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From the NS archive: Beethoven's panegyrical centenary

30 April 1927: On the centenary of Beethoven's death, Edward Sackville-West reviews three books on the composer, assessing both the man and the music.

Edward Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville, was a music critic and novelist who was a regular contributor to the New Statesman. He wrote occasional pieces for the magazine before becoming its music critic in 1935, a position he held for 20 years. In this piece, a book review of "Beethoven" by WJ Turner, "The Unconscious Beethoven" by Ernest Newman and "Beethoven’s Pianoforte Sonatas" by William Behrend, he discussed the nature of the man and the potency and technique of the music. On the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, Beethoven’s star was at its zenith, he wrote, and the music had come to be recognised as “the heroic affirmation of the absolute value of spiritual endeavour”.



It seems safe to say that no man of genius has ever had so panegyrical a centenary as that which Beethoven is at the moment enjoying. Had he died in 1822, say, his centenary would have come at the wrong moment for appreciation, even if he had composed all the works we now possess, before that year. But enthusiasm for his music and realisation of the gigantic stature of his spirit have been steadily growing, and his centenary has chanced upon the crest of the wave. It is also significant that the belief in moral values, to which the war gave so rude a shock, is now regaining its ascendancy, just at the time when its greatest vindicator is celebrating his centenary. For the music of Beethoven is the heroic affirmation of the absolute value of spiritual endeavour. As Mr Turner truly remarks: “The history of Beethoven is a history of life lived to the end”; each new work was the expression of the struggle with and resolution of a problem on a sternly mapped spiritual road, from which the composer never for a moment swerved. At the end of his life he was attacking problems more and more fiercely individual, more and more difficult to seize, and not one of them definitive: at no period of his life did he allow himself to rest under a sense of accomplishment.


All this is clearly brought out by Mr Turner in his critical biography. The first part of his book is devoted to the life, the second to the works, of the master. If not too rigidly applied this method has many advantages. It enables the reader to get a clear general view of the composer’s life, unencumbered by critical estimates, and his work may then be considered as a whole.

Of the elder Beethoven, Mr Turner remarks: “He was one of those men of more temperament than talent, whose 'instability’ is sexually attractive to women and who seem liable to produce children of genius, or of remarkable gifts.” That he was a hard taskmaster to Ludwig seems indubitable, but Mr Turner corrects the current, over-dramatised impression that Beethoven’s childhood was exceptionally rasping or unpleasant. He seems, however, to have developed slowly (always a good sign), and it was not until he finally settled in Vienna, in 1792, that unmistakable signs of an original genius for composing began to be evident, although he had already become fairly well known as a pianist.

The question of his piano-playing is revealing. According to reliable accounts (Junker, Czerny) Beethoven was accustomed to use a great deal of pedal and, in spite of an astonishing bravura technique, to be more remarkable for the volume and impressiveness of his tone than for the clarity and delicacy which Hummel’s playing, for instance, possessed. As might be expected, his playing reflected his whole personality, which had the force and majesty of an exceptionally high waterfall, making its effect by sheer weight rather than by point and acuteness. This, of course, made his relations with his friends uneven. It must not be forgotten that Beethoven’s mind was that of a romantic, and Blahetka’s words (quoted by Mr Ernest Newman) should be born in mind when trying to see the reason of, for instance, the composer’s apparently unreasonable wrath against the good Schindler: He simply could not understand that things and the relations of things were in reality different from what he conceived them to be; and so it was very difficult in the long run, to be in close association with him without friction.


Occasionally, the impotence of even his best friends to rise to his ideal of personal relationship would be too much for the composer, and the result would be an inexplicable outburst of temper. In his numerous love affairs, too (as Mr Turner points out) this question of “worthiness” disqualified him, when his search for it had taken him “beyond the kindly race of men”, for any satisfaction in love. He ceased to expect any happiness from women, simply because he knew that their standard could never approach to his; this was not merely the arrogance of a disappointed romantic, but the hard knowledge of a determined idealist who knew what he wanted. Even as early as 1816 we find him saying to a woman that “he could not love any woman who did not know how to value his art”.

The problem of his long litigation with his brother Kaspar’s wife over the guardianship of his nephew, is far more difficult to resolve. Beethoven’s implacable animosity to this woman, who seems to have been no worse than flighty, is almost impossible to understand. Mr Newman suggests that, suffering as he undoubtedly did at one time from syphilis, the disease got so much on his nerves that the idea of Frau Kaspar’s “wanton” character and its possible effect on her son was intolerable to him. But the explanation seems hardly satisfactory. It is probable that the real cause of Beethoven’s irritable obstinacy lay in some intricate complex of feelings and circumstances that no one knew of even at the time. It is clear, on the whole, that he only really expressed himself in his music, leaving his daily life to shift for itself in the strange, inconsistent way that has since become a legend; the harshness of some of his intimate behaviour, his lack of scrupulous honesty in business (see his treatment of publishers in the matter of the Mass in D), and, at the same time, his protestations of high moral character – these he simply left as discords to be resolved, not in his life, but in his music. For all we know, the Quartet in C sharp Minor may contain the explanation and solution of the emotions which inspired his share in the Johann affair. As Mr Turner observes, Beethoven “did not split his personality”, as most people find it necessary to do in order to preserve amenity; he did not care to take the trouble to do so, his art being all that really mattered to him – art which is an absolute in which all small imperfections are swallowed up.


In considering his music the most important point to observe is the way in which his method of composition differed from that of his great predecessors. In a letter to Trietschke, written in 1814, Beethoven makes the following statement, the interest of which cannot be exaggerated: “Also in my instrumental music I always have the whole in my mind.” In working out a composition, therefore, Beethoven resolved a nebula; the themes were less invented than discovered; they emerged gradually during the process of the cooling and crystallisation of the unformed mass. This had not been the method of Mozart, of Handel or of Haydn, who invented their themes and then built round them; Beethoven’s method was the exact opposite, a fact easily explicable when it is remembered that in each of his works he was stating and resolving a spiritual problem. Bettina von Arnim reported to Goethe that Beethoven had said to her that music was “the mediation between the intellectual and the sensuous life”, and any one of his works (and this became truer with every year of his life) shows how completely the whole of the composer’s being was poured and fused into his music, so that nothing of it was left out. It is impossible to imagine a profounder and completer synthesis than the music of Beethoven presents; before it that of Mozart seems superficial, that of Wagner insincere.

The difficulties in the way of a verbal interpretation of the master’s music seem at present insuperable. No one doubts that, for instance, the later quartets “mean” something, but to see how futile any attempt to express this “meaning” in images is, one has only to read Wagner’s analysis of the C# Minor Quartet; one cannot prove Wagner wrong, but one knows that what he says is beside the point. Mr Ernest Newman has expended 150 pages in trying to show that a certain phrase of three ascending notes occurs in nearly all Beethoven’s slow movements and symbolises the aspiring idealist. This, like Wagner’s theory, cannot be proved to be beside the point; all we can say of it is: “The reason why I cannot tell, I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.” Mr Turner does not fall into such traps; he has come to the inevitable conclusion that the late work of Beethoven is the image of a higher reality; that is all that can be aid at present, and even that is quite unprovable. But it at least seems more likely than the crude, programme-music theory of Wagner, or the still vaguer view of Mr Newman.

On one side, in particular, does it seem impossible to agree with the 19th century interpreters of the master. It is hard to see how his music could be thought to contain analogies to the Christian religion, the humility of which is as far from Beethoven’s almost savage assertiveness as could well be imagined. Zarathustra is nearer to him than Christ; if we cannot accept the last movement of the Ninth Symphony as a counterpart of Nietzsche’s Tanzlied, then we can find it in the Grosse Fuge, a savage dance of joy in which there is not a hint of Christian renunciation.

Mr William Behrend, sponsored by M Alfred Cortot, has written a most useful guide to the Sonatas. Each one is carefully and minutely analysed, with much sensibility and musicianship, the progress of Beethoven’s style is indicated, and the history of the composition of each sonata given. The book should prove most useful to the student.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)