The death of classical music, III: Pythagoras, the ghastly adolescent, and the awful monster

Guardian Unlimited | Arts features | Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan

This article from the Guardian manages to combine two of the topics I’ve been writing about here lately — the death of classical music, and the heritage from Pythagoras — so I thought I should cite it.

From the speculations of Pythagoras about the “music of the spheres” in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer’s idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul.

This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. In other words, almost everything that went wrong with music in the 19th and 20th centuries is ultimately Beethoven’s fault. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven’s original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.

Whoa! These are some giant leaps in the argument… Flawed ones, at that, at least when they turn into value judgements.
It is true that for a long time (approx. from Pythagoras to Mozart) it was believed that beauty was an objective property, based in numerical relations. But the U-turn — in the author’s actually quite appropriate words — which more or less coincided with Beethoven, was that this 2,000-year-long line of thought was abandoned, in favour of a philosophically based notion of receiver reactions.
So, if “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”, it is obvious that the perspective in both the production and the reception of beauty will shift towards the individual. But to give Beethoven the blame — or should I say: the credit! — for this, is a slight exaggeration.

He employed his genius in the service of a fundamentally flawed idea. If Beethoven had dedicated his obvious talents to serving the noble Pythagorean view of music, he might well have gone on to compose music even greater than that of Mozart.

This is great…! I have only two things to say:
1. serving “the noble Pythagorean view of music” in the age of Kant — now that would have been a historical monstrosity and an employment of genius “in the service of a fundamentally flawed idea”.
2. In my book, Beethoven still rules.


3 thoughts on “The death of classical music, III: Pythagoras, the ghastly adolescent, and the awful monster

  1. one should hope this is a huge practical joke on the readers of “the guardian”…
    anyway, even if it were parody i guess it would not make for a good laugh.

    as for the development in music, the suggested “ideal” is reeking of “piano improvisations” (out of a pool of some 7, or fewer, notes over a sustained c major chord, for example) with rainforest sound effects as a dramatic counterpoint, or different shades (if possible) of elevator music. agreeable stuff, no edges, simple harmonies.

    as for beethoven, the biographical element of course derives from the same romantic / positivist school of thought as still influences goethe studies around the world:
    there might of course be elements of biography aiding the understanding of works, and everything that adds to the understanding of works is valid, but the basic center should be the work itself.

    ignoring some of the other near-mad ideas of mr. dylan evans, who seems to hold a special grudge towards beethoven, i hear no megalomaniac (which is a result of reception, anyway, especially the fascist/nazist ideas) traits in the seventh symphony for example, while not being able to deny its genius (or beethoven’s).

    of course, to still find schönberg (or atonality) unlistenable close to the hundred years after the fact has probably more to do with refusing to listen to music such as this and not with a special organ of the inner ear, newly discovered by the author of the guardian article, that reacts negatively to the tritonus or second intervals.

  2. What’s interesting is that he cites “incomplete” endings in Beethoven’s music as one of the reasons that the music is bad and self-serving, compared to Mozart’s “neat” endings– that Evans prefers not to challenged by his art to face unsettling images.

  3. It is really interesting that Beethoven’s new departure in music can still be experienced as disturbing as reflected in the quoted article from The Guardian. Obviously – as Eyolf points out – it would be rather strange to expect Pythagorean ideals to have a normative status in the time of Kant. On the other hand, it’s equally interesting that the objective status of the beautiful was upheld almost until then. Even that should – of course – be modified; personally I find that the very general remarks by the conductor Ferenc Fricsay (1914-1963) in his little book about Mozart and Bartók about Mozart and Beethoven as representative of two opposite worldviews, one (Mozart) optimistic, the other (Beethoven) pessimistic is a very adequate description. At least if one adds the historical observation (which is not made explicit by Fricsay but probably lies inherent in his claim that Mozart was “the last optimistic composer”) that this is also related to a general change in the status of religion (mainly the concept of providence). Fricsay makes it clear that even when Mozart’s music reflects tragedy – or despair – which certainly happens, the overall impression of the music is still one of acceptance and fundamental confidence in life. Conversely, Beethoven – in Fricsay’s interpretation – even in his most glorious victories still needs the element of fight; the victory never seems completely secure, there is – ultimately – no security. This is interpretation, of course, and I believe that it can be heard, most convincingly also in Fricsay’s musical interpretations (many of which have been reissued on CD’s in the later years). But it should be kept in mind that although this is about Mozart and Beethoven, it is at least as much about a historical break in time at which the status of religion and of general confidence seemed to change “for ever”. There are many – also critical – things to say to such a general historical outline. It is not “true” in any strong sense, but such a view may put certain aspects of the history of “the arts” in perspective. And it avoids – I believe – the pitfall of “judging” Mozart and Beethoven. They are not just exponents of their time, of course, but as sensitive artists their intuitions (in whatever degree they were conscious of it) also reflect important changes in general outlook at their time.

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