No mere trifle: Beethoven 250

Beethoven in 1815 by Johann Peter Theodor Lyser

It will not have escaped your notice, dear reader, that this year the world (and not only the musical world) is marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. “The music is transcendent. He’s always pushing against the sky, reinventing the universe.” (Thus Thomas Adès in The Observer, Sunday 23rd February). I cannot disagree and I cannot imagine life without Beethoven’s music – indeed, one of my first musical memories is when my father played an LP of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (Eugen Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic). I must have been all of three or four at the time, and I was so overcome by the opening bars that I hid my head in the nearest cushion. Even today, that cushion moment is still there.

However, in 1927 the musical world and the concert-going public thought differently from Thomas Adès (and indeed from Hans Keller who, in the 1970s declared Beethoven “the greatest mind ever’). In an article on the Choral Fantasia for Music & Letters, Edward Dent, then the new Professor of Music at Cambridge writes:

For a hundred years the name of Beethoven has been throughout the musical world the symbol of all it loftiest ideals….It is reasonable that we should ask ourselves in this Beethoven centenary year what is the real significance of Beethoven for us. [now, here’s the bombshell…] Signs are not wanting to show that the cult of Beethoven is on the wane…We have already reached a point at which almost the only works of Beethoven which are thoroughly familiar to the average concert-goer are those which afford the most conspicuous opportunity for the display of a pianist’s or a conductor’s own individuality….

…It is a testimony to the greatness of Beethoven that even one or two of his works can still produce, or appear to produce, the impression of being music of our own time. We ought to be suspicious of that impression and enquire of our own minds whether it is really anything but an illusion….

…After these hundred years we may perhaps do Beethoven more honest justice if we admit frankly that he is a composer of a century ago. If we admit this, we can disregard any disappointment that we or others may feel when we hear his works in the concert-room today after an experience of Wagner, of Brahms and Delius, as well as of all the younger men who are expressing the emotions of our own age. There is no denying the historic immensity of Beethoven’s personality; our duty is to recognise that he belongs to a historic period and that we can only understand him rightly by studying his own environment and by studying, not necessarily performing publicly, the whole of his artistic output. If we take this attitude towards Beethoven, then there is no work of his, not the humblest Bagatelle, without its interest and value for us. [E. J. Dent ‘The Choral Fantasia’:  Music & Letters, Vol. 8 no. 2 (April 1927) pp. 111 – 121.]

I confess I was shocked to read his words, so far removed from today’s thinking. But all this is a long overture to my few (inadequate) words concerning the Bagatelles – the subject of our current exhibition in the Anderson Room. I love them, I can even play some of them. I delight in their expression of Beethoven en miniature. And you’d be surprised at how many knowledgeable articles there are on them.

In a nutshell there are three sets: opp. 33 (1803), 119 (1823) and 126 (1825) plus a number of Werke ohne Opus (WoO) published after his death – the most famous of which, as every piano pupil will know, is Für Elise (WoO 59). It is likely that Beethoven regarded these pieces as a useful source of income rather than anything else – ‘pot-boilers’ Martin Cooper describes them in his book Beethoven: the Last Decade (OUP, 1970) [M520.c.95.84], “but”, he goes on to say “Beethoven’s pot-boilers are often quite as interesting as other composers’ most ambitious and carefully considered works. Hardly one is entirely without interest”. Absolutely. Have a look at Op.119 no.7 for example, where Beethoven is in definite ‘third period’ mode exploring the extremes of the keyboard and the use of the trill just as he does in the Op.111 piano sonata, but here it’s a mere  – deeply unsettling – 27 bars! Or – one of my favourites – op.126 no. 1 Cantabile e compiacevole with its seemingly straighforward start before all breaks down in the middle section leading to a return to a transformed theme deploying more ledger lines than one might have thought possible, with a little hand-crossing for good measure. And if you really want to practise hand-crossing, then Op.119 no.2 is for you (at least the ledger lines are manageable).

Beethoven: Bagatelles, op.119. London, Clementi 1823. [MR340.a.80.10]

The University Library has a copy of what is now generally regarded as the second impression of the first edition of the set published as op. 119 by Clementi in 1823 entitled, delightfully, “Trifles for the Piano-Forte: consisting of eleven pleasing pieces composed in various styles by L. van Beethoven.” I say ‘second impression’ because the price (4/-) is printed rather than in MS as it was in the first impression. Beethoven had sent the manuscript to his former pupil Ferdinand Ries, then based in London, asking him to “Dispose of them as favourably as you can.” Some six months later, editions by Maurice  Schlesinger in Paris and Sauer and Leidesdorf in Vienna also appeared.  If you are interested to know more of this intriguing detective story, do read Alan Tyson’s article ‘The First Edition of Beethoven’s Op. 119 Bagatelles for The Musical Quarterly, Vol.19 no. 3 (July 1963) pp. 331 – 338.

And to return, briefly, to Dent: “there is no work of his, not the humblest Bagatelle, without its interest and value for us.” he says; this, I think, is Dent himself speaking rather than Dent setting out his view of the general attitude to Beethoven at that centenary year and we surely cannot but agree wholeheartedly with him. His reference to “music of our own time” is telling as, I think (and hope) that now, nearly a century later, we accept the timelessness of Beethoven’s output and its universal significance. Thus, the Bagatelles are no mere trifle, despite their name.  Do let us have your own thoughts on Beethoven and, if you are in the area, why not pop in to the UL and see our little exhibition in the Anderson Room.


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