Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be the ghost of a dead classical musician, looking on while the rock and rollers get all the credit for bringing music to bear on pop culture. You might start cursing your luck that you didn’t have a guitar and amp available in your century of yore. Or, if you’re in a somewhat more hopeful mood, you might turn your attention to Beethoven, as Florida State professor Michael Broyles has in “Beethoven in America,” which makes the case that not only was Beethoven the all-around musical stud of musical studs, he might be the greatest of all musical ingratiators, turning up in our American corner of the universe, again and again, and more than most of us realize.
Even though most music fans are not classical music fans, the term “classical composer” tends to suggest the same things to a whole litany of people who don’t know the difference between a bass guitar and a bagatelle. We’re apt to conjure up someone possessed of a fiery and intractable temperament, a severe and draconian guy who’s probably poor and who works feverishly into the night, inspiration coursing through him as he scribbles out his runic notations before banging away at his keyboard. In other words, you probably arrive at an image of Beethoven as he has come down to us through the years in myriad tales, accounts, films, cartoons, lampoons, drawings and history books.
Even the name is musical: Bee-tho-ven — three notes, like an imperious but cheeky arpeggio with enough high-mindedness so that you know that this is a force to take seriously, but one that we can poke some fun at as well. And while Beethoven wasn’t exactly a light social gadfly delighting all within earshot with his humor, he understood — as Broyles makes plain — that art is a dialogue between various creators in various ages. And if your creation is of a serious nature — as Beethoven’s tended to be — someone else can come along and use yours to make his more humorous, thanks to the potency of juxtaposition and the wonderful quality in Beethoven’s music that seems to say, “Hey. This is what I got for you. What say you in response?” The best music initiates dialogues. And it’s why the best music lasts, and why the best music ranges beyond its country and circumstances of origin. And it’s also why Beethoven, as he is discussed in Broyles’s well-reasoned prose, looks just as good in Uncle Sam garb as he does in the more muted raiment of Vienna.
Enter, then, the U.S. pop battalion of the Beethoven army, with foot soldiers like Chuck Berry and the “Peanuts” gang, and a garrison stocked with coffee cups, CDs to make your baby smarter, tacky busts and umbrellas. Chuck Berry advised Beethoven’s ghost to check out his hot new sounds with “Roll Over Beethoven,” a track that bridged the gap between black and white audiences, with good old Ludwig providing an assist. Beethoven is “a metaphor for the classical music world,” Broyle writes, and, as such, “the perfect symbolic choice [for Berry].” But Beethoven could rock out in his way as well, so we’re not totally shocked when Berry instructs our man to “dig these rhythm and blues,” even if we understand that the student is taking his chances in poking fun at the headmaster.
Broyles makes a compelling argument that a big part of Beethoven’s ongoing Stateside presence centers on the way his persona and mystique lend themselves to intellectual reverence and satirical send-up. There’s a bit of both in Charles Schulz’s spin on Beethoven in assorted “Peanuts” strips and short films. “How many Americans know Schroeder with his toy piano and his love of Beethoven? It was a long-running gag that appeared in over 250 strips with many permutations,” Broyles writes. There is no more devoted fanboy in the history of cartoondom than Schroeder, but lest anyone get the idea that anything Beethoven-related need be serious and sententious, along would come Snoopy and his attendant rascally attitude to engage Beethoven’s music in an equally viable manner. They are a fitting duo, in their way. There is probably nothing that Snoopy could say to Beethoven about crossover appeal that Beethoven couldn’t also say to Snoopy, but I suspect the composer might be able to give everybody’s favorite beagle a few tips on staying power.
BEETHOVEN IN AMERICA
By Michael Broyles
Indiana Univ. 418 pp. $29.95