Beethoven had been born a woman?
by Jefferey Cox
I seem to recall having to write an essay for a music examination on the subject ‘What if Bach had never been born? How might this have changed the course of music?’ I can’t remember what I wrote, but the question – which really boils down to ‘What do we owe to Bach?’ and, by analogy, to other composers through the ages, is a good one and one which merits a serious answer. How are we indebted to individual composers, and can we draw any over-arching conclusions?
There are of course a whole range of technical and stylistic ideas which have been introduced by composers, and they in turn may have been responding to the introduction of new instruments or the demands of changing audiences which required more capable and more powerful instruments. And how many times have we heard of virtuosi claiming a piece was unplayable when the next generation of conservatoire students could toss it off in their final year!
Technical considerations are complex, and you have the contrast of a violin – which has arguably never been improved upon since the days of Stradivarius, and bassoon – which has most definitely developed by leaps and bounds since Almenraeder and Heckel got to grips with it in the mid-19th century! You might also consider whether the oboe’s evolution from oboe da caccia through to the modern oboe is an improvement or not: to my mind the former produces one of the most gorgeous sounds on the planet!
These technical considerations are important, but, to my mind, by the by. They even distract from the core issues. The subversiveness of the ‘What if’ question lies in the implication that the natural essence of music is to develop linearly, whereas its true nature is circular... and with many back-doubles! If you doubt this, just think of Bach and how music of all periods since his day has drawn on his ideas. That perennial claim to academic respectability – the fugue – used by almost every composer up to the present, was nowhere better demonstrated than by Bach, who endowed it with then undreamt of possibilities, and paved the way for the likes of Jacques L’Houssier, the Swingle Singers, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and many others who also recognised that the 4 in a bar steady pulse so beloved by Bach adapts with minimal change to the demands of modern jazz. Or take a Haydn symphony: once considered fuddy-duddy, Haydn is the current darling of the discerning concert-going public as listeners become aware of the humour, artistic subtlety and sheer craftsmanship in his work. So what if we were suddenly deprived of Haydn’s London symphonies, the Creation, or indeed the string quartet (which he is credited with having ‘invented’) as a medium? What goes around comes around, and each successive generation is the beneficiary.
To illustrate my point from another perspective, I can think of no better example than Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s life as a composer consisted in jumping forwards and backwards, drawing on the best of different generations of musicians. The Rite of Spring was, in the words of Neil Armstrong, ‘a small step for a man but a huge step for mankind’, and was a seismic event in music. Stravinsky went on to experiment with the twelve-tone system of composing developed by his contemporary, Schoenberg, while often reverting to 18th century and 19th century models. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos provided the model for Stravinsky’s ‘Dumbarton Oaks’, and the classical symphony of Haydn and Mozart for his own Symphony in C and Symphony in Three Movements. Stravinsky was nothing if not eclectic, and his willingness to experiment paralleled that of Picasso. Both had the sense that their art had reached a point where continuing in the same vein could not be done without a feeling of déjà vu and resorting to pastiche. Stravinsky had no compunction about the latter, but he did so while creating what has been a rich legacy for others to draw on. Curiously, perhaps, Stravinsky’s own work has not worn well and he is currently out of fashion.
Reverting to the question of Beethoven’s contribution, there are those who would argue that when it comes to expressing what it means to be human, no other composer has been his match, and he is quite simply the Shakespeare of composers. If you go along with that, it goes without saying that his late piano sonatas and string quartets, his one opera (Fidelio), the 9th Symphony and Missa Solemnis will be amongst the key points of reference in all of music. Perhaps they are, but even these cannot encompass the entirety of what music is about. The function of most music is more mundane. Most of us will want music to reflect and reinforce our moods; to relax with; to cheer us up when we feel down; to distract us from pedestrian tasks; to provide rhythm when we’re jogging, or whatever. By satisfying these functions, music is fulfilling what I would call its circular task. This is not to say that the music itself is inferior – after all, Bach’s cantatas were written to order or to satisfy the specific requirements of the church calendar (so music of a high order written to satisfy a routine obligation); and nearly all 17th and 18th century operas were composed to satisfy the demands for entertainment by the courts of the day (this includes virtually all of Mozart’s operas, which continue to set the gold standard even today).
If you are looking for a current example of circularity and linearity in music, look no further than the pop music scene. The weekly charts are no more nor less than a measure of circularity (the frequency with which given tunes are played again and again), while jumping back to iconic bands serves as a measure of how tastes have evolved over time – a linear measure. The fact that one generation can enjoy the music of another has a strong bonding influence, and it is particularly remarkable that in the context of classical music, such a bond can stretch over centuries and embrace an astonishing diversity of styles.
So what if Beethoven had been born a woman? Is it possible to imagine what a difference it would have made? A social historian would no doubt have plenty to say about the position of women in those days and how the ability to sing or play an instrument was a valued accomplishment amongst ladies at court. But being a professional musician was a very different thing, and although Beethoven was amongst the first composers to begin to free themselves from court patronage and ‘go freelance’, even he – as a tough and abrasive old man – found the going very difficult.
‘Mrs’ Beethoven would probably not have known where to start. That said, I see no reason why ‘she’ shouldn’t have shared many of Beethoven’s views and written similar music. Whether it would have been performed is another matter. I rather suspect it might have shared the fate of Bach’s music and lain undiscovered until its own 19th century Mendelssohn came along and brought it back into the light. This would at least have meant that all those composers who felt inhibited by Beethoven’s shadow (Brahms amongst them!) would have been freed from their worries. Perhaps it would have been Brahms who wrote nine symphonies and Mrs Beethoven who only made it to four!
This article first appeared in Double Reed News, and is reproduced with the kind permission of its Editor
Jefferey Cox is a bassoon enthusiast who was elected to the committee of the British Double Reed Society in 1998 (he was its Secretary from 2005 - 2008). He is a regular contributor to Double Reed News, signing himself "Bassonicus" and has also had articles on musical topics published in Germany and France. He founded the Prinzregenten Ensemble in Munich in 1996, and since returning to Britain has been Principal Bassoon of the Kingston Philharmonia and a regular performer with the Surrey Mozart Players. He has played at functions in the chapel of the Tower of London on several occasions and lived to tell the tale!