TOPICS : Beethoven was a narcissistic hooligan
Beethoven certainly changed the way that people thought about music, but this change was a change for the worse. From the speculations of Pythagoras about the “music of the spheres” in ancient Greece onwards, most western musicians had agreed that musical beauty was based on a mysterious connection between sound and mathematics, and that this provided music with an objective goal, something that transcended the individual composer’s idiosyncrasies and aspired to the universal. Beethoven managed to put an end to this noble tradition by inaugurating a barbaric U-turn away from an other-directed music to an inward-directed, narcissistic focus on the composer himself and his own tortured soul. This was a ghastly inversion that led slowly but inevitably to the awful atonal music of Schoenberg and Webern. Poor old Schoenberg was simply taking Beethoven’s original mistake to its ultimate, monstrous logical conclusion.
This is not to deny Beethoven’s genius, but to claim that he used his genius in the service of a fundamentally flawed idea. If Beethoven had dedicated his obvious talents to serving the noble
Pythagorean view of music, he might well have gone on to compose music even greater
than that of Mozart. If only Beethoven had nourished these tender shoots instead of the darker elements that one can also hear. For the darkness is already evident in the early quartets too, in their sombre harmonies and sudden key changes. As it was, however, his darker side won out; compare, for example, the late string quartets. Here the youthful humour has completely vanished; the occasional signs of optimism quickly die out moments after they appear and the movements sometimes end in uncomfortably inconclusive cadences.
It’s instructive to compare Beethoven’s morbid self-obsession with the unselfconscious vivacity of Mozart. Like Bach’s perfectly formed fugues and Vivaldi’s sparkling concertos, Mozart’s music epitomises the baroque and classical ideals of formal elegance and functional harmony; his compositions “unfold with every harmonic turn placed at the right moment, to leave, at the end, a sense of perfect finish and unity”, as the music critic Paul Griffiths puts it. Above all, Mozart’s music shares with that of Bach an exuberant commitment to the Enlightenment values of clarity, reason, optimism and wit.
With Beethoven, however, we leave behind the lofty aspirations of the Enlightenment and begin the descent into the narcissistic inwardness of Romanticism. Mozart gives you music that asks to be appreciated for its own sake, and you don’t need to know anything about the composer’s life to enjoy it. Beethoven’s music, on the other hand, is all about himself - it is simply a vehicle for a self-indulgent display of bizarre mood swings and personal difficulties.
Even when he uses older forms, he twists them into cruel and angry parodies. The result is often fiercely dissonant. Hazlewood is right to describe Beethoven as a “hooligan’’, but this is hardly a virtue. — The Guardian