Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical Politics in Vienna, 1792-1803

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In this provocative account Tia DeNora reconceptualizes the notion of genius by placing the life and career of Ludwig van Beethoven in its social context. She explores the changing musical world of late eighteenth-century Vienna and follows the activities of the small circle of aristocratic patrons who paved the way for the composer's success. DeNora reconstructs the development of Beethoven's reputation as she recreates Vienna's robust musical scene through contemporary accounts, letters, magazines, and myths—a colorful picture of changing times. She explores the ways Beethoven was seen by his contemporaries and the image crafted by his supporters. Comparing Beethoven to contemporary rivals now largely forgotten, DeNora reveals a figure musically innovative and complex, as well as a keen self-promoter who adroitly managed his own celebrity. DeNora conts that the recognition Beethoven received was as much a social achievement as it was the result of his personal gifts. In contemplating the political and social implications of culture, DeNora casts many aspects of Beethoven's biography in a new and different light, enriching our understanding of his success as a performer and composer.

Author Biography: Tia DeNora is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Exeter.

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Editorial Reviews

DeNora (sociology, U. of Exeter) sets Beethoven's life and work in the context of late 18th century Vienna, examining in particular the social conditions in which he lived, the small circle of aristocratic patrons who paved the way for his enormous success, and the potent myths surrounding him during his lifetime and today. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520088924
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/2/1996
  • Pages: 252
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Tia DeNora is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Exeter.

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Beethoven and the Construction of Genius

Musical Politics
By Tia Denora

University of California Press

Copyright © 1997 Tia Denora
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520211582

Beethoven and Social Identity

In the autumn of 1792 Beethoven set out for Vienna, where he had been invited to study with Haydn. The son and grandson of court musicians, Beethoven had, over the previous ten years, achieved a degree of distinction within the relatively homogeneous, court-oriented Bonn music world. After some preliminary (and rather severe) study with his father, he spent the years after 1780 as a pupil of Christian Gottlieb Neefe, who helped secure for Beethoven the position of deputy court organist in 1782. Throughout his time in Bonn, Beethoven continued to work at the court in several capacities. He also gained repute, through the Breuning family's private concerts, as a talented improvisational pianist. By 1792 he had produced about three dozen compositions, among them the two ambitious cantatas on the death of Joseph II (WoO 87) and the elevation of Leopold II (WoO 88), both commissioned by the Bonn Lesegesell-schaft, one of the several groups to which he was informally linked.

These early distinctions, in addition to his age (he was not quite twenty-two), made the idea of travel to Vienna and a final apprenticeship with Haydn seem like a logical next step. In fact,Beethoven had already visited Vienna in 1787, but his stay was curtailed when he was called back to the bedside of his dying mother in Bonn. The object of this second trip was to enrich his artistry through study with Haydn and, perhaps more important, to gain the imprimatur of the celebrated composer; then he would return to Bonn to assume a key position in court music affairs. His Bonn circle had no reason to believe his leave was permanent, and it was the elector himself who paid for Beethoven's traveland living expenses.1

Beethoven's early letters from Vienna to members of his Bonn circle also attest to this. See, for example, Anderson 1961, vol. 1, no. 12, in which Beethoven refers, ostensibly, to his eventual return. This was in 1794. There is no reason to doubt, however, that Beethoven was simultaneously attempting to establish himself on a more permanent basis in Vienna, especially because, after the military victories of the neighboring French in 1794 and the dissolution of the electorate, Beethoven's salary was discontinued. It seems plausible that Beethoven began to explore the possibility of a more permanent career in Vienna around this time, if not before.

As Neefe noted in a 1793 issue of the Berliner Musik-Zeitung , Beethoven "went to Vienna at the expense of our Elector to Haydn in order to perfect himself under his direction more fully in the art of composition" (Thayer and Forbes 1967, 1:113).

Considering Beethoven's accomplishments up to December 1792, one could easily envision his continued success—a career not unlike that enjoyed by his teacher Neefe, his grandfather Ludwig, or any other of the many successful but now forgotten musicians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. One could also imagine that, in the later words of his teacher Haydn, Beethoven might eventually "fill the position of one of Europe's greatest composers" (Landon 1959, 141). What was not so clearly foreseeable was the unique way Beethoven came to be identified during the subsequent decade and a half as the author of unconventional, often "difficult," and sometimes unprecedentedly lengthy works such as the sonatas "quasi una fantasia" of 1801, the "Waldstein" and "Appasionata" sonatas of 1803, the "Eroica" Symphony of 1805, and the "Razumovsky" quartets of 1806. Despite Beethoven's apparent attempts to emulate and extend compositional practices of his predecessors (in particular, Haydn and Mozart), his contemporary supporters and opponents alike perceived his works as unusual and even bizarre. The history of Beethoven's reception is punctuated by resistance to what were viewed as the composer's musical idiosyncrasies.

Of The Musical Canon

Beethoven is often regarded as a "revolutionary" composer, a pivotal force in the development of music. The term revolutionary is strong but imprecise as an indicator of Beethoven's place in music history; moreover, it explains almost nothing. For a more comprehensive understanding of Beethoven's success among his contemporaries we need to view Beethoven's impact in the context of the changes that characterized high cultural musical life during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During the years Beethoven lived and worked in Vienna, between 1792 and 1827, interest in "eternal" standards of excellence in music were articulated and disseminated, and concert repertories increasingly featured the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven as a musical trinity of master composers. Music historians have often referred to this period as the "prehistory" of the musical canon—the formative years in whichnew models for the fundamental transformation in the assumptions of taste were initially articulated (Weber 1986).

During the 1980s, other scholars have outlined the contours of this trend toward musical "classics"2

In particular, see work by the historian William Weber (1986) and the sociologist Paul DiMaggio (1982).

and, more generally, the emergence of the category "high art" as it occurred in both Europe and the United States (Zolberg 1981; DiMaggio 1982; Levine 1988; Tuchman and Fortin, 1989; Abrams 1985). Most work on the topic has focused on the middle and later nineteenth century, although, as several music scholars have remarked in passing (Weber 1986; Rosen 1972; Kerman 1983), developments in late eighteenth-century Viennese music ideology are best viewed as prototypical of the subsequent and eventually international shift.

A specific look at Beethoven's career can further illuminate this important reorientation in the early period of Viennese canon formation. As William Weber (1986) and Mary Sue Morrow (1989) have observed, Beethoven's special position in the Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven trinity was reflected in contemporary music programming practices. Later in the nineteenth century, it was with Beethoven's symphonies that the traditional eighteenth-century practice of programming a wide and, from the modern viewpoint, frequently incongruous mix of opera arias, sonatas, improvisations, overtures, and symphonies began to give way to the more formalized practice of programming only symphonic music (Weber 1986, 366). Moreover, Beethoven was the only composer whose works were celebrated regardless of their genre.3

Even Mozart was celebrated during the early part of the nineteenth century primarily as an opera composer, whereas Beethoven's name alone provided the binding force for disparate genres (Morrow 1989).

As Weber notes, "It was Beethoven's role that was special; Haydn and Mozart took second place, despite their seeming equality in the pantheon" (1986, 368).

Beethoven was not the first musician to write difficult or "connoisseur's" music. The gap between Kenner (expert) and Liebhaber (amateur) existed well before Beethoven arrived in Vienna. Rather, the late eighteenth century witnessed a shift toward a more highly articulated, self-conscious ideology of artistic greatness, as applied to secular music. Within this mindset of serious music, the composer-as-genius was reconceived as a figure who could command unprecedented autonomy and deference. Not until later in the nineteenth century, with the professionalization of the music occupation (and with the proselytizing activities of upper middle-class music aficionados), was this ideology disseminated internationally. Yet some of its earliest manifestations appear in the development of Beethoven's career in Vienna.

The particularities of Viennese musical culture were crucial to theshape of Beethoven's success. Vienna was the first European city where a contemporary and youthful composer could be viewed as the heir to a canonic tradition that included not only Haydn and Mozart, but also J. S. Bach and Handel. The manner in which Beethoven was celebrated by his contemporaries thus helped to formulate an understanding of the musical canon that was, during the early years of the nineteenth century, unique to Vienna. By contrast, the English canon consisted of a growing historical consciousness of music within which the works of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century composers (especially Handel) were revered, predominantly by aristocratic patrons. Whereas in Vienna previous "great" composers (Bach and Handel) were viewed as leading up to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, in London contemporary musicians stood outside the canon. True, the English musical canon was predominantly aristocratic and during the eighteenth century it was increasingly articulated as a self-conscious ideology. However, the English canon was defined in opposition to contemporary music, which was conceived by its advocates as vulgar and decadent (Milligan 1983, chap. 1). In Paris, meanwhile, the musical canon emerged out of practical musical activity long before it was articulated as an ideological stance within the arts. It developed from the need to program standby works that companies knew and could perform with little rehearsal (Weber 1984a; 1992).

To understand Beethoven's success, we need to view it in the context of a wider reorientation of musical taste, as this reorientation occurred in a specific social and geographical setting. Furthermore, we need to consider how Beethoven's success affected the setting within which he operated. Exploration of the initial appearance of serious music ideology thus needs to include the impact of Beethoven's success on the shape and texture of musical life. In this study I illustrate how Beethoven's emergence as a genius composer depended on and simultaneously helped to construct a more general and specifically modern notion of creative musical genius. We need to understand the emergence of these two phenomena—music ideology and Beethoven's success among his contemporaries—as reflexively linked. Doing so illustrates some of the ways music history does not simply evolve or develop, but is rather articulated "from the inside" by real individuals with reference to institutional, cultural, and practical contexts and in light of local contingencies. By following the ways that particular individuals "made" music history, we can extend our understanding of the relationship between musical forms and social life.4

Some literary and ethnomethodologically inclined critics may suggest that this history was not "made" by the actors who populate my account, but rather that it is made in and through the textual practices of my account. I do not dispute this claim; however, I believe that the counternarrative I provide of Beethoven's success has helped to rescue certain events and documentary sources sidestepped by more conventional musical historical narratives of Beethoven. I therefore do not propose my account as an ontological "advance" on other versions but as a tool with which to promote an alternative way of viewing Beethoven's career, a project which I believe to be a necessary part of the wider deconstruction of what Pierre Bourdieu has referred to as the "charismatic ideology"—the belief that some individuals succeed and are recognized as special because they "possess" an inherent (and thus inalienable and inexplicable) "gift."

Beethoven's music was anchored to a new—or, for the time, alternative—set of aesthetic criteria and stylistic conventions. The newness of Beethoven's works was contested. Appreciation of his compositions was neither spontaneous nor universal. Beethoven's eventual success was the product of social mediation, and it would be unfair, for example, to accuse Beethoven's contemporary opponents of philistinism or musical ignorance or to argue that opposition to Beethoven consisted simply of conservative reactions. Equally unfair is attributing the failure of some of Beethoven's contemporaries to appreciate his work to "psychological inhibitions" (Graf 1946, 144; Slonimsky 1965, 3). Similarly, it is fallacious to argue that the artistic steps Beethoven took were those of a giant, and that if his contemporaries were unable to perceive their inherent value it was because they were too small or lacked vision. To account for Beethoven's talent in any of these ways is to hold a view that flatters the present-day viewer's so-called more advanced perspective; it also imposes our own aesthetic evaluative terms on a group for which they are not necessarily appropriate.

The crux of the problem with most Beethoven literature as it addresses the composer's reputation is that, to varying degrees, that literature consists of retrospective accounts that isolate the quality of Beethoven's works as the cause of his recognition. In these accounts, greatness emerges out of a kind of temporal conjuring trick. As the sociologist of science Michael Mulkay writes regarding scientific discovery (here understood as the product of individuals—of scientific "geniuses"), "The apparent temporal priority of discovery is something of an illusion. It is an illusion in the sense that discovery is socially accumulated over time, sometimes over … long periods … and it is interpretively projected backwards upon earlier events " (Mulkay 1986, 173; emphasis added). Discovery is, in other words, a trope or figure of discourse, a rhetorical mode of accounting for what gets done in science. So too within the arts, the tropes of genius require critical examination.

There is a precedent for this type of deconstructive work within musicology. In an essay entitled "Innovation, Choice and the History of Music," Leonard Meyer describes the "covert causalism" of many studies of musical influence (Meyer 1983, 3; see also Becker 1982). These studies, he suggests, often to make the issue of composer choice problematic in its own right, and thereby tend to depict the issue of influenceas purely musicological; in retrospect, influence is conceived as independent of the local, often mundane conditions under which composition occurs. This misconception of influence leads to overidealized and musically imperialistic conceptions of the compositional process, which sidestep the issue of social circumstance.

Just as compositional choice does not occur in a vacuum, neither does reception. Beethoven's recognition, for example, is often explained in ways that overemphasize his "own" talent at the expense of the social bases of his acceptance and celebration.5

For a different case study of the ways in which musical reception may be politically mediated, see Pasler 1987b.

Yet it is through these bases that the layers of pro-Beethoven mythology and culture have "accumulated" (in Mulkay's sense) and enhanced Beethoven's image over time.

Posterity has been good to Beethoven. He has been beautified in both the plastic arts6

See Newman 1983 and Comini 1987 for discussions of the Beethoven mystique and Beethoven imagery in the plastic arts.

and music scholarship, where so much of the field of Beethoven studies is occupied by hagiography. Mainstream musical history has therefore ensured a bias in favor of Beethoven's genius, an unacknowledged but nevertheless elaborate set of instructions for his appreciation. Because pro-Beethoven culture is so extensive, the experience of his music can be a very rich one. Yet to the extent that our attention to genius and its products (whether these are scientific discoveries or works of art) occurs from the perspective these cultures of appreciation provide, we are blinded to visions of how music history could have been otherwise. We close off from inquiry the issue of how and why some individuals, findings, and enterprises are celebrated over others, why some are perceived as exemplary and others not.

The social resources that make the identity of genius possible (beyond practical and material conditions) include such factors as what an audience will accept as legitimate, and when and from whom it will accept certain types of work. To ignore these issues is to mystify genius, to take it out of its historical and interactional contexts. Moreover, to decontextualize genius is to elide the moral and political character of many or most quarrels over what counts as "valuable" work—to preclude, in this case, a sociological consideration of aesthetics and of art forms, their social uses and social consequences.

We may, in other words, perceive Beethoven as the composer of truly great works, but this does not mean that the contemporaries who objected to his style were "wrong." We cannot assume that our responses will resemble those of the individuals we happen to study.7

For discussions of this issue as it applies to sociology of the arts, see Griswold 1987 and Radway 1984.

Rather, we need to build on the notion that classificatory schemes are socially constructed, and we need to make the reception and construction of meaningproblematic. As Pierre Bourdieu suggests, "Whatever may be the nature of the message—religious prophecy, political speech, publicity image, technical object, etc.—reception depends upon the categories of perception, thought and action of those who receive it" (1968, 594n.). Categories of perception are located in particular times and places; what is set aside as valuable and, indeed, the structure of value and how it is allocated will also vary (for example, the degree of contrast perceived between best and worst ). To make this structuralist observation is not to imply culture as deterministic, however—it is not to deny the ways that cultures are created and transformed by actors. Culture (or categories of perception) is constitutive of the reality we perceive and take for granted, but these categories are themselves created and recreated by socially located individuals and groups.8

For a more detailed discussion of these issues and a critique of the cultural constructivist position, see DeNora and Mehan 1993.

Sociological inquiry can therefore focus on the issue of how actors attempt to mobilize and manipulate the structures through which phenomena are apprehended.

In the case of Beethoven's reputation, this process requires a consideration of the ways musical criteria—the categories of perception through which reception occurs—were themselves subject to change and manipulation. This point is crucial to our understanding of Beethoven's reception since, as I discuss throughout this volume, Beethoven's evaluation entailed a two-way process of alignment between his works and the categories of musical value. I also explore the resources and activities that helped to authorize accounts of Beethoven's talent and to deflect and suppress hostile reactions to Beethoven's work. This approach entails a focus on practical activities, on how alignments between Beethoven and categories of musical worth were articulated, authorized, and disseminated. At the most general level, I consider the question, How is aesthetic authority produced and sustained?

To answer this question, it is necessary to gain distance from commonsense images of reception. That imagery depicts talent as residing solely in individual composers and works and as recognized by independent and separate individual "receivers" as a transcendent and immutable form of artistic truth. By contrast, I explore the ways reception is actively structured. From this perspective, talent is conceived of neither as independent of the interpretive acts of those who recognize it nor as reducible to those acts. Rather, talent is understood as emerging from and constantly renewed through the reflexive interplay, bit by bit, between perception and its object. In other words, Beethoven's artistic development and the reception of that development should be conceived as feedingeach other in a virtuously circular relationship, one which was capable of producing both greater appreciation of Beethoven's compositions and further scope for his future productions.

An analogy to love (whether civic, familial, or erotic) is relevant here: two or more individuals may collaboratively produce for each other a context in which they can act or be viewed felicitously, each being constructively occupied with making, mobilizing, and allocating resources for the acts (and the appreciation of acts) of another in virtuously recursive ways. Such virtuous circularity generates increasing devotion to its object, which in turn creates the space and confidence for future creative activity. Resources mobilized to nurture the artistic or love relationship are deflected from other potential relationships (and other love objects). This conception of how talent emerges and is nurtured enhances the traditional musicological understanding of a composer's work. It enables more explicit theorizing of the interrelation between the social production of taste and the social production of artworks themselves. This framework is crucial for the study of Beethoven's reputation, because only within it can the study of Beethoven's career avoid simply reinforcing the "Great Man" approach to music history.

Popular and contradictory imageries of Beethoven's status in Vienna during his lifetime abound and continue to accumulate. On the one hand, Beethoven is sometimes portrayed as having been ignored and unappreciated, which, as we will see, could not have been further from the case during Beethoven's first decade and a half in Vienna. Alternatively, he is portrayed as a composer "of the people," which is also inaccurate. When Baron Peter von Braun, the manager of the Theater an der Wien, appealed to Beethoven in 1806 (in reference to the audiences for Fidelio ) to try to fill the entire house and thereby increase ticket sales, Beethoven's reply was, "I don't write for the galleries!" (Thayer and Forbes 1967, 1: 397–98). Chapter 2 describes the first fifteen years of the composer's career in Vienna, when Beethoven's musical public was primarily aristocratic. His lighter and more popular compositions aside, Beethoven was not, during these years, particularly concerned with appealing to middle-class audiences. His more esoteric and explicitly oriented seriousness was marked both by the ways his contemporaries compared his work to that of his fellow musicians and by his own attempts to define the qualityof his relationship with his patrons and his public. Public and more genuinely popular reception of Beethoven consisted of fleeting support during the years around 1814 and the Congress of Vienna—support, it should be noted, based on works (such as "Wellington's Victory") that modern music scholars often classify as potboilers.

Thus Beethoven's career was mainly private. It consisted of first, an approximately twenty-year period, punctuated by participation in public concerts for his own and others' benefit, during which he was well insulated within the world of aristocratic soirées, and during which he was extremely productive; second, a brief phase as a popular composer; third, by 1819, a retreat from public life and an increasing alienation from the public taste for the lighter styles of composers such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Louis Spohr; and fourth, a period during his last years in which there was a resurgence of interest in his work.

Neither Beethoven's middle-period popularity nor his ultimate recognition as the greatest of musical masters could have occurred without his initial lionization by aristocratic society during the 1790s and early 1800s. It is therefore important to view Beethoven's "first decade of unbroken triumphs," as Maynard Solomon calls it (1977a, 57), more closely—specifically, to understand the basis for elite receptivity to Beethoven. In addition, we need to inquire into how these aristocratic patrons, Prince Karl Lichnowsky in particular, assisted Beethoven in progressing from pianist, to pianist-composer, to, starting around 1800, a major Viennese and eventually international figure and a composer of large-scale symphonic works.

I explore the social circumstances of Beethoven's success by first presenting (in chapters 2 and 3) an outline of the cultural, economic, and organizational contexts of music making in Vienna when Beethoven arrived in 1792. Chapter 2 sketches some of the changes in musical culture to which Beethoven's success was reflexively linked. I describe the transition in musical taste, from dilettante values to values of musical seriousness, and consider the vicissitudes of Mozart's reception as well as the activities of one of Vienna's most active patrons in light of changes in musical aesthetics and practice between 1787 and 1805. In chapter 3 I examine the changing economic basis of musical patronage and the implications this change had for music's aristocratic patrons, in order to consider the extent to which the aristocratic predilection for "serious" music may have been linked to a concern with maintaining prestige in a changing patronage climate. I then outline how the organizational basisand cultural outlook of late eighteenth-century aristocratic musical life created a predisposition toward musical stars and toward the notion of musical genius.

Beginning with chapter 4, I turn my attention to Beethoven himself and describe his connection to prominent Viennese patrons. By comparing Beethoven's early career to that of Jan Ladislav Dussek, I examine resources that were available to Beethoven but beyond the reach of most of his fellow musicians, and I suggest that it was because of a variety of social and cultural forms of capital that Beethoven was well positioned to become "the next Mozart." In chapters 5 through 8 the focus shifts to the level of social action, specifically to some of the more mundane tasks that contributed to the construction of Beethoven as both a successful composer and a creative genius. Chapter 5 describes how early claims of Beethoven's special promise were substantiated and mobilized to present Beethoven as an extraordinary talent. A particular mythic account of Beethoven's relation to Haydn was elaborated over time, and I consider some of the reasons why Beethoven and Haydn were willing to collaborate to produce a fiction that became a resource for the construction of Beethoven's greatness. Chapter 6 addresses Beethoven's place in the life of Vienna's aristocratic salons. I discuss how his music was experienced by its contemporary hearers and some of his patrons' activities that ensured his music was heard sympathetically. It was in this world of aristocratic salons that a claim to Beethoven's greatness was initially constructed and where he was first produced as an authoritative figure. Chapters 7 and 8 are devoted to particular aspects of Beethoven's career and success. Chapter 7 examines an important but overlooked moment in the history of Beethoven's reputation and the success of the discourse of musical genius. That event is Beethoven's piano duel with the Austrian pianist-composer Joseph Wölffl in 1799, which I discuss in order to explore the terms in which high culture music was debated, and also to locate the social ideology for which Beethoven stood. Chapter 8 considers how a pro-Beethoven aesthetic was initially routinized through two forms of music technology, the piano and musical critical discourse in the then leading German-language music periodical, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung . Finally, in chapter 9, I summarize the contributions that a study of the social bases of Beethoven's success and abilities can make to the more general topic of the construction of identity. I discuss the implications of this study both for the shape and texture of high cultural musical life today and for the ways we conceive of the identities of individuals, in social research and in everyday life.


Excerpted from Beethoven and the Construction of Genius by Tia Denora Copyright © 1997 by Tia Denora. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
1 Beethoven and Social Identity 1
2 The Emergence of Serious Music Culture, 1784-1805 11
3 Musical Patronage and Social Change 37
4 Beethoven's Social Resources 60
5 "From Haydn's Hands": Narrative Constructions of Beethoven's Talent and Future Success 83
6 Beethoven in the Salons 115
7 The Beethoven-Wolffl Piano Duel: Aesthetic Debates and Social Boundaries 147
8 Beethoven's Early Aesthetic Campaigns 170
9 Beethoven and the Resources of Cultural Authority 186
Notes 193
References 209
Index 225
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