- Beethoven's Symphonies: An Artistic Vision by Lewis Lockwood
My first thoughts on seeing this book—Lewis Lockwood knows his Beethoven, but do we really need another middlebrow overview of the symphonies?—were evidently predictable given the author's immediate justification in the book's preface. The greatest Beethoven scholars of every generation have seen fit to write exactly this type of book, or "series of historically informed critical essays" as he would have it (p. xv). It is no overstatement to acknowledge that the scope of Lockwood's knowledge and expertise warrant adding his name to a list that includes Hector Berlioz, George Grove, and Donald Tovey. At the same time, Lockwood also risks having his book end up as the newest addition to a [End Page 100] much larger stack of forgettable tomes rehashing the same worn ideas. While I cannot predict where this book will ultimately reside, I am happy to say that it has a better chance of beating the odds and ending up on the short list of must-reads than I initially thought.
The appeal of this book, or at least the way that it most clearly distinguishes itself from the others out there, lies in Lock -wood's unsurpassed knowledge of Beethoven's sketchbooks and conversation books. He made a career out of deciphering a significant percentage of these notoriously difficult documents, most notably in his Beethoven's "Eroica" Sketchbook: A Critical Edition co-edited with Alan Gosman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013) and Beethoven: Studies in the Creative Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer sity Press, 1992). In the present book, he redirects his efforts to create a compelling narrative that speaks effectively to the graduate or even undergraduate student, with the potential of serving as a tantalizing first introduction to both Beethoven's creative process and the relevance of sketch studies to our understanding of these works.
The value of primary sources to Lock -wood's viewpoint is most evident in his discussion of the Third Symphony. He argues in this chapter that the "heroic" programmatic qualities were not a part of the original "ur-Eroica" plans laid out by Beethoven in 1802, but that they quickly entered the picture once sketching began in earnest. He also notes that the finale was not a problem for Beethoven in this symphony as it was with many of the others; rather it was "the anchor against which he composed the rest of the symphony" (p. 75) rooted as it is in his "Eroica" variations, op. 35. Lockwood recognizes the apparent contradiction in the heroic narrative, in that the final two movements of the symphony seem not to fit so neatly with the first two movements, which have been perceived as strongly programmatic. He is almost too quick to explain away the difficulties by stating that "Beethoven was not writing a sequential biography of a single hero, but composing a transcendent symphony of the subject of the heroic that would offer different perspectives on this ideal" (p. 71). Why revert to a traditional interpretation when the documents appear to hint at a number of viable alternatives? Clearly there is room for a heated in-class discussion on how the weakest movement programmatically can somehow serve as the conceptual cornerstone of the entire work.
The majority of the symphonies offer Lockwood similar opportunities to hear the familiar masterworks anew. The Eighth Symphony's origins as a piano concerto (a manuscript source for a cadenza survives) offer a refreshingly new take that avoids the traditional idea that the work is an updating of Haydn's humorous rhetoric. Indeed, his entire discussion of the Eighth points to its innovative features rather than to a harkening back to Classicism. Beethoven's increasing deafness virtually forced him to convert the work to a different genre, Lockwood argues. But there is room for broader discussions of implications of genre and the awkward way in which this work has almost always...