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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 13 C-Minor Moods

The “Struggle and Victory” Narrative and Its Relationship to Four C-Minor Works of Beethoven

CHAPTER 13 C-Minor Moods
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians calls Beethoven “the most admired composer in the history of Western music,” and we have seen some of the reasons for that. Not only has Beethoven been admired by other musicians and by his composing progeny; he has also been consistently the most popular composer with concert audiences over a period now approaching two centuries, during which the makeup of the concert audience has undergone repeated profound change. But it is also true that for just as long a period, and in the same tradition, Beethoven has been among the most feared, resisted, and even hated of composers, and we shall see the reasons for that, too, as our investigation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music proceeds.

Both admiration and resistance have a single source; in fact they are the two sides of a single coin. They have arisen in reaction to Beethoven’s looming, unshakeable presence as the most authoritative and influential figure in the tradition of which this book is the history—a tradition that has yet fully to outgrow its romantic phase, the phase that was formed, so to speak, in the image of Beethoven. For close on two centuries, in short, Beethoven has been the one to beat.

So a book like this needs more than an account of Beethoven’s life in relation to his art, or an appreciation of his cultural and esthetic significance. We need a survey of his actual musical achievement as well—one that is at once comprehensive, representative, reflective of his influence, and still relatively brief. That is a tall order, especially the last requirement. Perhaps the best way to fill it would be to concentrate on the music that has most exercised posterity, fastening in particular on two categories: the music that has been the most popular, and the music that has been the most notorious or controversial.

Indeed, it turns out that both categories are the same; or rather, that a small number of famous works inhabit both categories. And it further turns out that many of these works share the same key: the quintessentially “Beethovenian” key of C minor. What Joseph Kerman calls Beethoven’s “C-minor mood,” the one most firmly associated with the composer by posterity, has been an object of devotion and derision in equal measure.1 In its dynamic, even terrifying agitation and disquiet it concentrates our image of Beethoven as an unruly “unlicked bear” (as his high-society patrons called him in his youth), as the tormented soul he became in mature isolation, and as the enigmatic visionary of his last decade.

From the beginning, the prevalence of C minor sharply delineated Beethoven’s distance from the spiritual world of Haydn and Mozart, who used the key quite sparingly. The fact that a C-minor work has nevertheless figured prominently in our discussions of both men—the Fantasia, K. 475, in the case of Mozart; the Creation Prologue in that of Haydn—betrays the bias that those discussions necessarily share with all descriptions that serve the purposes of historical narrative. Our discussions of Mozart and Haydn, in other words, were written in the knowledge—knowledge unavailable to Mozart and Haydn—that Beethoven was coming, and that we would have to take account of his relationship to them. For however rare their use of the key, it was Mozart and Haydn who—inevitably—provided Beethoven with the precedent on which he based his conception of it.

For devotion to the C-minor Beethoven, we may turn to any of the critics (beginning once again with E. T. A. Hoffmann) or composers (beginning with Robert Schumann, who was also a critic), not to mention the countless audiences, who have viewed the Fifth Symphony, this chapter’s centerpiece, as the Beethovenian epitome, hence the epitome of “classical music” outright. Schumann linked it up in especially direct fashion with the “romantic sublime” by refusing to write at length about it. “Let us be silent about this work!” he bade his readers.2 “No matter how frequently heard, whether at home [played on the piano] or in the concert hall, this symphony invariably wields its power over men of every age like those great phenomena of nature that fill us with fear and admiration at all times, no matter how frequently we may experience them.”

Derision began early, too, and found a willing spokesman, once again, in Louis Spohr, for whom the work “did not add up to a classical [that is, a beautiful] whole,” since the first movement “lacked the dignity essential to the opening of a symphony,” and the last movement was merely “empty noise.” Prime time for Beethoven-scorn, however, was the disillusioned aftermath of the First World War. To the great British music scholar Edward J. Dent (1876–1957), writing in that fallen moment, the Beethoven of the C-minor mood symbolized everything that was outmoded in European culture. Having been promoted by the musicians and critics of the Victorian age as “the great musician of moral uplift,” Beethoven was now suspect in the eyes of youth.3

Though he remained unwilling or unable to level the charge of charlatanry at Beethoven himself, Dent saw in Beethoven-worship the origin of a sanctimonious and baleful tendency—the tendency for

every little scribbler to regard himself as a prophet, and the tendency of music-lovers in general to exhibit a ludicrously exaggerated reverence for the artist—a reverence, it need hardly be said, which the artist, and especially the charlatan, has lost no time in exploiting to the full.4

As a result, Beethoven’s work, however genuine its inspiration or its musical distinction, has been resisted by many modern thinkers as being, like other varieties of moral conviction, a kind of “false consciousness” masking hypocritical complacency. “The lofty idealism of Beethoven,” Dent wrote, “is a thing which we cannot possibly deny or ignore; but we may justly question whether the artistic expression of it is still convincing to modern ears.”5 These were the words of one resigned to reluctant disbelief—a voice raised in protest against Beethoven’s continuing, unassailable, but (for Dent) no longer fitting ascendancy. Were Beethoven not still a dominating presence in the minds of all musicians a full century after his death, there would have been no reason at so late a date to renounce him. Beethoven, and Beethovenian values, have become so synonymous with the culture of “classical music” that one can chart the checkered course of musical esthetics since his time simply by examining reactions to him.

Dent was not only a professor; in 1926, when he wrote the words just quoted, he was also a founding member and first president of the International Society of Contemporary Music, a concert-sponsoring organization that was then the leading forum for the performance and dissemination of the works of all the most advanced composers of the day. Dent was speaking, then, not only on behalf of contemporary scholars and listeners, but on behalf of contemporary artists as well, and his words found many echoes, at least for a while, among creative musicians.

One of the most colorful was an exchange between Marcel Proust, the French novelist, and Igor Stravinsky, then a youngish Russian composer at the pinnacle of Parisian prestige, at a reception held for Stravinsky at a swanky Paris hotel in the late spring of 1922. As recalled by Clive Bell, an English biographer of Proust, who overheard it, the conversation went like this:

“Doubtless you admire Beethoven,” Proust began. “I detest Beethoven,” was all he got for answer. “But mon cher maître [my dear master], surely those late sonatas and quartets…?” “Pire que les autres [the worst of all],” growled Stravinsky.6

Stravinsky, who later professed as profound an admiration for Beethoven as one could expect from another composer (and for the late quartets in particular7), admitted in his autobiography that his earlier antipathy was a pose brought on by a surfeit of oppressively enforced reverence, and by disgust at the mythology that had grown up around Beethoven, surrounding him with a fog of pious words about “his famous Weltschmerz [world-weariness], together with his ‘tragedy’ and all the commonplace utterances voiced for more than a century about this composer.”8 As Stravinsky put it in retrospect, unthinking deification “alienated me from Beethoven for many years,” until, at last, he was “cured and matured by age.”

The experience was typical. With the passing of that aggressively “modern” moment after World War I, doubts about Beethoven were for a time put to rest; but they dependably resurface whenever a new artistic tendency needs to clear a musical space for itself. John Cage, for instance, an avant-garde musician of the post – World War II period, went on renewed offensive against Beethoven in 1948, claiming that the whole concept of “composition defined by harmony” was “in error,” and that “Beethoven’s influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.”9

As the persistent need to attack him attests better than anyone’s praise, the Beethoven of the C-minor mood remains a touchstone of music’s full potential within the European fine-art tradition, and will undoubtedly retain that position as long as the tradition persists. For he (or rather “it”—the touchstone, not the man) has become the tradition’s virtual definer for the listeners on whom it depends for its subsistence.

Yet to describe the distinctive Beethovenian tone simply as the “C-minor mood” is woefully inadequate. It is not just incomplete: such a description leaves out the chief thing that has given Beethoven his hold on the minds and hearts of so many generations of listeners. For the “C-minor mood” is really not a mood at all. A mood is static. What Beethoven offers, as always, is a trajectory. Most of the works we shall examine begin in C minor and end in C major; and the ones that do not make a point of the fact.

Thus, time and again over the whole course of his career, Beethoven seemed to replay, as if under a compulsion, that sublime moment in Haydn’s Creation when the dark of chaos yielded to the light of primeval day. The many inflections he gave the basic opposition, from consoling to triumphal to quiescent, have given rise to as many metaphorical interpretations, and to as many moral or ethical readings. Adolf Bernhard Marx (1795–1866) caught the Haydn resonance and drew out its implications with great acumen when he wrote of the Fifth Symphony that its overall theme was “Durch Nacht zum Licht! Durch Kampf zum Sieg!” (“Through night to light! Through struggle to victory!”), sounding a keynote for Beethoven interpretation that has resonated over the centuries on many levels from the biographical or psychological to the nationalistic, and from the benignly auspicious to the potentially sinister.10


(1) For devotion see Joseph Kerman, “Beethoven’s Minority,” in Write All These Down: Essays on Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 217–37; for derision see Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets, pp. 70–71.

(2) Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, ed. Konrad Wolff, trans. Paul Rosenfeld (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 95.

(3) Edward J. Dent, Terpander; or, Music and the Future (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1927), p. 64.

(4) Edward J. Dent, “The Problems of Modern Music” (1925), in Selected Essays, ed. Hugh Taylor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 98.

(5) Dent, Terpander, p. 91.

(6) Clive Bell, Old Friends (London, 1956); quoted in Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966), p. 60.

(7) See Stravinsky’s review (ghostwritten by his assistant Robert Craft) of Kerman’s The Beethoven Quartets in The New York Review of Books, 26 September 1968; reprinted in Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Retrospectives and Conclusion (New York: Knopf, 1969), pp. 130–42.

(8) Stravinsky: An Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936), p. 181.

(9) Quoted in David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage, A Life (New York: Arcade, 1992), pp. 95–96.

(10) Adolf Bernhard Marx, Ludwig van Beethoven: Leben und Schaffen, 6th ed., ed. and rev. Gustav Behncke, Vol. II (Berlin: Otto Janke, 1908), p. 62.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-13.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-13.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 C-Minor Moods." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-13.xml