Critical Assaults on Beethoven

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - 11:02 AM

As Beethoven Awareness Month wraps up, we’ve given a lot of praise to this composer, who changed music forever. But we want to provide coverage of the composer that's, as they say, fair and balanced. And sometimes mean.

Apparently, not everyone is a fan of Beethoven.  

In 1953, Nicolas Slonimsky filled an entire book, the Lexicon of Musical Invective, with criticisms against composers who had earned their way into the classical canon. It seems there was a long line of these critics waiting to take a swipe and Beethoven, of course, gets his fair share. We just had to pass along these holiday bonbons:

"Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect." 
          (Zeitung fur die Elegente Welt, Vienna, May 1804)

Ed. note: Sometimes we long for the days when bad music sounded like dragons. And we also wish Slonimsky’s book was illustrated.


"Beethoven, this extraordinary genius, was completely deaf for nearly the last ten years of his life, during which his compositions have partaken of the most incomprehensible wildness. His imagination seems to have fed upon the ruins of his sensitive organs."
          (William Gardiner, The Music of Nature, London 1837)

"The Heroic Symphony contains much to admire, but it is difficult to keep up admiration of this kind during three long quarters of an hour. It is infinitely too lengthy…  If this symphony is not by some means abridged, it will soon fall into disuse."
          (The Harmonicon, London, April 1829)

"We heard lately in Boston the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. The performance was technically most admirable… But is not worship paid this Symphony mere fetishism? Is not the famous Scherzo insufferably long-winded? The Finale… is to me for the most part dull and ugly… I admit the grander of the passage ‘und der Cherub steht vor Gott’ and the effect of ‘Seid umschlungen Millionen!’ But oh, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music! The unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune, ‘Freude, Freude!’  
          (Philip Hale, Musical Record, Boston, June 1, 1899)


"Beethoven always sounds to me like the upsettings of bags of nails, with here and there an also dropped hammer."
          (From John Ruskin’s letter to John Brown, dated February 6, 1881)

"Beethoven was not a man of the fugue, and he was never less so in this nightmare -- a raw and undigested mass!"
          (W. de Lenz on the Finale of the Sonata Op. 106 in Beethoven et ses trios syles, Paris, 1855)


"Beethoven's Eighth Symphony depends wholly on its last movement for what applause it obtains; the rest is eccentric without being amusing; and laborious without effect."
          (The Harmonicon, London, June 4, 1827)


Weigh in: Is there a piece by Beethoven that you feel merits criticism? Any dying dragons or bags of nails? Leave your comments below.


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Comments [24]

William Ferguson from Colusa, California

Have you heard "Wellington Seig"?

I rest my case.

Jan. 13 2015 03:11 AM
daniel from Mexico City

Ah, those marvelous English choirs! Lets have more of them please!

Dec. 24 2011 09:01 AM
Tony from Bayonne, NJ

Well, I guess when you write as much music as Beethoven or Mozart did, and most of it is so great, there is bound to be some stuff in there that some people aren't going to like. Even the biggest Beatles fans in the world (I am one) don't like ALL their songs. There is a reason why after two hundred years Beethoven's music is so popular and alive, as shown each year in the countdown. As for those critics of his day; I wish they could come back and have to listen to what fills the airwaves of radio today as 'music.' Hmmm. Lady Gaga or Beethoven?

Dec. 15 2011 12:23 PM
charles danna

Oh. I just love that horn music you insist on playing. Yeah, right!!!

Dec. 08 2011 09:23 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I noticed that the above comments were from Beethoven's contemporaries. They have nothing good to say about him. Don't forget that Ludwig introduced some new components to symphoinies, e.g. choral to the 9th.

This and other innovations were bound to (thankfully) enrage the status quo.

I am reminded how Tchaikovsky detested his own Nutcracker. And now.....

"Never listen to the critics. No one ever erected a monument to a critic."

Dec. 05 2011 12:44 PM

The man was totally deaf when he wrote some of his best music. Give the guy a break.
Most of us couldn't write a composition if it was given to us half completed.

Dec. 03 2011 06:54 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

The month dedicated to Beethoven sure has people talking! "Wellington's Victory" comes to mind as a piece that perhaps merits criticism. While I have always found it to be a tuneful, engaging war horse (no pun intended) that is fun to conduct, I recall my high school band director saying (of Wellington's Victory) that every composer is entitled to one mistake.

Dec. 01 2011 10:27 PM
Elaine from Nanuet NY

Your month of Beethoven was wonderful. You even included Bill Mc Gloughlin with a very informative program. Since you started doing an interesting idea why not keep it up? You could have a history of music by starting with Medieval then Renaissance etc. Time and space will not let me give more suggestions except to say the first two would probably cover one month, and the rest to be worked out. Thanks for the enjoyment your programs bring me. Music is very important in my life.

Dec. 01 2011 12:09 PM
Nicholas bergman from Manhattan

Next: Mozart!

Dec. 01 2011 11:36 AM
Michael Meltzer

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say the Triple Concerto is "bad Beethoven," but I'll pass along a friend's perspective. Years ago, with a bunch of fellow students, I attended a performance of the Triple by the Marlboro Festival at Carnegie Hall. One of our violinists said, "I'll bet Beethoven got an 'A.' I'll bet it was the best concerto in the whole class."

Dec. 01 2011 10:47 AM
Kathryn Riss

Enough Beethoven already! Bad enough that we hear nothing else for the last part of the classical countdown. I am really tired of his symphonies. A little bombast goes a long way, imho. The earlier works are much more enjoyable and heard less frequently.

Dec. 01 2011 09:33 AM

Best part was the comparison between Beethoven's oeuvre pre- and post-deafness. The very idea of creating music one will never hear sends shivers up and down. And the subtle (and not so subtle) differences in character of these two periods was explored reasonably well. Kudos to QXR and a total Beethoven respite for 7 days!

Dec. 01 2011 09:29 AM
Eddie baby from NYC

Bad Beethoven? Sure. You played one yesterday I think -- the triple concerto. Why do people like this piece? The last movement sounds like "Home on the Range," except not as good.

Dec. 01 2011 09:03 AM
joseph winokur from 1021

i was blown away by the beethoven month
broadcasts.they became an important part of my life my life,;truthfully they did.
i learned so much about how to listen to music,and so much of the beethoven was wonderful and new to me;things i didn't know

and jeff spurgeon has such a welcome light touch.

three huzzahs for qxr!; you're thr best!

Dec. 01 2011 08:57 AM
Max Power


Nov. 30 2011 11:03 PM
CK from Clark

Interview is worth watching in its entirety, of course, but from 1:10 forward Glenn Gould talks specifically about bad Beethoven.

Nov. 30 2011 04:49 PM
Rich from The Bronx

Beethoven great, no doubt. But a month of Beethoven out the wazoo dulls the appreciation. You cannot say he is not played often so a month ad naseum pushes it. Terrance McKnight had a somewhat interesting solution. He often programed little known contemporaries ,very many his friends such as Hoffmeister., Perhaps a series about Bethoven's musical friends and contemporaries might yield some fine discoveries.

Nov. 30 2011 02:50 PM
Bernie from UWS

Yes, let's give it up for a Bruckner month! I'd love it if QXR would have the chutzpah to play long, epic works during the day. And Sibelius too (and I don't mean "Finlandia").

As for my "worst" Beethoven piece - definitely the 8th Symphony. Such a letdown after the 7th.

Nov. 30 2011 02:26 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Let me add my vote for a composer of the month feature. Michael referred to the Viennese critic's opinion of Anton Bruckner (a favorite composer of mine, as WQXR is probably aware). I think Bruckner's music is unfairly neglected, and certainly should be given more air time. How about it, WQXR? After all, we would all benefit from some holy water now and then!

Nov. 30 2011 02:23 PM
Rebecca David from 10025

Who is the next composer of the month....could it be Handel or Sibelius.
I nominate for both if not for next month, in the next coming months.
WQXR has such brilliant ideas to make music listening even more interesting.
Thank you WQXR.

Nov. 30 2011 02:14 PM

Not liking BEETHOVEN is like not enjoying SEX......

Nov. 30 2011 02:12 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Good idea to focus on one composer a month. As for a swipe at the Great Ludwig, I never liked the 5th with its da da da da. Was he wild? I do not know. I see some of his music as having a great amount of vitality. And some of it goes up to God. Especially the first movement of the 7th. Thanks for giving me a Beethoven fix every day.

Nov. 30 2011 01:14 PM
Michael Meltzer

Great book ! ! MY favorite has always been the Viennese critic's characterization of Anton Bruckner as "a beer barrel full of holy water."

Nov. 30 2011 01:05 PM

No criticism from me. I'm not an expert. Just a lover of good music.

Btw, could you folks do this every month? Like take a prolific composer and focus on him/her? I like the idea.

Nov. 30 2011 12:53 PM

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