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Reviewed by:
  • Moonlighting: Beethoven and Literary Modernism by Nathan Waddell
  • Fraser Riddell
Moonlighting: Beethoven and Literary Modernism. Nathan Waddell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. 272. $80.00 (cloth).

There can be no encounter with Beethoven’s music that remains unconditioned by the weight of this composer’s cultural prestige. Moonlighting deftly explores how literary writers of the early twentieth century reflected upon and responded to the dynamics of this conditioning. This study focuses on the ways in which the composer’s music often functions in literature of the period as a figure of the unoriginal, the stale and the trite—a project of admirable critical audacity, which the author argues for with both historical nuance and intellectual aplomb. The discussion opens by demonstrating how the episode on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) responds to an established tradition in nineteenth-century musicology of understanding such music in heroic terms. Waddell’s exemplary sensitivity to Forster’s style here is representative of the monograph’s assured handling throughout of the literariness of the texts under discussion. He is careful to foreground the role of Forster’s notoriously slippery narrator in complicating any singular interpretation of responses to music in the text. Waddell unpacks how Helen’s response to Beethoven is one that reflects not only her own youthful idealism but places her in a long tradition of “conventional” Beethoven reception. “Panic and emptiness,” yes—but a panic that seems almost too easily overcome through Helen’s unwitting investment in well-worn channels of listening.1

The central argument about the place of convention in Beethoven’s reception is further developed in a section on the associations of the “Moonlight” Sonata in modernist literature. A discussion of Forster’s “A View without a Room” (1958)—a pseudo-epilogue to A Room with a View (1908)—considers how anxieties about Beethoven’s “Germanness” were negotiated against the backdrop of the First World War. Forster’s text acknowledges a variety of strategic moves that range from emphasizing the “universal” nature of Beethoven’s music to arguing for the composer’s Belgian lineage. The underlying politics of the “Moonlight” Sonata can, for Forster, be heard in the way the work “channels an abstract idea of despair into articulate, eloquent form” (80). Such idealistic claims find no place in works by other writers of the period, such as Wyndham Lewis and E. F. Benson, for whom the “Moonlight” Sonata functions as a go-to musical [End Page 909] shorthand for stultifying middle-class conformity. Waddell’s reading of Lewis’s Tarr (1918) here is particularly attentive to the manner in which this text satirizes the trivialization of Beethoven’s music in the bourgeois-bohemian culture of the period. Such trivialization is partly sustained by the investment of literary authors in tired Beethovenian clichés. Waddell demonstrates this with a profusion of examples from (justly forgotten) novels and poems in which the “Moonlight” Sonata functions to amplify the sentimentality of unrequited love. More striking, perhaps, is the place of this music in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922), where it features fleetingly during Jacob’s time at Cambridge. Waddell convincingly argues for an alternative tradition in which the piece could be heard as a reflection on death, mourning and bereavement—contributing a small part to the novel’s much wider “latent economy of grief” (106).

Beethoven’s late works, and the question of periodicity, emerge as particularly significant to writers of the period. The place of piano sonata Op. 111 in C minor in Forster’s A Room with a View and Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915) is the focus of a particularly illuminating discussion. Waddell’s argument complicates a now well-established critical orthodoxy that these texts present their protagonist’s virtuoso pianism as a challenge to patriarchal expectations relating to women’s music-making. Despite their ostensible affirmation of female musical prowess, these texts remain, Waddell argues, implicitly invested in a teleological, masculinist tripartite model of Beethoven’s development towards the intellectual and technical difficulties of the final, late works. In this respect, Forster and Woolf “are still using the terms of the patriarchal musicology that...


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