The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Was Beethoven so great that he hurt music? | November 1, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently an essay by Alex Ross appeared in The New Yorker magazine.

The subject was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and how he changed forever the course of classical music -– not only the composing of it but also the programming and performing of it, even the recording of it on LPs and CDs.

Beethoven big

It was so thoroughly researched and had such a well defined point of view with such unexpected insights, that it formed yet another proof to The Ear of why Alex Ross, who in 2007 won a National Book Critics Circle Award for “The Rest of Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” has to be considered this nation’s premier music critic.

The gist of the argument by Ross (below) is that Beethoven exerted such a profound influence on Western classical music that he single-handedly changed the course of music history – and not always  for the better especially if you care about living composers and contemporary music. (You might recall that this season both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will perform all-Beethoven or mostly-Beethoven concerts, featuring symphonies and piano concertos, toward the end of the current season. They have also done so before, and the result is usually a sell-out. Beethoven’s popularity, it seems, never wanes.)

Alex Ross 2

To accept Ross’ arguments does NOT mean you have to reject or belittle Beethoven. Beethoven remains THE iconic composer of classical music.

But Ross’ essay is certainly eye-opening about the results of the iconic status we have granted to Beethoven since the famous composer’s own lifetime.

And his look back at the effects of Beethoven’s massive and revolutionary Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” – a YouTube video of the “Eroica” Symphony, performed by conductor Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic, is at bottom — and his Fifth Symphony, as well as the late string quartets, yields new appreciation of these works.

But don’t take my word for it.

Read Alex Ross’ essay for yourself and give me your reactions.

Here is a link:


  1. Ross: “Yet the idolatry (of Beethoven) has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory.”

    Did it stifle Igor Stravinsky, the composer of perhaps the most famous piece of music of the 20th century, “The Rite of Spring” ? Evidently not because here is what Stravinsky himself wrote about Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op. 133: “(Beethoven’s) “The Great Fugue… now seems to me the most perfect miracle in music,” said Igor Stravinsky”… It is also the most absolutely contemporary piece of music I know, and contemporary forever… Hardly birth-marked by its age, the Great Fugue is, in rhythm alone, more subtle than any music of my own century… I love it beyond everything.””[it is] an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.” (“Stravinsky and Craft”, 1963), p. 24; Warren Kirkendale, “The Great Fugue”, Acta Musicologica 35 14-24).

    Moreover, Robert Kahn sees the main subject of the fugue as a precursor of the tone row, the basis of the atonal system developed by Arnold Schoenberg. (Robert S. Kahn, “Beethoven and the Grosse Fuge”, 2010 at 155. Also, Oskar Kokoschka wrote to Schoenberg in a letter “Your cradle was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge,”. (Brand and Hailey, “Dissonance” (1997), at 3. Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri quartet, calls Beethoven’s Op. 133: “Armageddon… the chaos out of which life itself evolved.” Steinhardt in Lucy Miller, Adams to Zemlinsky (2006) at 40.

    Did Beethoven and his influence “stifle” the modern Polish composer, Withold Lutoslawsky? Nope. Quite to the contrary. The San Francisco Chronicle, in a review of Christian Zimermann playing Lutoslawsky’s Piano concerto, noted that it offers “a tip of the hat” to Beethoven (among others) and that its slow movement presents “a dialogue between piano and orchestra reminiscent of the similar spot in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto… See

    The Lutoslawsky scholar Nicholas Reyland says that Beethoven was a “great influence” “during the formative stage of his compositional career”. See

    Did it stifle Bela Bartok? No, and once again, Ross has it absolutely backward, Bartok was positively influenced by Beethoven. Thus, according to the Hutchinson Concise Dictionary of Music, “the central adagio religioso (movement of Bartok’s 3rd piano concerto) pays direct tribute to Beethoven’s “Song of Thanksgiving” from the A minor quartet… .” Bartok entry at the Hutchinson Concise Dictionary of Music, at 53 accessible here:

    I am not a musicologist nor a professional musician but I could go on with dozens of other examples. But perhaps it is best to ask exactly who was stifled by Beethoven, who it was who “designed” his unequal “playing field” (note that Ross provides no examples)?

    How was Mr. Ross able to publish trash such as this and get awards from it? I AM a retired lawyer and what I see in Ross is a professional con man.

    Comment by fflambeau — November 4, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

  2. Ross: “Epoch after epoch, Beethoven has been the composer of the march of time: from the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, when performances of the symphonies became associated with the longing for liberty; to the Second World War, when the opening notes of the Fifth were linked to the short-short-short-long Morse code for “V,” as in “victory”; and 1989, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth near the fallen Berlin Wall.”

    Here are some major epochs at which no, or little, Beethoven was played or associated: the American Civil War; the Franco Prussian War; the Russian Revolution; advances in medicine from x rays to antibiotics to stem cells; the Russian Revolution; the Chinese Revolution and the coming of Mao; the collapse of the British Empire; the space age. Note that in Kubrick’s movie, “2001”, music was chosen from Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, and György Ligeti.

    So, Ross has cherry picked his historical “epochs” and overgeneralized from them. Moreover, even his 3 choices are misleading. Yes, Beethoven was important in the revolutions of 1848 but largely because Beethoven was the iconic German composer and the revolutions mostly occurred in what is now Germany. That point just undercuts his central argument, by the way.

    As for World War II, Ross is simply wrong. If one associated a composer with that tragedy it would likely be Richard Wagner (remember Hitler’s hang ups?) or Richard Strauss (a Nazi sympathizer) or Dimitri Shostakovitch (recall his “Leningrad Symphony”).

    Then too, Ross seems not to understand the reasons for Beethoven being played under the baton of Maestro Bernstein in 1989 either or its significance. Bernstein was a truly international conductor, an American Jew who conducted symphony orchestra everywhere and had been chief conductor in Vienna. Bernstein even altered (a move that caused some controversy) the words of F. Schiller from an “Ode to Joy” to an “ode to Freedom” for the occasion which was the celebration of the reunification of Germany into the EU. The EU had in 1985 chosen Beethoven’s 9th as its official theme (I guess Ross would label the EU as a “cult” group). So yes, it was a remarkable concert for reasons not fully understood by Ross and it goes to show why Beethoven, contrary to his thinking, still resonates with masses of people.

    Ross astonishingly enough, has won some awards for his drivel. That reminds me of a similar fate by Daniel Goldhagen and his book called “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”. Goldenhagen, like Ross, caused a stir with his work (which also won awards). In it, he claimed that Hitler was possible only because virtually all Germans embraced Hitler and because Germans possessed a unique form of antisemitism, which he called “eliminationist antisemitism.”

    Goldhagen, like Ross, sold well until it was pointed out by many scholars that there was a lively resistance to Hitler in Germany, and by the work of other historians (like Wisconsin’s George Mosse and his students) that antisemitism had long flourished throughout Europe and beyond well before the Hitler takeover, and by others that Germany had been one of the most accepting of states for Jews for decades prior to Hitler. Today, Goldhagen’s views are seen as those of a crack pot and I suspect that the same fate lies in waiting for Ross and his absurd ideas of a Beethoven cult.

    Comment by fflambeau — November 4, 2014 @ 8:00 pm

  3. Sorry, but Ross has my dander up. He wrote this: “Yet the idolatry (of Beethoven) has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory.” Might one ask what exactly this “playing field” is an “who” it was who “designed it to prolong Beethoven’s glory” and exactly who it was who has been “stifled”? It is simple nonsense written by Ross like this that cuts the ground out from a simpler statement that many, but not me, might agree with: “Beethoven is over-programed. ”

    And this: “As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN” emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say.” Anyone have a therapists number they could pass on to Mr. Ross for his hang ups?

    Comment by fflambeau — November 3, 2014 @ 5:25 am

  4. More nonsense from Mr. Ross: “Most of his major scores make their argument in abstract, nondescriptive terms, under the titles sonata, quartet, concerto, and symphony.” You mean like the Eroica (“Heroic”) 3rd symphony, to which Beethoven had written the name “Buonoparte” on the front page (this according to Ferdinand Rees, Beethoven’s secretary)? Or the Piano Sonata #8, called and published as the “Grande sonate Pathethique” with Beethoven’s approval? Or “Die Ruinen von Athen” (Opus 113)? Or, “Christus am Olburg” (Christ on the Mount of Olives) written in 1803? Or his Missa Solemnis (the work Beethoven considered his best)? Or, Beethoven’s ballet, “The Creatures of Prometheus” (Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus). While it is true that Beethoven wrote many works that have what Ross refers to as “nondescriptive terms”, Ross overgeneralizes and often comes to false conclusions. He writes, for instance: “Yet a paradox hovers over this liberation from servility and utility: in breaking away from its present, the music becomes captive to its future. The Ninth and the “Missa Solemnis,” Mathew writes, are “occasional works perpetually in search of an occasion.” And, in harnessing their power to our own dreams and passions, we are in danger of wearing them out, turning them into hollow signifiers. There is a “perpetual risk of emptiness.” But that is precisely the opposite of what so many people have felt with both Beethoven’s music and his entire life. In conclusion, I suspect that Mr. Ross’s problem is identified by himself and needs no further comment than his own prescient words: “Yet the idolatry (of Beethoven) has had a stifling effect on subsequent generations of composers, who must compete on a playing field that was designed to prolong Beethoven’s glory. As a teen-ager, I contemplated becoming a composer; attending a concert at Symphony Hall, in Boston, I remember seeing, with wonder and dismay, the single name “BEETHOVEN” emblazoned on the proscenium arch. “Don’t bother,” it seemed to say.”

    Comment by fflambeau — November 3, 2014 @ 4:39 am

  5. Here’s a paragraph from Mr. Ross full of nonsense and historical misunderstandings: “Epoch after epoch, Beethoven has been the composer of the march of time: from the revolutions of 1848 and 1849, when performances of the symphonies became associated with the longing for liberty; to the Second World War, when the opening notes of the Fifth were linked to the short-short-short-long Morse code for “V,” as in “victory”; and 1989, when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Ninth near the fallen Berlin Wall.” Ross shows he does not only not understand Beethoven, but he doesn’t understand much of history and politics either or much about other composers. Bernstein conducted the “9th Symphony” after Germany was reunited for many good reasons other than it being a masterful piece by the “iconic” composer: it was written by the preeminent German composer; in the performance, orchestras were combined from the former East and West symbolizing reunion; Bernstein actually changed some of Schiller’s words in the “Ode to Joy” to capitalize on the feeling of freedom. Moreover, Bernstein was an American Jew who had been conducting one of the great orchestras of the world in Vienna and was selected to conduct this “reunion” concert. All of these reasons were not really addressed at all by Ross, who instead ignored and or/glossed over them. And as for Beethoven being linked to WWII because of the “morse” code for V, I think many people would think that Shostakovich (think of his “Leningrad Symphony” No. 7, Rachmaninov, Sibelius (and the use of Finlandia) and B. Britten (even Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”) were even more linked to that horrible war by their lives and their music. And jazz music (banned by the Nazis), not classical music by Beethoven, might best be associated with that war and the years preceding it. This man’s writings are pure drivel.

    Comment by fflambeau — November 3, 2014 @ 2:40 am

  6. I haven’t read the book by Mr. Ross but have read a lengthy article by him on the same subject at the New Yorker, and, after having done so, would never buy anything by the man. And he does belittle Beethoven and his followers: he calls his followers (a “cult”); says “he was an artist almost too great for the good of his art”(!); speaks of “the idolatry”. And there is more nonsense in his words like: “…to follow Beethoven’s dense, driving narratives, one had to lean forward and pay close attention.” I guess that Bach, Hayden and others were so simple and so less “dense” that audiences did not have to pay much attention to them?! This is simply an absurd misunderstanding not only of Beethoven but of much of classical music.

    Comment by fflambeau — November 3, 2014 @ 2:15 am

  7. And the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra, led by Blake Walter, will be performing an all-Beethoven concert next Sunday, November 9, at 2:30 pm, at Edgewood College. On the program are the Coriolan Overture, Romance in F for Violin with David Huntsman, our concertmaster, as the soloist, and the Symphony No. 3 “Eroica.” Always love to play and hear Beethoven’s music!

    Comment by Rozan Anderson — November 1, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

  8. Every art form has its Beethoven-like pinnacles. Monet, Leonardo, Dickens, Joyce, even Nijinsky and Nureyev and Barishnikov. I do not consider him a singularity.
    Thelonius Monk is quoted as having said, ” Most artists are not ahead of their time, but most listeners are WAY behind theirs.” Charles Mingus is quoted as having said, from the bandstand to the audience, ” If you think we’re weird, just take a look at yourselves!”
    I find it a HUGE contradiction that Beethoven’s music is praised simultaneously for its overwhelming emotional and dramatic force, AND its obsessively concise mathematical and structural underpinnings.
    The music of MOST contemporary composers shares the latter quality with Beethoven: indeed, they have probably been inspired or taught to compose this way because of Beethoven’s example. Yet, Wuorinen’s precisely constructed musical mazes, and Boulez’s complete structural controls do not seem to make a significant emotional impact, other than yawns and incredulity that their “compositions” are being performed as music, and not recipes or algebra, set to a chromatic scale.
    The responsibility for this breakdown in cultural relevance does NOT lie with Beethoven, subsequent orchestral or pianistic practices, or even sheep-like, socially-minded but musically irrelevant audiences.
    It lies with modern composers. Beethoven stretched tonality rather thin for his day, but never let it go. Once the overtone series, the acoustical basis for our inherent psychological response to sound, was left behind in the rush to keep pushing past the boundaries of the principles of tonality, making an emotional statement through abstracted music became an increasingly impossible task.
    Another factor in the creation of the First Church of Beethoven is audiences wanting to be reassured and comforted by music, not challenged by the new, the unknown, and the radical. Most churches are about this sort of comfort and reassurance, and the radical challenges to living an everyday life that most Scriptures present are marginalized by everyone but fundamentalists.
    Beethoven successfully challenged the musical and cultural norms of his day. Perhaps those norms have never really changed, and his music is still doing what it did in his own time. Perhaps our own contemporary music either misses the point of our culture, or no longer has the power to have any real effect on how we think, what we do, or how we view ourselves and our society. Other popular music is doing this, but “classical” music is mostly NOT having this effect.
    I am not a Beethoven fundamentalist. But, neither do I endorse or condone most modern composition as having a claim to being a means of communicating emotions. Tonal music has a chance to get the attention of listeners on an emotional level. The farther away from a basis in the overtone series any given composition or improvisation gets, the less meaningful and emotionally relevant it becomes. Classical music, before it became Classical, Capital C, was the rock concert music of its day. Rock concerts continue to mean more to the average person than anything from a previous cultural era, just as in Beethoven’s time. Mozart, as Billy Joel? Beethoven, as all four Beatles Rolled into One Beethoven, just like Chuck Berry said..

    Comment by 88melter — November 1, 2014 @ 9:59 am

  9. Dear Ear,
    Will read Ross. Hold an open mind. And what about the Bard? Do you think Shakespeare has changed the English language forever? For good? For ill?

    Comment by Ronnie Hess — November 1, 2014 @ 8:20 am

    • Dear Roni,
      My mind is indeed open and I still love a lot of Beethoven, though increasingly these days I turn to Schubert because of his humanity and empathy.
      Alex Ross also does not dismiss or diminish the achievement of Beethoven. Rather, he seeks to make us aware of the historical unintended consequences of such self-determined greatness, including the playing down of living composers in today’s concert halls.
      I suspect you will enjoy the essay, will learn much and still keep intact your love of Beethoven’s music.
      I certainly have done so.
      As to your point about Shakespeare: It is an interesting and potentially productive comparison or analogy.
      Of course Shakespeare enriched language and literature, just as Beethoven — and Johann Sebastian Bach — did for music. But I suspect he also threw up obstacles to future playwrights and dramatists as well as actors and audiences.
      Does the popularity of Shakespeare cut into the appreciation of contemporary dramatists? I suspect one can argue that that is indeed the case.
      But maybe the same applies to Picasso and Rembrandt, and to all great and towering artists.
      Thanks for reading and replying.

      Comment by welltemperedear — November 1, 2014 @ 8:45 am

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