Saturday, August 1, 2020

Mark Evan Bonds's "Beethoven: Variations on a Life"

Mark Evan Bonds is the Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he has taught since 1992. A former editor-in-chief of Beethoven Forum, he has written widely on the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Bonds applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Beethoven: Variations on a Life, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford would be happy. Page 99 actually gives a very good sense of my approach to Beethoven, which tries to get us to think about him and listen to his music in ways that go back to his own lifetime. Page 99 points out that Beethoven’s reputation has rested from the very beginning almost entirely on his instrumental music, in spite of the fact that he wrote enormous quantities of vocal music, including an opera, two settings of the Mass, an oratorio, more than a hundred songs, and dozens of choruses. It must have galled him, as I point out on page 99, to read repeated references to himself not simply as the greatest living composer but as the greatest living composer of instrumental music.

In fairness to those critics, this was not so much a dismissal of his vocal works as a recognition of his unique genius for writing for instruments alone. Setting a text to music, as one anonymous critic of a set of six songs argued in 1811, actually “inhibited” Beethoven because it deprived him of the “broad, free field of play” he needed to display his creative gifts to the fullest. And indeed, it was this sense of free imagination—“fantasy,” to use the favored term of the day—that made his music so distinctive. His fantasy took listeners to places they had never been before. Some found the path too difficult to follow, but by the end of Beethoven’s life he had changed the way audiences listened by demanding more of them.

Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, also discussed on page 99, provides a case in point of this perceived imbalance between vocal and instrumental music. The work began life as Leonore in 1805, but the composer made substantial revisions to the music, writing no fewer than four different purely instrumental overtures along the way before re-launching the work as Fidelio in 1814. Overtures typically set the mood for the drama to follow, and through all its various versions that drama remained serious indeed. Leonore, who has disguised herself as a man (“Fidelio”), secures employment in a prison in order to free her husband, Florestan, who has been unjustly incarcerated because of his political beliefs. One of the four overtures, now known as the “Third Leonore Overture,” is a brilliant encapsulation of the plot through instruments alone; it was so powerful, in fact, that it effectively overwhelmed the stage action that followed, and Beethoven wisely wrote an entirely new and much shorter overture. He published the earlier one separately in tacit acknowledgment that it was, in effect, too dramatic in spite of—or more to the point, because of—the absence of words. Thus even Beethoven recognized a sizable grain of truth in what contemporary critics had to say about him.
Learn more about Beethoven: Variations on a Life at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue