Friday, August 20, 2010

Discovering Insights or Showing Off?

This seems to be the month for venting my frustration with the London Telegraph, even when that frustration involves articles more than a month old. In this case I am referring to the review that Philip Hensher wrote last month of Harvey Sachs' book The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. The demand (in all likelihood not based on Hensher's piece) for this book was great enough that I had to get on a waiting list at the San Francisco Public Library. Since I had more than enough to keep me occupied, I did not mind the wait; and I was looking forward to the reading experience. Now I find myself wondering when I am going to bail.

There is nothing wrong with the basic premise of the book, which is basically that a proper understanding of the ninth symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven requires a contextual understanding of the circumstances under which that symphony was written. If I have any quibble at all with this premise, is that it is too narrow. As far as I am concerned, it is true of any act of the composition of music, which means that, in Beethoven's case, it is as applicable to "Für Elise" as it is to any of the compositions that are argued over by Anna Russell's "great experts." This is not to detract from the work of those "great experts" but simply to belabor the fundamental truth that "context is everything," even when one is obsessed with some masterpiece.

What is missing from Sachs' contextual approach is any sense of priorities. If context is everything, then everything is grist for his context-seeking mill. This makes for awesome detective work, but the result is some really turgid writing that never makes a case for whether it has anything substantive to do with Beethoven's ninth? George Orwell probably would have appreciated being paraphrased with the premise that some contexts are more equal than others; but you could not prove it by Sachs, for whom Saul Bellow and Joseph Brodsky carry as much weight as Charles Rosen and H. C. Robbins Landon. Ultimately, this book is an assorted collection of mud pies formed from the stuff of just about any subject you could imagine in a humanities curriculum. Reading it reminded me of a sarcastic remark an old colleague of mine used to make about Esquire: "Those guys must pay their writers by the word!"

I do not know if I shall make it to the end of Sachs book to see if he even glances the hypothesis that, strictly speaking, the Opus 125 symphony in D minor is not Beethoven's masterpiece. It was made a masterpiece by a congeries of factors, most of them grounded in the social world and probably all of them brought into play after Beethoven's death. In 1824 Opus 125 was, at best, an enigma that made a mighty noise and brought little profit to a poor sick man living in squalor. The real story did not take place in 1824; and the book that deserves to be written is the one that tries to develop the underlying narrative of the "resurrection" of Beethoven as monument.

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