The ones who hate Beethoven

The ones who hate Beethoven


norman lebrecht

June 12, 2020

Welcome to the 83rd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Piano sonata no 25, ‘The Cuckoo’, opus 79 (1809)

Search the history of performing arts and you will find very persons of substance who express a strong aversion to Beethoven. There was Claude Debussy who, as a student, got up during a concert and said to a friend, ‘come on, let’s go, he’s starting to develop.’ But Debussy made disobliging remarks about most composers; he was just that type of musician. Few others echoed his detraction.

The misanthropic art critic John Ruskin wrote once in a letter that ‘Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsetting of a bag of nails, with here and there also a dropped hammer’. But this is such a fogeyish English view it can almost be taken as a compliment. It is not until Chuck Berry clamours ‘Roll over, Beethoven, and listen to the rhythm and blues’ that we encounter organised cultural resistance to Beethoven and the beginnings of a process that converts the great classics of music into a minority art form.

Beethoven, on the whole, stood for two centuries on a universal pedestal as one of the summits of human achievement. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose extremist views on race and sex did not occlude the validity of other ideas, wrote with great perception that ‘Beethoven is something that happens between an old crumbling soul which is constantly breaking up and a very young soul of the future which is constantly coming. In his music there is that half-light of eternal loss and of eternally indulgent hoping.’ This touches very close on Beethoven’s own treasured roots in a faded past and his undimmed aspirations for a better future.’

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, brutally acerbic towards Brahms, wrote an article for Radio Times in March 1927 on the bicentennial of Beethoven’s death in which he over-confidently predicted that the new medium of broadcasting would earn Beethoven a mass audience for all time to come. Shaw explained Beethoven’s lasting relevance like this:

Now what Beethoven did, and what made some of his greatest contemporaries give him up as a madman with lucid intervals of clowning and bad taste, was that he used music altogether as a means of expressing moods, and completely threw over pattern designing as an end in itself. It is true that he used the old patterns all his life with dogged conservatism (another Sansculotte characteristic, by the way); but he imposed on them such an overwhelming charge of human energy and passion, including that highest passion which accompanies thought, and reduces the passion of the physical appetites to mere animalism, that he not only played Old Harry with their symmetry but often made it impossible to notice that there was any pattern at all beneath the storm of emotion. The Eroica Symphony begins by a pattern (borrowed from an overture which Mozart wrote when he was a boy), followed by a couple more very pretty patterns; but they are tremendously energized, and in the middle of the movement the patterns are torn up savagely; and Beethoven, from the point of view of the mere pattern musician, goes raving mad, hurling out terrible chords in which all the notes of the scale are sounded simultaneously, just because he feels like that, and wants you to feel like it.

And there you have the whole secret of Beethoven. He could design patterns with the best of them; he could write music whose beauty will last you all your life; he could take the driest sticks of themes and work them up so interestingly that you find something new in them at the hundredth hearing: in short, you can say of him all that you can say of the greatest pattern composers; but his diagnostic, the thing that marks him out from all the others, is his disturbing quality, his power of unsettling us and imposing his giant moods on us. Berlioz was very angry with an old French composer who expressed the discomfort Beethoven gave him by saying “J’aime la musique qui me berce,” “I like music that lulls me.” Beethoven’s is music that wakes you up; and the one mood in which you shrink from it is the mood in which you want to be let alone.


When you understand this you will advance beyond the eighteenth century and the old-fashioned dance band (jazz, by the way, is the old dance band Beethovenized), and understand not only Beethoven’s music, but what is deepest in post-Beethoven music as well.

Shaw was wrong on two counts: the mass audience and the urgent stimulus. There are many works like the Cuckoo Sonata that do nothing but lull. Why? We’ll never know. It last about ten minutes and unles the performer is exceptionally heavy-handed it leaves us mostly untouched in both the emotional and analytical parts of the brain. What did Beethoven have in his mind when he wrote it? Probably not much. There are quite a few works like the Cuckoo and we need them as light relief between the thunder and lightning of the unpredictable masterpieces.

Claudio Arrau‘s 1996 recording is unexceptionable. Andras Schiff’s (2006) would not be out of place in the lobby of a grand hotel. Igor Levit’s (2017) is so quick it’s over before you’ve sat down. Jonathan Biss (2015) takes it all too seriously. Maurizio Pollini (1989) frightens the horses. I’m not sure anyone does it lighter, quicker or wittier than the very first known recording, Arthur Schnabel’s in 1935. It will wake you up, gently.



  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    Ravel also was not a Beethoven fan, I have been told.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Ravel called the 19th century ‘the big deafness’, meaning the overblown attempts of composers to be ‘expressive’ at all cost, to share their ‘own emotional story’ with audiences apparently hungry for such ego trip confessions. Thereby the purely musical aspects were, in Ravel’s opinion, forgotten, undervalued. He himself wanted to return to the purely musical and thus was often criticized for being ‘remote’, ‘cool’, ‘artificial’, and therefore not a ‘great composer’.

      How times can change.

      • Luca says:

        Ravel actually referred to Beethoven as “le grand sourd”, which I consider deplorable taste, but the appellation is unfortunately still current in France, even in the 18-volume “Encyclopédia Universalis”.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    I seem to recall that Benjamin Britten was no Beethoven fan.

  • Enrique Sanchez says:

    The Bicentennial of his death would be in 2027, or am I incorrect? 🙂

  • RW2013 says:

    It’s a joy (and somewhat of a challenge) to play.

  • Howard says:

    What is amazing about Arrau’s recording, though, is that 1996 is five years after he died.

  • Ed Gordon says:

    Did GB Shaw *really* think Beethoven died in 1727?

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    ==his disturbing quality, his power of unsettling us and imposing his giant moods on us

    Excellent quote from GBS. Not seen before – thanks

  • John Borstlap says:

    Very interesting.

    Debussy was also disparaging about himself – in his later years, when struggling to liberate himself from his own style, he told a friend that nobody could compose any more, including himself. But that was because he was always prone to depression.

    Debussy hated the concept of tradition as a restrictive body of rules, in all the arts. This was the common view of tradition in the 19th century, which was wrong. It was the century in which the arts became ‘encoded’ in academia and education, while in earlier times it was a freely developing concept, and education something learned with a master. Debussy’s own approach towards tradition can be heard in ‘Hommage à Rameau’ and the toccata-like pieces, and in the symphonic La Mer which is as thoroughly organised as the best of Beethoven’s symphonies.

    The picture above shows Debussy’s traditionalism as a personality trait very clearly: forced by family reasons, and against his inclination, he had to spend holiday time at the beach. But there, he sported the outfit suited to strolling Parisian boulevards and not particularly appropriate for summer holidays.

    “Beethoven, on the whole, stood for two centuries on a universal pedestal as one of the summits of human achievement.” The difficulty people had (and have) to topple this statue, is due to the fact that it is not a human pedestal but a factual rock of nature.

    • John Borstlap says:


      Although Debussy disparaged B’s 6th symphony with the ‘wooden bird from the swiss cuckoo clock’, he was full of admiration for the 9th, on purely musical grounds. For this to say, he had to first overcome his deep distaste for the superficial stance of the Parisian intellectuals of his time who immediately struck a pose of profound reflection, hand on chin, when Beethoven’s 9th was mentioned.

  • Ricardo says:

    1927 would be the centennial of Beethoven’s death 😉

  • buxtehude says:

    Norman I wish that you with your broad learning and subtlety, would stop confusing Nietzsche with the straw-man of long ago. His “extremist views of race” do not exist, even if you can find a seemingly suggestive phrase here or there; Darwin’s views were closer to your charge. His views on women were it is true, silly commoplaces, but not central to his projects. Feminists of his day were among the few humans to recognize something more than special in Nietzsche and were able to overlook his misogyny as they tried to crowd closer and learn what he was up to.

    He was by the way an excellent pianist who’d hoped as a boy to be a composer; adolescent compositions in the style of Schumann have been preserved. In the 1880s he he tried to get “Professor Brahms” interested in his music — Brahms was one of the very few people who had read *Beyond Good and Evil* though I don’t know whether N knew this. They unknowingly shared a hidden addiction to *Carmen,* attending dozens of performances.

    Nietzsche’s comments on music, scattered throughout his books, are always penetrating and suggestive no matter how strange they may appear at first. He wrote much about Wagner, his most passionate and disastrous friendship, first as champion and later as detractor. His revulsion at W’s antisemitism was one of the principal reasons for this change.

    I mention all this because N has much to offer as philosopher and psychologist, but remains hidden from many by the persistence of WW I-era British hatchet jobs or misappropriations by the Nazis. He has the additional advantage of being thrilling to read, though not always easy to follow.

    I recommend as key to the labyrinth *Nietzsche on Morality* by Brian Leiter, 2nd edition (Routledge).

    • John Borstlap says:

      Nietzsche was not a ‘real’ philosopher, but rather a literary figure. He never developed a philosophy. And the heart of his meanderings shows a nihilistic, negative, anti-civilisation stance. Basically it is the despair of a sick person, longing for some natural strength. A thorough narcissist, who changed his Weltanschauung at regular intervals and thought he found ‘the Truth’ at every corner he took. His negative influence upon generations of frustrated youngsters around 1900 was one of the ingredients of WW I and his appropriation by the nazis was not entirely misconceived. He never understood Wagner’s antisemitism which was a cultural critique against the materialism and technology of his time, which Nietzsche shared.

      Brahms was more affected by Schopenhauer’s ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’ and he lost his faith through that book. We know that from a report by Dvorak, to whom B complained that all spiritual musings were nonsense – ‘read Schopenhauer’.

  • msc says:

    Backhaus is worth seeking out, Bavouzet is almost perfect, and I was totally surprised by Masi.

  • Luciano Tanto says:

    La felicidad es un espejismo…

  • Alexander T says:

    Shaw was wrong on three counts: some of Beethoven’s music is best appreciated when in “a mood in which you want to be let alone”. The late string quartets being the obvious example.
    Re Opus 79: Kempff’s performance (the fifties mono version) is IMO a delight.

  • Stan says:

    I think it is helpful to think of Beethoven’s themes as characters and his developments as the relationships between the characters, just as in a drama. In other words, B, like Shakespeare, speaks (sings) in a great
    variety of voices, not all his own, necessarily.

    A typical four- movement work has at least eight themes, often designed to contrast with each each other, representing different “moods” or “points of view,” and don’t necessarily reveal how B was feeling at the time. IMHO.

    Will the real Beethoven please step forward?

    • John Borstlap says:

      This is very true.

      Life experiences are transformed into creative fantasy, disconnected from the source of their inspiration, and then they become universal and can be related to any situation. Therefore people ‘recognize’ something of their own life experiences in the music.

  • Feurich says:

    You could add Chopin’s negative views on Beethoven.

    • John Borstlap says:

      For Chopin, Beethoven’s music was too bombastic and too subjective, lacking in ‘good taste’. Culturally, Chopin was French.

  • microview says:

    Barenboim young and old(er); Annie Fischer; Brendel; Backhaus in 1951 – all either filmed or sound only on YouTube

  • Esfir Ross says:

    Richard Goode’s lovely rendition-right on the money

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I am shocked with, and in total disagreement with your statement, Norman, that: “It is not until Chuck Berry clamours ‘Roll over, Beethoven, and listen to the rhythm and blues’ that we encounter organised cultural resistance to Beethoven and the beginnings of a process that converts the great classics of music into a minority art form.”
    Shame on you, Norman, SHAME on you for that egregious dog-whistling.
    “Organized cultural resistance”?? WHAT??? Chuck Berry (a man whom I have actually met) was in NO way “organizing cultural resistance to Beethoven”. Whatever gave you that fantastic idea, anyway? He was suggesting – nay, insisting – that room ALSO be made for music of African-Americans, both in the cities and in the rural areas, and suggesting that this music be listened to and enjoyed AS WELL.
    As anyone with even the slightest historical perspective knows, the process of “converting the great classics of music into a minority art form”, as you put it, began with the gramophone record then completed with the advent of radio broadcasting. The listening public of the 1920s and 30s made their choice when presented with the alternative of listening to the classics or to the popular music of the day: both genres were widely available on disc and over the air. THE PUBLIC made the move, NOT Chuck Berry in the 1950s.
    And one can well argue that the “great classics of music” have ALWAYS been a minority art form – amusements for the royalty, the rich, and the high churchmen. For the most part, those worthies weren’t even aware of the treasures of the music they were (half-) listening to.
    I would welcome a reply from you, Norman, if you’re willing to open a dialogue.

    • David Eaton says:

      Yes, classical music has always been a minority art form. Not everyone appreciates or enjoys it, but not everyone enjoys R & B, or Jazz, or Heavy Metal. There are folks who love Beethoven but can’t take Mahler or Bruckner. That’s OK…let a thousand flowers bloom.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I read Norman’s paragraph very differently: as an objection against populism. To advocate appreciation of entertainment music, it is entirely unnecessary to refer to classical music, or Beethoven, especially considering the lack of any necessity of such move: entertainment music has always been more popular with many more people everywhere. Suggesting that entertainment music has a right to be considered a ‘serious art form’ – ‘just like classical music’ – is one of those attempts to place something on a pedestal that a) does not need one and b) is entirely misplaced if put in an inappropriate context.

      In a time when democratization is understood as the rejection of standards, populism tries to squeeze anything that is better than its own taste out of sight, out of practice, out of society.

  • fflambeau says:

    I love and enjoy Beethoven. But there is no question he is overplayed in concert halls and on the radio. How many new recordings of the 5th symphony do we really need when most add little or nothing? It seems every new orchestra’s leader needs to “prove” himself by immediately recording all Beethoven symphonies, right Jaap? There are some wonderful composers out there who get little or no attention because of this.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Too much Beethoven is quite bad for him and his music.

      But the symphonies are excellent test ground for ensemble playing, tuning, balance, organizing structural narrative – the technique of orchestral performance, for both players and conductor.

      I think no orchestra can do without a couple of B performances in a season, just to regularly go back to basics, which positively influences all other performances.

      And then, forgetting the numners of performances, the music remains always fresh. It is not about what a conductor ‘has to tell’ with the music but how the music sounds again. To my feeling, recordings are becoming superfluous, but live performances now and then – not too many – would be necessary for the performance culture’s standards.

      In the end, it was Beethoven himself, who (unintentionally, unknowingly, but intuitively) created the performance culture as it developed during the 19th century:

  • Luca says:

    This is an excellent article, Norman! Would you please do as much in “The Critic”.

  • Edgar Self says:

    “It is the peculiarity of Beethoven’s imagination that again and again he lifts us to a height from which we revaluate not only all music but all life, all emotion, and all thought.”

    — Ernest Newman, quoted by J.W.N. Sullivan in the preface to “eethoven, His Spiritual Development”, 1927

    • John Borstlap says:

      Isn’t that a cheap, bland and safe statement? To pose as a profound thinker, without any effort needed? What does it really mean, if you think about it? All good classical music is real life experience transformed into universal experience of ‘the human condition’, Palestrina no less than Mahler, so there is no need to make an exception for Beethoven. I’m sure he would reject such bland notion.

      • Edgar Self says:

        John Borstlap, It’s a sweeping statement, but dear, not cheap or blandat all, typical English understatement in taking a superlative stand.

        Have you read Sullivan’s book? It’s not concerned with normal experience but extremes such as the late sonatas and quartets, and the significance of B.’s music that some hate when there are so many other targets. Of what other music or composer could it have been said at the time?

        Newman was mentor to Neville Cardus and Walter Legge, not much of a recommendation,perhaps, but an example of his standing. His books on Wagner are canonical, along with Lavignac’s and Shaw’s.

        Mahler and Wagner used the psychological possibillities of music implicit in their forbears, and hardly possible without Beethoven’s extraordinary subjectivity and confessional style.

        You’ve mentioned Cambridge and Alexander Goehr. Did he ever speak of his father, conductor Walter Goehr? With friendly greeting and regard.

  • I’m too lazy to look it up right now, but I seem to remember Busoni saying about LVB, “I’d like to ask what he’s so angry about all the time.” (paraphrasing.)

    • John Borstlap says:

      What is sometimes (!) percieved as ‘anger’ is the energy of the struggle to get something realised in music which does not quite fit the classical style. B subjectivises the musical language which in itself was quite objective and neutral. He followed Mozart’s example in this.

    • christopher storey says:

      I think Busoni was right in suggesting that anger lies behind much of the music. But he rather lacks insight in wondering why : Beethoven lived in turbulent times, with the French Revolution and its aftermath dominating the first decade of his maturity, and the Napoleonic Wars directly having an impact on LvB in the subsequent 15 years. Furthermore, LvB’s deafness was surely the cruellest fate for a musician, and calculated to make him very angry indeed

  • Edgar Self says:

    J.W.N. Sullivan, author of “Beethoven, His Spiritual Development” 078boished in the mono-enennial year 1927, is a mysterious person, self-described Irish mathematician although he perhaps was neither. No matter. It is a book of extraordinary insight into the late quartets particularly. .

    Clifton Fadiman, doyen of literary reviewers and Book Of TheMonth Club, thought it the best book on music he had read. A sample Fadiman characterisation: “He had made the quietest of all decisions: the decision not to be contemporary.”

    It was Fadiman who alarmed Thomas Mann and his publisher Alfred Knopf by over-praising the intellectualism of “Doktor Faustus” and scaring off readers. I sympathise.

    In that same centennial year of the “Eyeglass Duo” for viola and cello was found in one of the conversation books. Richard Capell’s indispensable “Schubert’s Songs” followed next year, another cenennial.

    Schubert had offered the first toast when he and his torch-bearer friends repaired to a Vienna Weinstube after Beethoven’s funeral: “To the next great composer to die.” It was, of ourse, to be himself, as he may have known, the next year at 31.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Another quotation, said to be from Beethoven’s funeral oration by the Austrian poet and lplayright Franz Grillparzer, though I’ve ot bn able to verify that.

    “Fortunate the man who through his love can make another’s greatness his own, for it is given few men to be great in themselves.”