William Kinderman. Beethoven. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. xvi, 374 pp.
William Kinderman opens his book Beethoven with a claim for the centrality of Beethoven to Western music: "No composer occupies a more central position in musical life than Beethoven." Until recently, few would have disagreed with that point. But now we must ask the question: "In whose musical life?" As in so many facets of culture, we can no longer assume a single controlling outlook or orientation in music. This I take to be obvious, even tautological. With Beethoven, however, the question is more fundamental. As we look at Beethoven at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we must ask the further question: "Whose Beethoven?" That is, which Beethoven are we talking about? Although he has remained larger than life even to his detractors, Beethoven has become as much who we make him as who he was.
This is far from being a criticism: Beethoven's protean nature has had much to do with his survival; each generation or each cultural agency has been able to find in Beethoven what it sought, be it Romantic hero, supreme structuralist, or rapist. Interpretations have usually followed one of two paths: essentially the emotional, either overtly programmatic or metaphorical, or the structural, with emphasis on the abstract and the formal. Beethoven has been both Prometheus and Apollo. (1) The same work, the Ninth Symphony, could serve the agendas of both Richard Wagner and Heinrich Schenker.
For much of the nineteenth century, Beethoven was the Romantic composer par excellence. Wagner's first of several discussions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was extreme in orientation, but paradigmatic. Eschewing any analysis, Wagner provided a poetic program of the meaning of each movement. (2) Some sixty-six years later Heinrich Schenker, in his painstakingly detailed analysis of the Ninth Symphony, signaled a shift to a formalist approach. (3) Based on the belief that the music may be explained within a strictly technical framework, his work became an exemplar of formalism (despite its rhetoric).
Schenker's turn toward a more formalist conception of Beethoven coincided with a general reaction against Romanticism characteristic of Western musical culture. Although Schenker was hardly anti-Romantic himself, his structuralism suggested an alternative model to Beethoven as Romantic composer. It heralded a new emphasis on a more Classical Beethoven. Beethoven was rescued from Romanticism, and by the middle of the twentieth century, when Romanticism was looked on with such suspicion that many musicologists shied away from nineteenth-century topics, the structuralist approach prevailed. Questions of expression and meaning were largely avoided, and Beethoven was reinterpreted as specifically a Classical as opposed to Romantic composer. (4)
More recent scholarship has moved away from the Beethoven-as-formalist model. Sketch studies (to which I shall return) have given way to searches for meaning in Beethoven's music. These searches have resulted in highly sophisticated approaches, often borrowed from other disciplines, in particular literary theory and semiotics. Narrative theory especially has been applied to Beethoven's music. (5) All of these approaches provoke both aesthetic and political issues, as they address not only the artistic component of Beethoven's music, but in some cases the legitimacy or even the existence of the Western canon and Beethoven's place in it. Complex methodologies have been used both to support and to attack the canon.
The question "Whose Beethoven?"--any answer to which reflects how an author approaches his or her topic--has broad implications for assessing Kinderman's book. Although new details emerge, the broad outlines of Beethoven's life and work are fundamentally set, and it is hard to find a raison d'etre for any new study other than one in which the author looks at the material in a new way. Kinderman views Beethoven as having created something new and something universal: "The last half century has increasingly demonstrated the universal scope of his legacy.... His restless open vision of the work of art reflects a modern and essentially cosmopolitan aesthetic attitude" (p.1). In some ways, Beethoven's approach to composition was new, modern, and cosmopolitan. The very prevalence of the sketches bespeak an artist much concerned with perfection, someone who saw the artwork as a unified whole, who molded, shaped, hammered, and beat it until it assumed that state. Beethoven would rewrite the ending of a piece again and again, as in op.131 and the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, until he was satisfied that it closed as he wanted. But, to return to Kinderman's statement, did Beethoven leave a single universal legacy? That question needs to be put into perspective.
Kinderman's approach is not all that different from Schenker's, although Kinderman is not a Schenkerian. Schenker has appealed to twentieth-century analysis for many …