The Critics vs. Beethoven

Today, we think of Ludwig van Beethoven’s nine symphonies as masterpieces.  But this mentality was not as widespread when these works were first performed nearly 200 years ago.  Indeed, the critics of the time generally panned Beethoven’s symphonies, sometimes rather harshly.

Beethoven composed his First Symphony in 1800 and premiered it the same year on April 2nd.  Criticism of this symphony was quite unfavorable on its first performances.  Leading critics of the time, including Joseph Preindl, the Abbé Stadler, and Dionys Weber, were quite upset by the fact that the introduction to the first movement began with what was then considered a “discord.”[1]   Another critic described the work as “a caricature of Haydn pushed to absurdity.”  Some years later, however, the reviewers had reversed their position on this work and even Carl Maria von Weber, one of the severest critics of Beethoven’s symphonies, spoke highly of it.

The premier of the Second Symphony was given on April 5, 1803, and, as with the First, critical reception of this work was not good.  For example, in Leipzig, the Zeitung für die Elegante Welt referred to it as “a gross enormity, an immense wounded snake, unwilling to die, but writhing in its last agonies, and in the Finale bleeding to death.”  The English were no more kind.  The critics of the Harmonicon thought it had “grotesque melody and harshly combined harmony.” In fact, it is the slow movement that seems to have been the only one to win general approval.

The story behind the Third Symphony (Eroica) is intriguing.  It is supposed to have originally been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte while he was First Consul of France, but Beethoven is said to have destroyed the title page of the score upon hearing that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor.  It was finally dedicated to Prince Maximilan Lobkowitz, one of the composer’s greatest friends.   The first performance of this politically-charged symphony took place on April 7, 1805, and critics took little time to decry it.  Dionys Weber took every possible opportunity to defame it and Anton Schindler says that it was regarded by some critics as a dangerously immoral composition, much too long and without unity.  The critic of the German journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described it as “a daring wild fantasia of inordinate length and extreme difficulty of execution….  The work seems to lose itself in utter confusion.”

As with the three previous works, the reception of the Fourth Symphony (introduced to the public in March 1807) was largely unfavorable.  One critic praised the wealth of ideas and bold originality of the work, but lamented the absence of “dignified simplicity.”  Carl Maria von Weber wrote an allegory in an extremely bitter tone in which various instruments such as the double bass and cello, complaining about the difficult of their parts, were threatened by the orchestra attendant with having to play the Eroica if they were not quiet.

The first performance of the Fifth Symphony took place on December 22, 1808, on the same program with the Sixth Symphony—strangely enough, the Fifth Symphony is called the Sixth and the Sixth is called the Fifth on the program.  Criticism of the Fifth was somewhat divided.  Jean Lesueur, a famous French composer and theorist, found it such exciting music that he felt, strangely enough, it shouldn’t even exist.  Louis Spohr, in his autobiography, found the theme of the first movement wanting in dignity, the Trio of the Scherzo too grotesque, and the last movement replete with unmeaning babble.  The members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra though the opening was intended to be humorous on account of the shortness of the theme.

Criticism of the Sixth Symphony was, like that of the Fifth, divided.  Veteran critics condemned it as too long, abounding in repetitions and not displaying the imagination to be found in other works.[2]

The first performance of the Seventh Symphony took place on December 8, 1813, at the University of Vienna at a benefit for soldiers wounded in the war waging at the time against Napoleon.   Critics of this symphony were, as was becoming the norm, somewhat divided.  In Austria, it was well received, but in Germany critics and connoisseurs were unanimously of the opinion that Beethoven must have been “intoxicated” when he wrote it.   Weber is said to have expressed the opinion that Beethoven was “now ripe for the madhouse.”

The first performance of the Eighth Symphony[3] took place on February 27, 1814.  The reviewers were largely dismissive of this work.  Berlioz speaks of it in patronizing tones.  Lenz regards it as a work in which the composer has retrograded.  And English critics sneered at it for years.

Beethoven’s final symphony, the Ninth, is a work of grand scope and deep spiritual significance for the composer.  Unlike the other 8 symphonies, this one was well-received by the critics.  The general trend can be judged from the conclusion reached in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung:  “In spite of all, we may say of Beethoven, as has been said of Handel, great even in his mistakes.”  Another critic, however, was not so magnanimous, writing:  “Beethoven is still a magician, and it has pleased him on this occasion to raise something supernatural, to which this critic does not consent.”

It is clearly a testament to the enormous vision and ambition of Beethoven that he continued to write symphonies at all—he certainly didn’t receive any encouragement from the critics to do so.  From his experience, all composers can learn something:  take criticism with a grain of salt.  The critics don’t always have the last word.

[1] It’s a V7 chord, and it resolves immediately to tonic.

[2] In an interesting side note, although Beethoven himself wrote “…it is left to the listener to discover the situations for himself,” several attempts were made to perform the symphony with scenery, and even with characters who moved about the stage.

[3] Contrary to Beethoven’s custom in regard to his larger works, the Eighth bears no dedication.

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10 thoughts on “The Critics vs. Beethoven

  1. Great post–very educational, though very well written and accesible. I had a funny synchronicity. Right before I read your post, I used this creativity program called “Whack Pack.” It gave me this random idea:

    The point was how important it is to hold to your new ideas even if other people criticize them. People don’t like change and the new often upsets their world order. To find two related topics on the web, was really satisfying. All the best.

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