- Beethoven's Symphonies: Nine Approaches to Art and Ideas by Martin Geck
Beethoven lived in an age when human greatness was increasingly acknowledged and revered, when a single individual could plausibly change the world. Thus it was not outlandish for Goethe to compare Napoleon to the Greek Titan Prometheus. Both Napoleon and Prometheus were important to Beethoven, as Martin Geck reminds us in Beethoven's Symphonies: Nine Approaches to Art and Ideas, originally published in German in 2015 and ably translated by Stewart Spencer. For Beethoven understood himself in similar terms, as a self-made genius bringing the ideals of freedom and progress to music. And the nine symphonies constitute the place where this Promethean feat was most strikingly accomplished, where Beethoven became a 'modern creator of new worlds' (p. 36).
Above all, Geck's Beethoven is always driving forward, looking to transcend his own achievements. To profile this view, Geck indulges in a crushingly dismissive assessment of Bruckner and Mahler, who strike 'the same note in each and every one of their symphonies as the musical expression of a permanent psychological state' (p. 114). This is the very opposite of his view of Beethoven, who expands his thought with each successive symphony, who creates nine different worlds rather than one world revisited nine times. Beethoven the Creator was not a God with 'a single wise plan.' Rather, he was 'a genius. . . forever in search of something new, a search on which his listeners should not only join him but in the course of which they, too, should learn to tremble with him' (p. 40). These words launch the quests of both Beethoven and Geck, and they also establish this book's heady challenge to the rest of us.
For Beethoven's new worlds are worth trembling for in the audacity of their ideas. In Geck's account, Beethoven sees each symphony as a new creation not only technically but also philosophically (p. 22); he is 'repeatedly exercised by the problem of how best to surmount the threshold between the self-referential pursuit of art [i.e. music qua music] and a higher idea that transcends the compositional process' (p. 58). These art works of ideas (Ideenkunstwerke in Geck's original subtitle) were not to be taken as projecting an explicitly stated programme: 'Beethoven did not want his listeners to respond to his music first and foremost as program music and to judge it, therefore, according to its recognition value. Everything was to be his own personal expression and at the same time an expression of great ideas' (p. 35). Moreover, we as listeners become a crucial part of the experience. As Geck observes, 'Beethoven's ''absolute [End Page 730] music'' . . . draws its strength from the listener's unconditional willingness to accept unusual situations and to feel personally responsible for creating a sense of context and cohesion' (pp. 61–2). The listener becomes a 'counterpart of the free artist', constantly renegotiating what happens in the music (p. 37).
But how can a book that enjoins us to take on such a responsibility, to think in such large terms, be itself so small in proportion? For Geck requires only 153 small-format pages, and these include fifty-eight pages of prefatory observations before he actually parades through the symphonies themselves. He achieves such brevity because his manner throughout is provocatively suggestive rather than thoroughly argued, wide ranging yet freewheeling.
Geck's opening section, 'Beethoven: Symphonist par Excellence', features brief discussions of general musical characteristics. The first and most fundamental of these is the sheer weight of Beethoven's orchestration. Geck is not coy about Beethoven's aggressive wielding of this weight, for he describes the composer as projecting a militaristic 'gesture of power' through heavy chords like blows from the cavalry, or through the explosive force of the timpani, and with dynamic accents that come on like expressions of will (pp. 13–14). Beethoven's orchestra does not clothe his ideas; it is itself the matter...