Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph

Ivan Hewett in The Telegraph:

Beethoven-illustration-large_trans++pJliwavx4coWFCaEkEsb3kvxIt-lGGWCWqwLa_RXJU8Ask anyone to name the archetypal genius, and chances are it will be Ludwig van Beethoven. This is hardly surprising, as Beethoven largely created the image of what genius should be. When he was young, he was compared to Mozart; when he was old, to Shakespeare. His music could be loftily spiritual, blazingly dramatic, sweetly domestic, suavely aristocratic and rudely demotic, often within the space of a single work. It embraced much of music’s past, and even foreshadowed the future. What other composer born in the 18th century looked back to Palestrina and anticipated Chopin, Schumann, Wagner and even boogie-woogie? A giant reach, combined with common humanity: this is what Beethoven shares with other candidates for the title of “exemplary genius”. Then there are those qualities that mark him out as special: his determination to strike out on new paths, whatever the professional cost (as Roland Barthes put it, “Beethoven won for artists the right to reinvent themselves”). His scorn of high-born patrons, however much they revered him. His difficulties in love, which pointed to the impossibility of genius ever finding a true soulmate. His dreadful catalogue of illnesses, which he bore with stoic fortitude. Above all, his deafness. As a symbol of the tragic and tormented creator, it’s almost too perfect. Such a figure was bound to be mythologised, a process that started even before his death. We know now that Beethoven’s factotum Anton Schindler made things up in his memoirs. The earliest biographers and critics such as E  T  A Hoffmann vied with each other in hymning the world-changing nature of Beethoven’s music. Once he’d been lifted into the realm of myth, Beethoven could be remade to suit each new world view. For romantics he was the arch-romantic; for communists he was the great revolutionary artist; for modernists he was the great radical. More recent critics have tried to cut Beethoven down to near-human size, by revealing the mythmaking process at work.

Tia DeNora in her Beethoven and the Construction of Genius went further. She argued that Beethoven’s pre-eminence was due to the scheming of certain Viennese aristocrats, who “created” Beethoven to demonstrate the cultural superiority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

More here.