Of making books about Beethoven, there is no end--though we may be near a slacking-off if the standard hardcover price becomes fixed at Oxford's $49.95. Economics aside, however, the Beethoven industry seems to have no problems. Both of the latest books on this multi-faceted genius find approaches that are new and interesting.
Mellers has invoked the deity in two previous books of pop musicology: "Twilight of the Gods: The Beatles in Retrospect" and "Bach and the Dance of God." For Beethoven, he uses a recipe with tested ingredients: mysticism, psychology and structural analysis, applied primarily to the piano sonatas with excursions into the Missa Solemnis, Diabelli Variations and smaller piano pieces. From a chronological survey of this music, he distills the biography of a soul--Beethoven under a microscope, almost Beethoven in a vacuum.
"The Age of Beethoven: 1790-1830" (which makes up Volume VII of "The New Oxford History of Music") has a rather different approach: Beethoven in a rich context, surrounded by the names and works of lesser figures and rising above them like a mountain from its foothills. Beethoven dominates his time in music as Napoleon did in politics. But the 10 musicologists who collaborated on this volume have worked hard to analyze the soil in which his music grew. They have reconstructed the musical life of Europe--and particularly of Vienna--for the 40-year period covered. They give a carefully measured share of attention to such figures as Peter von Winter, who wrote a justly forgotten sequel to "The Magic Flute," and Johann Christian Friedrich Schneider, composer of 23 symphonies, who "deliberately took Beethoven as his model, most successfully in his scherzos." Such music may not be worth the trouble of performance, but reading about these men and scores of others helps to put Beethoven in perspective.
In either volume, Beethoven emerges as a lonely giant, because that is what he was--at least, it is one of the things he was. But in Mellers, the giant stands in solitary grandeur, wrestling with God and with themes of heroic myth. Occasionally, the figure of another giant can be seen in the distance and used for a quick comparison. Thus, we have Beethoven in relation to his great successors: "Wagner, high priest of the Romantic ego, was to discover a universe within the mind, and was conversely to learn that the only way to find the Self is to lose it. Complementarily, Mahler's life-work was to be balanced between Experience of man's inevitable crucifixion, and Innocence which is the memory of an undivided Whole." Or, on his first page, Beethoven in relation to his great predecessor: "Bach . . . belonged to a society that knew or thought it knew what it believed in . . . Beethoven was born into precisely the world that superseded Bach's; and though this world was politically buoyant, in religious matters its inhabitants were animated by doubt rather than hope, and by reason rather than conviction." In a sense, Mellers takes Beethoven as an intense and highly advanced embodiment of the mind of Europe after the French Revolution, and since Beethoven embodies his time Mellers feels no need to look at that time, outside of Beethoven, in any great detail.
The writers contributing to Oxford's "The Age of Beethoven" have accepted a different kind of assignment and fulfill it with distinction. They portray the giant constantly surrounded and occasionally influenced by smaller figures, working in an environment that was created not only by Mozart and Haydn but also by such half-forgotten composers as Gretry, Cherubini, Viotti, Salieri and Albrechtsberger. If Beethoven is unique, they remind us, it is partly because his private vision and precise craftsmanship operated in an incredibly rich musical situation. The ferment of ideas that he inherited and enlarged is thoroughly presented. He is seen against the background of an age when music emerged from the courts and churches to find large audiences in public concert halls, an age when the idea of classics in music was just beginning to be born, with Bach, Handel, Mozart and Haydn as the earliest beneficiaries of this new taste.
Although Beethoven stands apart from the crowd summoned up by the Oxford writers and looms enormously larger, he shares the book with many other notable figures, each of whom receives due attention. His life span encompasses that of Schubert and the amazing adolescence of Mendelssohn, the operatic work of Weber, Meyerbeer and Rossini, and significant new developments in all forms of music--song, sonata, concerto and symphony. If Beethoven was the most significant innovator in most of these fields, and the creator of a new musical world in his late quartets, he was by no means the only one who stretched the limits of music in the early 19th century. Many half-forgotten figures who contributed to this effort are resurrected and given their due in the Oxford history.
Being a historical rather than a critical study, the Oxford volume focuses its discussion primarily on music that typifies the time or on music that introduces significant innovations, with artistic quality kept in the background as a secondary consideration. Thus, Beethoven's Quarter in C-sharp Minor is given a single paragraph while Spohr's Symphony in D Minor, an infinitely less powerful work but one more symptomatic of the times, has almost two pages. The rationale for such space allocations is clearly stated and seems valid: "The difficulties of Op. 131 are those common to all the late quartets, not special ones arising from its unusual structure."
Mellers, on the other hand, zeroes in on greatness, revels in it, expatiates on it with metaphor, philosophizing, and intense structural analysis, all aimed at showing precisely why one sonata is different from all others and marks a key point in Beethoven's development. If he sometimes seems to overstate, still he always penetrates to the drama implicit in the music. His analytic sections are designed for readers with a fairly strong background in musical theory, but they are by no means the only attraction in his book.