Was Beethoven any Good at Choral Music?

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Just doesn't look like a singer, does he?Just doesn't look like a singer, does he?I had an email earlier this week from an erstwhile student who is now doing a masters degree in musicology. He’s contemplating doing a study on (I quote) ‘the poor quality of Beethoven’s choral writing’ as something that seems under-discussed in the literature. He was asking for recommendations on literature that would articulate a consensus of what constitutes good choral writing against which to measure Beethoven’s work. My first instinct was to reply grumpily that I wasn’t going to do his bibliographical work for him, since the identification and evaluation of sources is a pretty major part of a musicology student’s job description. I was always mean like that when I was teaching musicology, and old habits die hard (but I’d probably also suggest having a furtle around on Choralnet.)

My second instinct, though, was to question his premise. (And if he’s still like I remember him, I think he’ll enjoy this more than a list of books.)

The idea that Beethoven’s choral writing is poor is one of those memes that floats around in general musical culture, kind of as a truism, but not really discussed. I think I first heard it from my Mum, who added the embellishment that the punishing soprano lines were a result of Beethoven’s misogyny. (Now, Beethoven’s relationship to women was hardly unproblematic, but I’m not convinced it’s actually germane to this aspect of his compositional craft.)

I don’t think that anyone is claiming that choral works like the 9th Symphony and the Missa Solemnis are poor compositions. Huge, unwieldy, baffling, maybe – but astonishing artistic achievements nonetheless. And, like all musicologists, my scholarly judgements are rooted in personal musical experiences, and performing the Choral Symphony from memory as a postgrad stands out for me as one of my most transcendent experiences as a choral singer. So I’m starting from a position of ‘why does everyone diss B’s choral writing?’ rather than ‘everyone knows B’s choral writing is grotty’.

Of course, Beethoven’s music – especially the later works – is tough. The movements are long and musically complex. You have to invest a lot of attention in it to find your way round it. Not stuff conducive to sight-singing (perhaps this gives a first clue why British choral musicians don’t take to it so much). And they’re vocally tough too – pushing into the extremes of range and volume. It takes stamina and strength to sustain the lines, and it needs a full-on physical as well as emotional engagement to be performable at all.

So, you could look at this from a bel canto perspective and say that Beethoven just didn’t understand singers. If you’re used to getting the voice into a certain poise and pouring out roulades and twiddles apparently without effort, you may think this stuff is unsingerly.

But I don’t think you can make sense of late Beethoven without taking the aesthetic of the sublime into account. This is the aesthetic that brought us the appreciation of the grandeur of the Alps (or the Peak District for the English folk who couldn’t get over to Switzerland), that brought us paintings of stormy seas, that brought us Walter Scott. It values the wild, the overwhelming, the violent, the untamed in explicit contrast to the cultured, the graceful, the poised, the beautiful. Much of late Beethoven makes an explicit commitment to either the beautiful or the sublime (the 3rd movement of the 9th Symphony is quintessentially beautiful, for instance), but you tend to find the sublime as the over-arching commitment, with the beautiful passages giving relief from it, but also contained by it. By definition, the sublime couldn’t be the subservient aesthetic.

So the music is supposed to be difficult. It is supposed to overwhelm. If it were easy to sing, it wouldn’t be sublime.

People who claim Beethoven’s choral writing is poor could thus simply be missing the point. But they may also be saying it as a kind of defence mechanism. There has been so much sycophantic guff written about the towering genius of Beethoven’s work that it can be quite hard just to meet it as music, rather than the Spiritual Symbol of our Shared Humanity ™. The ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ response can also be an effective antidote to bullshit.

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