Beethoven at 250: Under Siege – Beethoven Our Contemporary

Beethoven Our Contemporary

In a nutshell

Beethoven’s 250th anniversary falls at the end of a long period of constant, relentless attacks of modern-day scholarship intended to demean his person and his music. This book exposes four main campaigns: 1) his personality viewed through a Freudian lens; 2) diagnoses of his mental health by several modern-day physicians; 3) the musical and extra-musical policy wrapped around him; 4) an all-out war waged by latter-day feminists accusing him of “toxic masculinity.” These “novel” visions of Beethoven have never been subjected to in-depth scrutiny and yet have become mainstream scholarship. This is what this book does: it reveals, for the first time, the incontrovertible facts invalidating these acclaimed postmodernist theories that demean Beethoven, the man and his music –the best way to honor his anniversary.

Part I of the book, dealing with the warped Freudian image of Beethoven, begins with a general critique of the doctrine of psychoanalysis, which modern sciences like anthropology and neuroscience have diagnosed as itself a non-scientific conglomerate of delusional fantasies. It is no surprise that the speculations that the Freudian scholars built about Beethoven are as misguided as their theoretical foundations. The book debunks the two main Freudian interpretations of Beethoven: in their 1954 book Beethoven and His Nephew, Editha and Richard Sterba focus on the composer’s relationships with his nephew and his sister-in-law; and the most influential Freudian portrait of Beethoven drawn by Maynard Solomon in his 1977 Beethoven book (and his later Beethoven Essays) which portray him as a delusional psychopath. I have already disclosed in the Welcome tab of this site the incontrovertible fact proving the fallacy of Solomon’s thesis (look for the hyperlink in that tab if you have missed it);so are all the other speculations Solomon builds around this central one.

Part II debunks several physicians-turned-scholars who pictured Beethoven as a psychopath and an alcoholic. Peter Davies and François Mai invoked the modern psychiatric criteria set by the American Psychiatric Association in its DSM-IV manual, but twisted them beyond acceptance to diagnose Beethoven with either a personality disorder or paranoia, or even bipolar disorder. A third physician, Michael Lorentz, diagnosed Beethoven with alcoholism, simply because he liked wine – ignoring the best medical advice of the time (which held wine as the best drink – far safer than water), as well as old statistics of wine and beer consumption which, taken at face value, would similarly diagnose all of Vienna.

Part III deals with “Beethoven politics” – a term distinct from “politicizing Beethoven,” which was particularly virulent in totalitarian states like U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany, and has been often explored. Sociologists interested in music, and musicologists interested in sociology both put Beethoven at center stage of both musical and non-musical politics, with equal neglect of the relevant facts about Beethoven and the historic context. Harry Goldschmidt made Beethoven into a post-mortem apologist for the twentieth-century musical Avant-Garde. Tia deNora defines genius as a “social construct” (itself a reasonable assumption) but elaborates it into wild speculation as applied to Beethoven: she would have us believe his genius was essentially the result of the musical and even non-musical politics of the aristocratic supporters that he found in Vienna. 

A third chapter of this part deals with the Beethoven’s alleged “plagiarism,” an indictment pointing to another kind of postmodern “politics”: Beethoven was the “big name robbing the little guy” of his product. Here’s an illustrative example: the main theme of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony was supposedly borrowed from a “Hymn to Agriculture” by Jean Lefevre, one of the French “composers of the 1789 Revolution.” When listening to the evidence we discover that Lefèvre’s music is a naïve attempt to create a pastoral atmosphere, by overdressing the short motif with a rococo ornament meant to imitate birdsong
. Beethoven used the same notes, but treated them very differently
That is, notes alone do not make the music. Beethoven “borrowed” a few more such motifs from other composers, including Mozart, but always because he realized the immense, as yet un-explored, potential lying in them.

Part IV tackles the all-out war of modern-day feminism against Beethoven’s music, portrayed as the epitome of “toxic masculinity.” It began with Susan McClary’s denouncement in the 1980s of a passage in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as “the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” This point-blank statement elicited a wave of indignation among her colleagues, but nevertheless, it launched McClary’s career as a prominent member of the “new musicology” and a leader of the rising discipline of “feminist studies” in the academic world. With her career thus propelled, McClary expanded her thesis in her books Feminine Endings and Conventional Wisdom, to build a theory indicting the whole of Nineteenth-century (Western) classical music as the emanation of an oppressive patriarchal civilization and an expression of sexual violence against women. One specific claim, the sonata form as a sexist “man-subjugates-woman” pattern, has become ubiquitous in modern critique. As a true postmodernist, McClary claims to ground her theory in Neo-Marxist materialistic methodology – re-named “socio-historical context” – which is not objectionable per se. What is more than objectionable is that all of McClary’s theses are argued with misconstructions that defy facts and/or elementary logic, containing unsolved incongruences. One of many such examples: McClary’s argument about the “sexist sonata-form” thesis relies on a “demonstration” of a fellow feminist scholar who never demonstrates anything, but simply makes a claim that “in the traditional Western narrative the hero must be male, regardless of the gender of the text-image, because the obstacle [to vanquish] whatever its personification, is morphologically female,” a thesis clearly invalidated by the literary facts. Such misrepresentations continue unabated all through McClary’s writings.

Professor McClary’s decree of “Beethoven’s toxic masculinity” was only the first leg of a relay. Several other “new musicology” members – Lawrence Kramer (in his book After the Lovedeath), Sanna Pederson and Tia DeNora – took the baton, claiming to add new evidence for the prosecution, all of which amount to misconstructions that ignore the known facts and even elementary logic. They make many claims, including one that can be debunked with only a few words: according to Pederson, Beethoven denied women the aptitude for “heroism,” but Beethoven’s Fidelio is the only opera in the grand repertoire in which the soprano saves the tenor from death!

This relentless war contrasts sharply with the attitude of older feminists, who often found comfort and inspiration in his music. In the most emotional case, Hellen Keller (1880-1968) was struck blind and deaf before she was two years old but, with proper care and help, developed into an extraordinary person, a feminist, a pacifist and a socialist. She elatedly wrote about her joyful experience of McClary’s great nemesis, Beethoven’s Ninth, her own way: by putting her fingers on the sensitive diaphragm of the loudspeaker of the radio-set broadcasting the performance!

The above “nutshell” mentions just a few of the arguments that are developed in the scope of the book. Interested readers will find all the essential topics in the Abridged version, downloadable for free as a .pdf file. For a complete account, including detailed sources, buy the scholarly version on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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