Music History Minus Beethoven?

I recently wrote a blog post for Corymbus on the possibility of writing music history without Beethoven. There’s an excerpt below, and the full article can be accessed here.

‘For nearly two centuries’, musicologist Scott Burnham writes in his book Beethoven Hero, ‘a single composer has epitomized musical vitality, becoming the paradigm of Western compositional logic’. Beethoven’s values ‘have become the values of music.’ All roads lead to, from, and are compared to, Beethoven.

This is problematic for a whole host of reasons. That our tools of analysis, ways of listening, and historical priorities have been so focused on Beethoven means that other composers have been read in comparison, rather than on their own merits. To quote Burnham again, ‘we may read the history of tonal theory in the nineteenth century as a form of Beethoven reception’, and by reading music in this way, ‘we implicitly claim that Beethoven’s music most closely resembles the way music ought to go.’ …

We can seek truths within frameworks, but we choose which frames to look through. In some of music history’s frames, Beethoven is indispensable. But in many more, he’s not.


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