The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Uses of History: Reincarnations of Beethoven, performed on March 30, 2001 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

During the first decades of the twentieth century Claude Debussy’s music was introduced into Germany. When it began to exert serious influence, some nationalist critics noted that, while it was all well and good for Germans to follow in the footsteps of French painters–since painting was never a field in which Germans dominated–when it came to music, to emulate a French composer was a travesty. Standing at the very center of the conceit that German culture defined music universally and normatively was the figure of Beethoven (in whom, not surprisingly, Debussy showed little interest). By 1900, the appropriation of Beethoven as a claim to legitimacy by subsequent generations of German composers had become an honored tradition. Not only did Wagner declare himself as the true successor to Beethoven, so too did the advocates of Brahms. Their master had become the “third B.” Later, Schoenberg and radical modernists in the 1920s also claimed a connection to late-style Beethoven as the harbinger of their own new aesthetic. Invoking the authority of Beethoven was one means of defending one’s approach to the future of music in the troubled early years of this century, when issues of modernity, innovation, and the interpretation of the past framed an intense debate about the purpose, nature, and future of music. Battle lines were drawn when both twelve-tone composition and a new brand of neoclassicism emerged in the context of the cataclysmic political transformation of Europe after World War I.

All three of the composers on tonight’s program were prominent figures in the musical culture of German-speaking Europe at the juncture between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Only one of them achieved historical superstardom–Richard Strauss (1864-1949)–although that superstardom was associated with music written before the War. When Strauss undertook this arrangement of the music of Beethoven, he was already considered a great composer well beyond his prime, though he would experience what subsequent generations termed a glorious “Indian summer” as a composer after 1945. This standard view of Strauss as an anachronism in his own time (that is, after 1912) has only recently come under sustained reassessment. In 1924 Kurt Weill wrote on the occasion of Strauss’s sixtieth birthday that he is “for me–at the threshold between the nineteenth and the twentieth century–a glance backwards and a challenge.” However, most critics in the 1920s considered both Franz Schmidt and Strauss to be conservatives in a world characterized by many incarnations of an avant-garde espousing either a break with the past or a radical shift. Schmidt (1874-1939), despite his personal regard for Schoenberg, was notorious in Vienna for his open hostility to Mahler, in whose orchestra Schmidt once played cello. Schmidt composed four fine symphonies, numerous sets of variations, a famous left-hand concerto (performed by the ASO in 1994), and his masterpiece, The Book With Seven Seals (performed by the ASO in 1997). In an era characterized by the Bauhaus and Surrealism, the music of Schmidt and Strauss could easily be dismissed as conservative echoes of the past designed to function as challenges to surface progress and innovation.

The assessment of Max Reger (1873-1916) in the conventional history of twentieth-century music and modernism is more difficult to describe. Since his death at age 43, widely viewed as a tragedy, occurred before the end of World War I, Reger as a composer and personality became part of history before the bitter controversies about the future and nature of modern music in the post-War era erupted. Reger was part of a generation of extremely talented composers who probably more than any other nineteenth-century group felt the awesome weight of history. Almost ten years younger than Strauss and thirteen younger than Mahler, Reger was always overshadowed by towering figures just a bit older than himself. Given the shortness of his career, it is startling to think that the distance between the death of Brahms and Bruckner and Reger is fewer than twenty years. But Reger’s fame and reputation in Germany during his lifetime were strong enough for him to be hailed as the hope for the future for the classical music tradition. Reger, the composer of numerous chamber and orchestral works including the Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin (performed by the ASO in 1995) possessed an extraordinary command of music compositional facility. Although regarded as a kind of neo-conservative deeply indebted to Brahms and an anti-Wagnerian figure, when one considers works such as An die Hoffnung and Eine Romantische Suite, both written around the time of the orchestration of the Beethoven Variations, one hears an expansive neo-Wagnerian romanticism which one would not usually associate either with a follower of Brahms or with Reger’s too-often cited reputation for academicism. Reger had many disciples and admirers, among them the brothers Adolf and Fritz Busch and the generation that carried on the Busch tradition, particularly Rudolf Serkin. From today’s perspective, it is reasonable to suggest that Reger’s time may now have come. He is no longer overshadowed by others and we now have the distance to rediscover the wealth of power, inspiration, and variation contained in his remarkable output of compositions.

It is fitting that Reger’s is the oldest piece on this program, because in Reger’s music his own contemporaries identified the finest realization of the German tradition of musical literacy and culture. His meteoric rise catapulted him to prominence as a symbol of the continuity of high culture in the guise of “absolute music” against philistinism, cultural decline, and the spread of operetta culture–the superficialities associated with modernity at the turn of the nineteenth century and traceable in the eyes of cultural pessimists in large part back to Richard Wagner. The reaction of German-speaking Europe against Wagner was not only motivated by an aversion to his theatrical enterprise. There were those who considered his musical strategies as corruptive not only of taste but of basic standards of musical literacy. Although Wagner claimed to be the true heir of Beethoven, he was considered by many as the ultimate bowdlerizer, who appropriated only Beethovenian gesture and abandoned the fundamentals of Beethovenian composition. Gone were thematic development and variation–the kind of transformation of musical material that Beethoven both pioneered and perfected. In their place was endless repetition and coloristic effect sustained not by musical logic, but by dramatic spectacle. This view was strongly propagated by the followers of Brahms (although not by Brahms himself). The anti-Wagnerian Romantics saw in Reger the ideal candidate to contain the dangerous direction that Richard Strauss, for example, had taken in his compositional evolution in the 1880s and well into the next century. Strauss, who had been brought up in a household with conservative musical taste, fashioned his earliest allegiances to Brahms and that reconverted Wagnerian, Hans von Bülow. But by the late 1880s a new Richard Strauss had emerged who had embraced the music of Liszt and Wagner. What few contemporary critics realized, however, was that Strauss’s conversion to the “enemy” was not pervasive. Classical form and techniques–the kinds associated with Beethoven–are integrated into all of Strauss’s music, even the most radically narrative such as Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) and the Symphonia domestica (1903). And Strauss returned to the symphony later in life with Eine Alpensinfonie (1915). Likewise the scores to Elektra and Salome owe a debt as much to the musical strategies of Beethoven and Brahms as they do to Wagner. Ultimately, at the heart of Strauss’s aesthetic credo was neither Beethoven nor Wagner, but Mozart, one of Reger’s key sources and inspirations as well.

In the case of Reger and Schmidt, it is not surprising that they chose for their themes ones that were widely recognized by the amateur listening and performing public. Beethoven was at the very core of middle-class tastes and expectations vis-à-vis music. Likewise, when Strauss adds his melodrama and invokes themes from the best-known symphonies, he too acknowledges a conception of musical communication shared by Reger and Schmidt that allied itself with the middle-class, urban, well-educated audience of the last third of the nineteenth century. There were literally in Germany tens of thousands of amateur pianists and violinists who played the Bagatelles and the Spring Sonata. Any moderately educated adult could identify the themes of the Third and Fifth Symphonies (critics and the lay public would have to wait for the generation of Thomas Mann and T.W. Adorno to award an equally privileged place to Beethoven’s later works).

By using some of Beethoven’s most famous themes, these three composers cut to the very center of what the musical debate at the time was really about. Mahler and later Schoenberg and many other modernists possessed anger and hostility toward the middle-class audience that reveled not only in its recognition of the themes chosen by Reger and Schmidt but in their capacity to follow the transformations indulged in by these composers in their sense of variations. Going to a concert was for most a delightful exercise cutting across generations in the timeless assertion of connoisseurship, the achievement of culture and taste, and the capacity for making discriminating assessments. Strauss too wrote for that public and never abandoned it even with Elektra and Salome. But much of modernism in the 1920s was an explicit act of rebellion and revolt precisely against the conservative middle-class culture and its construction of a cultural “establishment.” Thus late Beethoven, which like contemporary music was hard to grasp and had traditionally been far less popular, seemed a willing ally in the attack on the covert philistinism and ignorance masquerading under a veneer of education and culture, worn by the concert-going public. The source of the Beethovenian echoes in tonight’s music is the Beethoven loved by the lay public that radical modernists believed the public never really understood properly.

These three composers, cast reluctantly by history into the role of conservative standard-bearers intent on demonstrating the continuities between Beethoven and modernity, celebrating the centrality of Beethoven for modern times, helped define a struggle over the soul of Beethoven in the early twentieth century. The dimensions of that struggle as it existed are perceived now only by implication in the music like a ghostly shadow. But the point of the struggle retains its relevancy. These works are an affirmation of the value of continuing a tradition of composition and music education, amateur music-making and concert-going that Reger and particularly Strauss and Schmidt considered endangered not only by the transformation of contemporary life but by the aesthetic consequences of modernity. These works show more than a debt to the past. They are not only acts of homage, they are creations characterized by an aggressive counter-attack against the perceived insurgency against standards of taste and culture represented by the two most radical dimensions of twentieth-century culture: experimentation in the forms and materials of music and the rise of the commercial entertainment music directed at the brave new world of mass consumerism. They are an admonishment not to forfeit or distort history so readily.