Friday, 20 June 2008
Hugh Macdonald’s Obsessive Moments
We welcome Hugh Macdonald to the Eastman Studies in Music series with his entertaining and revealing book of essays, Beethoven’s Century. In it he looks at aspects of Schubert’s musical personality, the brief friendship between Berlioz and Schumann, Liszt’s abilities as a conductor…but let Professor Macdonald tell you about it:
I find that writing about music can only be driven by curiosity and the desire to get to the bottom of some teasing problem that arises from music one plays or hears or reads. This might be the ambition to cover the entire life and works of an individual, or to chart great cultural movements, but it can equally take the form of solving a small mystery, or putting an unusual aspect of a composer's work under the microscope. I once wrote a short article (never published) on a single note in Puccini's Crisantemi.
My collection Beethoven's Century contains essays that mostly arose from such obsessive moments when an idea once settled in the mind needs to be explored, expanded and expounded. Repeats, for example, was my way of checking what we are supposed to do with the repeat signs that are found in all classical instrumental music. Having played a great deal of chamber and orchestral music, I was struck by the way musicians responded to repeats, sometimes with reverence, sometimes without. Which repeats did composers write? Which did they want? Why did they drop out of favour, and when?
My essay on Comic Opera was driven by noticing that comic opera and dialogue opera were less well served in our opera houses than the heavier genres. Is it not time to correct the imbalance, I ask. The closing essay, Modernisms that Failed, attempts to question the received history of early 20th-century music, while giving a moment's attention to some of the crazier advances that seemed promising at the time, but actually led nowhere. Smell-music, colour-music, noise-music and machine-music are some of the fads that might well appeal to listeners as strongly as those of our own time.
The opening essay Beethoven's Game of Cat and Mouse pursues a path suggested by Czerny's story that he used to turn on his obsequious audiences when they became visibly moved by his playing. This is cruel behaviour, since we think we ought to be moved by his music. Beethoven teases us in all sorts of subtle ways, always leaving us in no doubt of who's in command. In this elaborate game, I argue, Beethoven is the cat and we are no more than mice. No one was more aware of his colossal stature than he was himself, as if he had already annexed the whole of the nineteenth century as his own.
Beethoven’s Century is available now from your favourite bookseller, online or otherwise.