It is hard to imagine an area of Western musical practice and thinking not directly or indirectly affected by the figure of Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven’s music, and the fight over his legacy, has decisively affected how music is written, performed, listened to, written about and understood – that is, practiced, discursively. His work and image have been fashioned and refashioned to suit various political, philosophical or aesthetic needs, occasionally bordering on the farcical if we consider the celebrations at Bonn in 1845. In many ways and on many levels, Beethoven is a transitional figure – a bridge between the old, pre-revolutionary political system and its representational aesthetics, and the new political and creative realities of the nineteenth century. Beethoven has been heralded as both a universal composer as well as a central figure in German nationalist ideologies; he marks a tipping point between the rhetorical and representational aesthetic regime of the past and the organic and, later, structurally integral models of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Certainly, it would not be controversial to claim for Beethoven a role in the history – and, just as importantly, the historiography – of Western music analogous to that of Shakespeare in Harold Bloom’s literary canon – the figure of Beethoven signifies a double event in music history comparable to the French Revolution in politics.
2020 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, and we invite our readers to use this occasion to reflect on the figure – or figures – of Beethoven. The current issue of Music & Practice seeks to provide different frameworks for such reflection, from a number of highly different angles. What we seek is a reorientation away from the hagiography of traditional discursive and interpretive practices. Although such an anti-authoritarian impulse could well take sides with iconoclastic gestures like blowing up opera houses (pace Pierre Boulez), crushing a Steinway Grand (pace Simon Steen-Andersen, reviving the avant-garde tradition of piano destruction) or tearing down or even beheading statues (as recently happened in Copenhagen); this is not our aim. Rather we seek to traverse the conceptual borders of understanding and performing music through meticulous attention to the details of our discourses (why were the opera houses, Grands, or statues there in the first place?). To the extent that Beethoven is a transitional figure, such a traversal could certainly be seen as being wholly in line with his own work. With this in mind we hope not only to contribute to the current reassessment of our understanding of Beethoven and his work, but also to address more general questions concerning historical and contemporary artistic, interpretive and historiographic practices.
In our scientific section, Esteban Buch explores the political aspects of Fidelio, taking questions of contemporaneous penal methods and gender as a starting point to develop an understanding of the work against the backdrop of contemporary political events, arguing that operatic conventions and the notion of beauty itself blunts the political sting of the opera.
Paulo De Assis, on the other hand, takes us through two projects in artistic research conducted at the Orpheus Institute at Ghent and elsewhere. These projects take Beethoven’s Diabelli-variations and Piano concertos as their respective points of departure, exploring aesthetic and discursive currents of these works through a number of alienation devices as well as fragmentation, re-composition, improvisation and multi-medial contextualization.
The Drei Equale, the work performed at Beethoven’s funeral, is the subject of Sebastiaan Kemner’s article. Discussing the work’s relation to the choral tradition and the sublime style, Kemner provides an analysis of the work as well a rich contextual discussion that takes as its point of departure the association of the trombone with the voice of God.
In our explorative section, fortepianist Bart van Oort invites the reader and performer to take a fresh look at the dynamic markings in Beethoven’s piano notation. In a rich discussion of contemporaneous sources on performance practice and aesthetics in relation to the dynamic characteristics of various historical pianos, van Oort argues that modern editions often uncritically distort Beethoven’s notation and care for particular dynamic, timbral or textural effects, resulting in faulty and jagged performances.
In our reports and commentaries section, distinguished natural horn player Anneke Scott, taking her cue from a recent CD recording, provides a performer’s account of Beethoven’s Horn Sonata op. 17, providing an often forgotten historical context for this seminal work and a host of works for the horn that followed in its wake.
Like Paulo de Assis, conductor Carolyn Watson and musicologist Martin Nedbal report on a project that challenges the unity of Beethoven’s musical structures. In an orchestral project conducted with the University of Kansas Symphony Orchestra they have explored Beethoven’s symphonic works by combining movements from symphonies nos. 1–4 and 5–8 into two reconfigured symphonic entities. The project provides a refreshing listening experience to Beethoven’s symphonies, and poses a number of interesting questions regarding the work concept and the idea of musical masterpieces, as well as historical and contemporary curatorial practices.