Beethoven Through Wagner’s Eyes

This is the first in a series of articles given as a talk at a concert by Johanna Porackova and Jeffrey Brody on September 10, 2006.

Recently there was given the overture to Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” and all impartial musicians and music lovers were in perfect agreement that never has anything so incoherent, shrill and ear-splitting been produced in music. The most piercing dissonances clash in a really atrocious harmony, and a few puny ideas only increase the disagreeable and deafening effect.

The speaker is the highly respected author and playwright August von Kotzebue, writing in “Der Freimutige” in September 1806, as quoted in Nicolas Slominsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. I think Kotzebue’s comment is highly instructive.

To us, Beethoven is a given, an immortal, an unquestioned force in musical history. For many during his lifetime that was true, but by no means for all. As his career proceeded into its final years, many of his compositions were greeted with confusion, lack of comprehension, and rejection. In the years after his death it was necessary for audiences to rediscover him and catch up to his innovations.

In 1870, the centennial of Beethoven’s birth, Richard Wagner wrote an essay entitled simply “Beethoven,” although Wagner referred to him in the text mostly as “great Beethoven.” Another artist who not only suffered from being ahead of his time but who positively embraced his status as composer of the music of the future, Wagner spent a significant amount of time in this essay establishing Beethoven as a specifically German composer, even to the point of ascribing to Mozart—and especially to Haydn—lower status as essentially German musicians due to their involvement with an international, royalist style and culture.

National artistic and social identity was an important issue in the nineteenth century, through much of which several great geographic areas that shared a common family of languages, customs, myths, and ethnicities had no existence as political entities. Movements sprang up to gather folk tales (as in the work of the Grimm Brothers), to preserve and translate the great chronicles (as in the Icelandic Sagas that so engrossed Wagner when they were published in the German states), and to transcribe the music of the people lest it be forgotten.

Tonight’s program contains the music of three composers who represented in their individual ways the height of German operatic music of their various eras. It would require only the presence of one other, Karl Maria von Weber–whom Wagner revered as the first great exponent of a truly German operatic style—to have a virtually unbroken chain of specifically German composers spanning the century and a half from the beginning of the Romantic Age to the middle of the 20th century.

Beethoven completed only one opera (although he could be said to have done that at least three times), but one can see Wagner’s point. Beethoven took a perfectly competent and effective rescue melodrama of a sort common in the wake of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and, through his music, elevated it to a plane from which it could shine as an icon of liberation and freedom at the end of the Nazi horror on opera stages around the world.

–William Fregosi

William Fregosi is Technical Coordinator for Theater Arts at MIT. In January 2004 he gave the Boston Wagner Society’s first presentation, on modern opera productions.