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Reclaiming a Classic: Beethoven, the Conservative by David Boos

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Reclaiming a Classic:
Beethoven, the Conservative

Ludwig van Beethoven (ca. 1901), a 95x145 cm oil on canvas by Julius Schmid (1854–1935), located in the Wien Museum.

Photo: Birgit und Peter Kainz, CC BY 4.0 via Wien Museum.

Few composers command an image as striking as Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) does in the contemporary imagination. Generations of lovers of classical music grew up thinking of the master from Bonn as a brooding, tortured genius. But in recent years, when the choice even for dead composers became to ‘go woke’ or ‘be canceled,’ there has been a political push to reinterpret Beethoven as a progressive. As a result we have been subjected to many new theories about Beethoven, like that he was black. Or gay. Or both? Who knows?

Rather than simply ridiculing these attempts to give Beethoven a woke paint job–as tempting as that is–we need to take a different perspective. We need to try to view Beethoven in his historical context, and in the process free ourselves of preconceived notions that bog us down when trying to defend the pillars of our arts canon. In doing so we might learn, most shockingly of all, that the Napoleon-admiring, EU-anthem-composing revolutionary of the early 1800s’ music world might have had a conservative side to him. There is clear evidence that his famous “Moonlight Sonata” isn’t the heavy-handed proto-romantic piece we have come to perceive it as, but rather a harkening back to a musical tradition Beethoven grew up with, a tradition that was about to be lost.

First, let us take a broad look at Beethoven’s canon to understand where the “Moonlight Sonata” fits in. His piano sonatas are commonly grouped into three chronological periods. While the first period can be described as a time of mastering the classical sonata tradition of his predecessors, in his second period Beethoven escaped the confines of the classical forms. He did this not by progressively abolishing the old rules in a frenzy, but by casting his net even further into the past.     

Beethoven’s “Sonata quasi una Fantasia, Op. 27 No. 2,” as the official title of the “Moonlight goes, is part of this second period. It was first published in 1802 and quickly became one of his most popular works. This annoyed Beethoven, who complained that he “had written truly better works” (such as his “Sonata in F-Sharp Major Op. 78,” which he considered “truly something else”), but the title “Moonlight Sonata” was not attributed to the piece until after Beethoven’s death. During Beethoven’s lifetime the sonata had another nickname: “Lauben” (Arbor) Sonata, for having presumably been first improvised in an arbor. It was not until 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death, that the German poet Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) coined the name “Moonlight” after a nocturnal boat trip on the moonlit Vierwaldstättersee in Switzerland reminded him of the first movement of “Op. 27 No. 2.”

Rellstab was of a younger generation than Beethoven, born almost 30 years after the composer. He was a clear-cut Romantic, in contrast to Beethoven who still had a firm foot in the classical tradition of the late 18th century. Rellstab met Beethoven once in 1825 to leave him some of his poems to be put to music, but the elderly Beethoven did not get around to the task before his death two years later. Beethoven’s assistant Anton Schindler passed the poems on to Franz Schubert, who based his Schwanengesang (swan song) cycle on them before passing away only a year after Beethoven.

Over the course of the 19th century, the “Moonlight Sonata” took on almost mythological proportions, a trend lingering even today. Interpretations of the meaning of the first movement range from Rellstab’s “Moonlight” Romanticism via an “Epitaph to Napoleon in music” (Wilhelm von Lenz, 1852), to the sonata being an expression of “falling in love with someone that will never love you back” (from the Youtube comment section).

This reading of the sonata as hopelessly romantic (and Romantic) has been supported by almost a century worth of recordings, in which some of the most renowned pianists (including Jörg Demus, Claudio Arrau, Arthur Rubinstein and Daniel Barenboim) have delivered renditions that ignored the original (faster) tempo marking by Beethoven himself in favor of the pensive, mysterious tempo commonly associated with the piece. It has become nigh impossible to escape this pervasive interpretation, which in turn perpetuates the romantic reading as the most commonly, if not the only, acceptable version. And it fits with all the other tropes describing Beethoven in popular culture, wild hair, grumpy attitude, loss of hearing, and everlasting heartache included.

“Der einsame Meister” (The lonely master) (1908), a 129 x 185 cm oil on canvas by Otto Robert Nowak (1874-1945), located in the Wien Museum.

Photo: Birgit und Peter Kainz, CC BY 4.0 via Wien Museum.

There is, however, plenty of support for a different reading. The sonatas of the second period show a tendency to experiment with character pieces and programmatic music. While modern listeners might consider this a tell–tale sign of romanticism, the Viennese composers of the Classical era hadn’t given these concepts much attention. So for Beethoven, these elements did not primarily mean that he was trying to experiment with the forms of his contemporaries, but rather that he was looking back at the older baroque forms as sources of deep meaning.

This conservative impulse to mine the past came naturally to Beethoven, who in his youth in Bonn was instructed by the organist Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798). Neefe was a great admirer of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and owned a copy of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, making it more than likely that Beethoven encountered the contrapuntal art of Bach in his childhood. It was also Neefe who introduced Beethoven to the concept of prosody to metrically align text and music, a technique Beethoven used extensively throughout his life (markings in his scores make this abundantly clear).

The memoirs of Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny (1791-1857) reveal that Beethoven owned a fortepiano by Anton Walter (1752-1826) at the time of writing the “Moonlight Sonata.” Fortepianos were much smaller, less resonant, and offered more transparency in their sound than modern concert grands. They were much closer to harpsichords, which explains the title page of the sonata, which reads “per il Clavicembalo o Piano-Forte” (for the harpsichord or pianoforte). Since the work asks clearly for extensive dynamic differentiation, this dedication is probably an example of the rather common attempt of the time to increase sales by reaching out to owners of the still relatively wide-spread harpsichord rather than an actual invocation to play the piece on a harpsichord. But the dedication certainly serves to locate the piece in its time—a time of harpsichords and pianofortes—rather than our own time of booming concert grands.

By knowing the piano Beethoven wrote his Moonlight on, we also know the sound world this piece inhabited in his mind—at least partially, since sources on many techniques, such as pedaling, are scarce at best before the mid-19th century. This leads to perhaps the most controversial discussion surrounding the first movement of “Op. 27 No. 2”: the performance indication.

Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino. (This whole piece ought to be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers).

As if this wasn’t enough, the left hand gets a separate reminder:

Semper pianissimo e senza sordino. (Always pianissimo [very soft] and without dampers).

Most modern pianists opt to interpret this as an instruction to “use pedaling technique” throughout the piece, but that ignores the fact that the modern practice of stepping on the sustain pedal after a chord has been played was far from established in Beethoven’s time. The reluctance of modern pianists to take this indication literally is understandable based on their instrument. A modern piano has several features that make it almost impossible to perform the piece with raised dampers throughout (though Andras Schiff tried to approximate the effect). Due to the size of the resonator, the additional strings, the power and shape of the hammers, and the cross-stringing (where resonating strings influence overlapping strings that haven’t been struck), the “Moonlight Sonata” turns into mush when performed without dampers on a modern piano. To counteract this, the dampers must be applied regularly, and in addition, the tempo needs to be reduced to help clarity. It is these decisions, perhaps sometimes made to meet the technical demands of modern instruments, that alter the character of the piece to become “Moonlight.”

If now we know what caused the aesthetic change that turned “Sonata quasi una Fantasia” into the “Moonlight,” how was it possible that Beethoven performed the sonata without applying dampers throughout? Another excerpt from Carl Czerny’s memoirs, in which he quotes Beethoven directly, might give us a hint:

I want to teach him myself and accept him as a student. Do send him to me a couple of times a week. But first, do get him a copy of Emanuel Bach’s school on the proper way of playing the Clavier, he should bring it with him already for the next lesson.

The Clavierschule (Clavier being the old-fashioned term to sum up all keyboard instruments) Beethoven is referring to is Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s (1714-1788) Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (“Inquiry into the true way of playing keyboard instruments”). C. P. E. Bach’s Versuch was the most influential keyboard school of the second half of the 18th century and sources show that Beethoven used it for his teaching deep into the 1820s, when the next generation of piano virtuosos was already rearing its head.     

The decisive clue to solve the dilemma of pedaling in the “Moonlight Sonata” can be found in the very last chapter of the second part of Versuch, entitled Von der freyen Fantasie. In this chapter, C. P. E. Bach talks about the form of the free fantasy, a short-lived form mostly associated with C. P. E. Bach himself. These free fantasies, in which moods and affects change rapidly and unexpectedly, are the musical equivalent to the Sturm und Drang taking place in literature around the same time. C. P. E. Bach writes:

The clavichord and the fortepiano are the most convenient instruments for our fantasies. … The undamped register of the fortepiano is the most pleasant, and, if one knows how to apply the necessary delicacy to control the reverberation, the loveliest register for fantasizing.

Suddenly Beethoven’s original title “Sonata quasi una Fantasia appears in a different light. But is the undamped register of C. P. E. Bach the same that Beethoven knew? Piano building developed at a rapid pace in the 18th century, and prior to pedals, early pianos had sometimes stops, similar to harpsichords or organs, in which a certain effect would be activated by pulling a lever and leaving it until there was an opportunity to turn it off, usually at the end of a movement. It was only in the 1780s that a knee lever was introduced to raise and lower the dampers while playing. This is the effect Beethoven is exhorting pianists to attempt in his tempo instructions in the sonata: an old-style effect, rendered on a modern instrument only with difficulty and great skill.

When Beethoven wrote his “Sonata quasi una Fantasia Op. 27 No. 2,” he didn’t write the first romantic piece about an artistic soul engulfed in Weltschmerz. Instead, he wrote an homage to a time that had passed. He composed the last Bachian free fantasy ever written, a harkening back, at the dawn of a new era, to the 18th century and its traditions. This was the last moment in history for this piece to be written, when pianos were still delicate enough to recreate the “pleasant” and “lovely” effect that C. P. E. Bach praised so much. And even then, players had to perform “sempre pianissimo” to achieve the desired effect. Only a few years later, pianos became too massive for this task. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” is not an announcement of the aesthetic ideals of the 19th century, but a gentle, skillful farewell to the 18th century Beethoven originated from.     

This is not to indicate that Beethoven was opposed to any and all progress. As a still rather young and celebrated composer, he had not succumbed to cultural pessimism. But Beethoven no means embraced progress for its own sake, despite what contemporary progressives would like to read into his persona. As becomes evident from the above reading of his “Moonlight Sonata,” he valued and cherished the traditions he grew up with, as well as the heritage passed on to him by his predecessors.      

For contemporary conservatives this must be a call to action not to remain in our sheltered memories and romanticized readings of our canon of the arts, but to counter the efforts of the ‘woke’ to deconstruct our classics by rediscovering ourselves the roots of the masters of our past and their works. At times this might mean sacrificing acquired tastes that have become second nature to us. We must face the fact that we will not be able to stop the deconstruction of our classics simply by insisting on a reading that was as much of its time as deconstruction efforts are of ours. Let daring reappraisal be the road to guide us to a new appreciation of these works, an appreciation based on understanding of how historical changes affected some of our most beloved works of art.

David Boos is an organist, documentary filmmaker, and writer for The European Conservative and other publications.


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