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10 November 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 11:40am

Paul Griffiths: “Beethoven was the first composer to address us with a consistent voice”

The music critic, author and librettist on his Goldsmiths-shortlisted novel Mr Beethoven, and using fiction to better understand history. 

By Emily Bootle

Born in Wales in 1947, Paul Griffiths has written music criticism for the Times, the New Yorker and the New York Times, four novels, several books on classical music, and multiple libretti and texts for other musical projects. In 2014, he was awarded an OBE for services to music.

Much of Griffiths’s fiction develops pre-existing stories: The Lay of Sir Tristram is an expansion of an ancient legend, let me tell you an offshoot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (with Ophelia at the centre). Mr Beethoven, his latest novel, which has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, takes a similar approach, and imagines an extra few years at the end of the composer’s life. The novel sees Beethoven travel to Boston to compose an oratorio in 1833 – in reality, six years after his death. Written in the style of a historical text, the novel interrogates the meaning of history and how we interpret the past.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

Different ways of thinking, and, with luck, a touch of otherwise untellable truth. For instance, whether we’re reading or writing, we can find our experience fractured (and yet integrated in another way, since a novel has to be a whole distinct thing). Or the text can, explicitly or implicitly, tell how it was put together. Discontinuity and openness are traits that most novels have tried to avoid; they would be regarded as faults. But faults can be productive.

In the novel you use the flexibility of fiction to reimagine the same scenarios more than once, with slightly altered events. Do you think a similar approach could be useful when considering historical evidence?

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Historians do indeed have to deal with cases where the evidence can be read in more than one way, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t some who found the techniques of non-traditional fiction useful (or who pioneered them), rather as the writing of history went along with the writing of fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’d be very happy to learn of any examples.

[Read more: “The way we read has changed radically in the digital age”: an interview with Goldsmiths-shortlisted author Xiaolu Guo]

Throughout the novel, Beethoven is mostly referred to as “the composer”. Do you think our impression of Beethoven could be different if he had published music anonymously?

Yes. With Beethoven we have the first composer who addresses us with a consistent voice, and who invites us to understand his music as personal expression. Or at least, this is how his music has come to be understood. That thundering opening of the Fifth Symphony would sound very different if we had no knowledge of who had created it.

The oratorio that is the centrepiece of the novel would have been part of Beethoven’s “fourth period”. What do you think this period would have sounded like, and how could it have changed the course of music history?

In extending Beethoven’s life by six or seven years, and taking him into a genre (choral orchestral music) he would not by then have touched for a decade, I had to imagine him entering that fourth period – and, of course, try to imagine the music of that period. All I could do was extrapolate from some aspects of how his music was going in the last few years of his life: engaging with Renaissance harmony, becoming ever more venturesome – going backwards and forwards at the same time, which may be more our condition than his. But I didn’t have to write the notes…

As well as playing with history through fiction, your fiction makes use of historical fact and methodology. Do you think fiction can ever be truly detached from reality?

That’s an intriguing prospect: a fiction totally unreal. Perhaps it would have to be in a language totally unreal, like the Voynich manuscript.

One of the most important characters in the novel is Thankful, a young woman who acts as Beethoven’s interpreter in sign language. How have real life “interpreters” affected our perception of Beethoven’s work over the decades?

The music has changed enormously during the last half-century with the growth of historically informed performance: using the instruments of Beethoven’s time (or, more likely, copies) and the playing techniques, as indicated by contemporary treatises and reports. We have a lighter Beethoven, a more graphic Beethoven, a funnier Beethoven.

Of all the places Beethoven could have visited, why did you choose to place him in Boston, USA?

For several reasons. It could have happened: Beethoven received a commission from the Handel and Haydn Society of that city in 1823 and did not say no. It also means Beethoven becomes the first great composer to cross the Atlantic. On the other side, he experiences a society in which the revolutionary ideals of his youth have been instantiated. And he meets, too, people we know – especially writers we know.

[Read more: “Novels are free spaces, just about the only ones left”: an interview with Goldsmiths-shortlisted author DBC Pierre]

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

The Goldsmiths Prize has drawn attention to novels that most prize juries would never have considered. And there are many readers who value the prize accordingly.

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Of course, the oratorio Beethoven wrote for Boston was in my mind throughout, though frustratingly inaudible.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

I would certainly second most of the novels put forward for the “fantasy prize” on the Goldsmiths website, and would be honoured to add Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize will be announced in an online ceremony on 11 November and will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival’s virtual Winter Festival on 21 November. Tickets are available here.

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