, I submit, there would come a split within romanticism, with symbolists such as Alexander Scriabin moving in one direction, impressionists such as Claude Debussy moving in another. The same split took place, by the way, in the other arts. One sort of romanticism moved away from and the other moved toward the data of the human senses in their natural operation. (William James himself was writing during the era of this split.)

The modernist period of the early twentieth century was a restoration of classical taste, as you can see in the work of composers as different from each other as Igor Stravinsky on the one hand and Anton Webern on the other. They were each intent upon getting rid of the “frippery” and “foliage” that gathers itself around the austere intellectual core of art during romantic times. By the same token, our own post-modernism might better be called the latest form of romanticism. The back-and-forth continues.

In this light, Neefe’s decision to take on this young Ludwig, both as pupil and employee, back in 1781, has a meaning for us within the Big Picture of music history that he could not have expected it ever would. It looks to us like a paradigmatic pause-and-reverse in this grand see-saw.

By 1787, Beethoven and Neefe had gone their separate ways. Beethoven went to Vienna, where anyone in Europe aspiring to greatness as a musician had to go. There were to be many other teachers, mentors, and influences upon Beethoven’s development: among them Joseph Hadyn, Antonio Salieri, and Ignaz Schuppanzigh. But of course, Beethoven was becoming someone who would set the musical world on fire, someone who would eclipse in a sense even a Hadyn, not to speak again of a Schuppanzigh.

We might well ask ourselves when did Beethoven become BEETHOVEN? When did he step into the legendary role he now occupies for us, and turn into this guy?

Another notable figure c. 1800.

Another notable figure c. 1800.

It’s safe to say he hit his full musical stride by the start of the new century. A lot was happening in Europe in 1800. That was the year that Napoleon marched through the Alps, in the footsteps of Hannibal, to defeat the Austrians at Marengo. It was also the year Spain returned to France the Mississippi River claims that would come to be known in American history as the Louisiana Territory. France would part with those claims forever just three years later. In science, this was the year astronomer Sir William Herschel proved that the sun must be giving off rays beyond the red side of the visible spectrum – the radiation we now call infrared.

Yet, and this is as important a fact as any of those, 1800 was the year of the first performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, formally known as his Symphony No. 1 in C major, which the Master himself conducted at the Hofburg House in Vienna.

The third movement of this symphony, the Menuetto, is the stand-out of this opus. One modern scholar has described it as a “brilliant ambitious movement with a far-reaching modulatory scheme,” so distinctive that “no other composer of the time could have written even a phrase of the Menuetto.”

The significance of this First Symphony was recognized quickly. A prescient observer then said: “If we now see only the claw which harbingers the appearance of the lion, it is because the lion found it wiser not to attack just yet.”

Beethoven had twenty-seven leonine years ahead of him at the time of that triumph. Of those years, of the intertwining of Life, Work, and Legend that they represent, I hope to say something more in my next entry in this blog. For now, let’s enjoy Schroder’s interpretation of the Moonlight Sonata (1801):

Read Romanticism and Beethoven: Part Two >>

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