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Schonberg and Beethoven

Writing about the 32 Beethoven sonatas made me remember a loose thread I never picked up from an earlier post. This summer, I cited Harold Schonberg’s books as examples of popular writing about classical music, and compared them to the kind of thing we tend to get now. I didn’t actually mean to hold Schonberg up as a paragon; I was simply trying to say that I find his books more entertaining references than many of the popular works we have today. But after finishing rereading “The Great Pianists,” I'm not sure I'd even go that far; filled with information as it is, it ultimately lost me thanks to its incessant hyperbole.
(read more after the jump)

To give just one example: the following are a list of citations of selected performances of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. The statements don’t actually contradict one another, but they are presented in such garbled order that it’s hard, when you’re reading the book, to absorb and keep track of the facts, apart from the idea that there are lots of important “firsts” going on.

p. 189 “Carl Wolfsohn, from Germany, settled in Philadelphia, where he concentrated on Beethoven and chamber music. He played the 32 sonatas in 1863 (repeating them in New York and still later in Chicago).”

p. 221 “Hallé did much to popularize Beethoven… By 1852 he was giving semipublic recitals in his own home at which he played nothing but Beethoven. These attracted so much attention that in 1861 he started giving similar recitals in St. James’s Hall, playing the thirty-two sonatas in a series of eighteen recitals. Apparently he was the first pianist in history to play the cycle.”

p. 236 Von Bülow “introduced the last five sonatas all over Europe, and often he would play all five on one program. He did this in Vienna in 1881, and Hanslick was beside himself with admiration. The feat had never before been done there.”

p. 238 “the talented Arabella Goddard, who at her debut in London in 1853 played the Hammerklavier from memory, and who in 1857 began concentrating on the last five sonatas.”

p. 272 “By 1906 [Édouard] Risler was playing the cycle of thirty-two sonatas.”

By this point in the book, playing the 32 sonatas seems an activity hardly worthy of special comment, although it has been abundantly proven to the lay reader that Artur Schnabel was not, as is sometimes mistakenly alleged, the first to do so. (He was, however, the first to record them.)

Schonberg’s unwitting (or not so unwitting) sexism also drives me up the wall. Of Adele aus der Ohe, a Liszt student: “Most men, no matter how gifted as virtuoso thunderers, would think twice about playing so demanding and physically taxing a program.” Of Amy Fay: “Poor, dear Amy! One would like to have known her.” To those who say, But he meant both these lines to be complimentary, I can only say, Q.E.D.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 17, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Disclosure, I've not read this book. Regarding sexism: the book (according to Wikipedia) was written in 1964. It's not surprising that there is sexism in a book written in that year by a guy born in 1915.

What is surprising is that the book was never updated to eliminate the sexist material. After all, Schonberg lived until 2003.

I just read the NYT obit on Schonberg, and it mentioned what a great musical memory he had. One would think this is a key quality for any good music critic, would you agree Anne?


Posted by: shovetheplanet | November 17, 2009 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Schonberg most likely was never given the chance by the publisher to update the book if he had wanted to. He probably did. I've known a number of successful, well-regarded writers who always wished they could revise what they had written "at least one more time." Ms. Midgette probably has had the experience herself. (And I'll probably wish I could revise this after it's posted. At least I know it won't be around very long.)

Posted by: wsheppard | November 17, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

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