Music Translations

In the section below, the author examines the early works of Beethoven from the slightly unusual point of view of the themes of his scherzos, with thought-provoking conclusions.

G. Becking: Studien zu Beethovens Personalstil: das Scherzothema (Leipzig, 1921), S. 77-8

As was shown in the brief overview of the first chapter, the year 1800 marks a decisive point in the story of Beethoven’s scherzos. At a stroke, their most immediate competitor, the quick minuet, disappears from his sonatas. If Lenz believed that the first period ended around this time, we have every reason to agree with his division, without wishing to make any statement about the validity of his reasoning.

On the whole, Beethoven’s output in his first period makes a much more colourful impression than in later ones. Although it is easier to determine the technical improvements of the young composer than the revisions of the mature and “late” Beethoven, one cannot in the first period find evidence of continuous development in the same sense as later on. Examining the scherzo themes confirms this impression. While the movements that appear after 1800 form a clearly observable sequence, the themes of the first period follow each other in a motley array, each bears little relation to its predecessor and, instead of consistently developing the demands of the scherzo, seeks to satisfy them in a different way. Certain individual characteristics at this time point towards later periods and are handled successfully only then. Many things yield no lasting benefit and are allowed to drop.

As has often been stated, especially by H. Riemann, Beethoven arrived on the spot in Vienna with his Op.1 as a finished master. Most of the pieces that followed, in spite of the composer’s progress in individual cases, did not reach the level of the Piano Trios. Some movements, such as the Finale of Op. 13, were never once surpassed during the whole of the first period. Analysis of the scherzi also endorses this view. Even here the Theme from Op.11 stands as an exemplar for the whole period all the way to the Menuett of the 1st Symphony; the terseness and simplicity of the scherzo elements are not achieved again. Thus it is impossible to speak of development towards a peak in the themes of the first period. The impression of a colourful succession is merely enhanced.

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Cours de Composition – Vincent d’Indy

La Poème Symphonique Orchestral, pp.315-16

It is always interesting to read the opinions of one composer upon another, especially when the commentator is also a teacher. D’Indy was a pupil of César Franck who was also very self-assured, insisting, for example, on the wonders of cyclic form, just because Franck often (but not invariably) used it. In translating this very brief section from D’Indy’s composition course, I have attempted to trim some of the author’s wordiness, which reads rather as if someone had taken down an unscripted talk verbatim. I have also adapted the paragraphing.

Hector Berlioz, whatever anyone says, did not invent the symphonic poem;however, he is its uncontested reviver, the true initiator of a new orchestral form, in which formerly there were only the most rudimentary essays. Each work of this composer that is not a music drama in the full sense is in the form of a symphonic poem, that is to say, subject to an extra-musical idea. Of course, we will recognize here the natural inclination of his talent, his eminently “romantic” culture, his personal tastes; but one may wonder if this entirely sentimental explanation was not simply a pretext for another consideration: the simple fact of his ignorance of composition and form, and the belief, too common at that time and indeed since, that education in these matters was impossible and useless. 

His technical formation was, by his own admission (1)[1], very rudimentary. His biographers usually tell us that he could manage without it; it is not certain that this was his own opinion, especially as he grew older. On the contrary, we believe that he was cruelly aware of this gap in his early education, and that he was forced to let himself be guided by a “programme”, because he did not possess the slightest technique that would have permitted him to do otherwise. We have already seen Beethoven proceeding cautiously in his exact imitation of the symphonic form bequeathed by his predecessors, before continually demanding of himself some logical attempt to innovate based on experience. 

On the contrary, we see Berlioz accepting without control (or rather, for lack of control) suggestions that were often out of line with his inventive faculties; and his work was not always well served, indeed far from it, by this lack of discernment due above all to his ignorance. Also, while admiring the magnificent surges of energy that we find, we cannot consider them models for imitation, for there is always some presumption that one possesses sufficient qualities of talent to overcome deficiencies in knowledge. This illusion manifests itself, consciously or not, in most imitators of Berlioz.

In fact, Berlioz formed a “school,” and that is precisely why he had reason to wonder if this “rebirth of the symphonic poem,” which is in large part due to him, was an advantage for those destined towards music? Despite all contradictory opinions which have been formulated, one would do well to recognize today that the influence of Berlioz on symphonic music was far more rapid and profound than that of Wagner on music drama. One cannot help thinking that the law of “minimum effort” applied in the matter of composition, and perhaps despite himself, the composer of Symphonie Fantastique had been responsible for the reckless confidence shown by a whole generation of composers of symphonic poems.

[1] Adrien Barthe, who was professor of harmony at the Conservatoire t the timer of Amboise Thomas, told his students that, in his youth (c. 1850) he went regularly to Berlioz to “work” with him. The work consisted of listening to tunes which Berlioz sang or whistled and write them for him, and choose harmonies which sited them best, to then realize them correctly all things that the author of Damnation of Faust knew himself to be incapable of; it suited him also with the most touching simplicity. A.S. [Auguste Sérieyx, editor of the volume, 1901-1902.]