New York Times
|'Beethoven in German Politics': Fascinating Study||History Home|
|By JAMES R. OESTREICH
With more sober successes than sensational failures, musical studies have broadened their purview in recent years to connect substantially with other disciplines.
For too long, the musical discussions that reached a broad public, if they even rose above hoary mythology, languished in reverential isolation. Now most of them at least acknowledge a context, whether psychological, sexual, social or historical, and many of them actively embrace it.
Two richly contextual studies of Beethoven appeared last year: Scott Burnham's "Beethoven Hero" (Princeton University Press), which examines the composer's heroic style and the ways in which it has shaped Western musical standards to the present; and Tia DeNora's "Beethoven and the Construction of Genius" (University of California Press), which explores musical politics in Vienna from 1792 to 1803. Now comes David B. Dennis' "Beethoven in German Politics, 1870-1989," and the title says it all, albeit gracelessly.
Dennis (like Ms. DeNora, a sociologist) is not a musicologist but a young historian at Loyola University in Chicago. It would be nice to think that the practitioners of other disciplines are responding in kind to the heightened ecumenism of musicologists and flocking toward music, but in Dennis' case the subject seems to have grown directly out of his youthful impulse "to live a life of the mind," in his words. His father, also an academic, set him on the unconventional course of what he "really liked to think about"; wise professors let him pursue it, and here is the result.
It is a book that should fascinate not only Beethoven devotees but also anyone interested in the elusiveness and malleability of historical evidence. For, as Dennis virtuosically shows, Beethoven has, through his music and his personality, through a molehill of established facts and a mountain of beloved legends, served to promote virtually every political cause in Germany over more than a century.
Germany is, to begin with, a country in which culture counts, having provided at least a loose national unity long before statehood did. What meaning could the word "Musikpolitik" have in another language, another country?
And Beethoven is central not only because of the epochal nature of his musical achievement but also because of his own slippery politics.
Throughout his life, "Beethoven was confused about politics," Dennis writes. "Surviving all the disruption that occurred in German and Austrian lands around the turn of the 19th century -- enlightened reform, revolutionary struggle, military invasion, national liberation and reactionary dictatorship -- the composer followed an uneven path of political development."
He espoused liberal views at certain points yet showed no serious discomfort functioning amid the aristocracy, on which he largely depended. Indeed, he tried to stake his own claim to nobility. He expressed scorn for the masses yet sang of universal brotherhood -- this, of course, in the Ninth Symphony, which he nevertheless dedicated to Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia. He dedicated the Third Symphony to Napoleon, for whatever reason, then rescinded the dedication, for whatever reason. (Myriad possibilities are cited in each case.)
All this, and more, before whatever extramusical "meanings" can be extracted from the music even enter the picture. Then, too, Beethoven received contradictory treatment from his spin doctor, Richard Wagner, who himself traveled a long road from the revolutionary of 1848 to the ultranationalist of the 1880s. No man "had more impact on the politicization of Beethoven," Dennis writes.
Somewhere in all this was grist for every mill; it had only to be used selectively. Of importance to the left, for example, was the text of the Ninth Symphony; to the center, the work's transcendence and fathomless idealism; to the right, its dedication. Everything else could be -- had to be -- ignored.
Immersing oneself in the often hopeless morass of German politics over the last century is mostly unedifying business, which lends itself to little humor. Dennis comes close to providing some in a footnote regarding Arnold Schering's claim in 1920 that "a powerful tie binds the citizens of the Weimar Republic with Beethoven: the same moral idealism that led them to war and victory in 1914." With perfect deadpan, Dennis observes, "One cannot help wondering what victory Schering felt Germany had won in 1914."
And if any humor can be found in the racial wrangling that took place early in this century, in view of the baleful outcome, it comes again from Dennis' flat delivery in reciting the list of "Germans in France" claimed by the disreputable anthropologist Ludwig Woltmann: "Napoleon, Mazarin, Sieyes, Lafayette, Saint-Just, Robespierre, Marat, Descartes, Montaigne, Pascal, Condorcet, Voltaire, Rousseau, Moliere, Corneille, Hugo, Balzac, Zola, David, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Rodin and Berlioz, among many others."
For his purposes, Dennis needs no detailed discussion of music, and he remains mostly on solid ground when referring to it. But he makes a serious factual error in discussing Hans von Bulow's appalling rededication of the Third Symphony to Bismarck in 1892, complete with a text fitted to one of the tunes: "Bulwark of the Volk, hail to you, O Hero." The words are set not to "the opening lines of the score," as Dennis asserts, but to the big tune of the "Eroica" Variations, which occurs 76 measures into the finale of the Third.
Still, this is a most impressive achievement: a cautionary lesson for any historian in its vivid depiction of the uses and abuses of the past, and one that should serve Dennis well in his career. A partisan cannot help hoping that Dennis will continue to mine the musical vein of the historical range. In any case, he has opened interesting new terrain for musicologists.
"Beethoven in German Politics, 1870-1989."
By David B. Dennis.
251 pages. Yale University Press. Illustrated. $30.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
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