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.