Text: Jeffrey Arlo Brown, VAN Magazine
History is written by the victors. It’s also very unkind to critics who badmouthed then-aspiring, now-legendary artists. As a genuinely visionary and often mystifying composer, Beethoven had many such reviews. But even if these critics were wrong, their writing was often colorful, highly entertaining, and as strange or problematic as the music that they so wittily annihilated. Here are the eight best worst reviews of Beethoven, many originally published without comment in Nicolas Slominsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time.
Concert Review in the Tablettes de Polymnie, 1810
Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque, takes at times the majestic flight of an eagle, and then creeps in rock pathways. He first fills the soul with sweet melancholy, and then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords. He seems to harbor together doves and crocodiles.
This is meant as a bad review, but honestly? All this talk of eagles, doves, and crocodiles just makes the compositions sound like a really badass zoo. If this French critic was hoping to turn the reader off to Beethoven’s music, he has a strange way of doing it.
Concert Review of the “Missa Solemnis” in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 1824
…until finally the full choir breaks out into the frightfully hideous miserere nobis plea. What the composer actually intended with this phrase is hard to decipher. It is equally difficult to find a reason why the instrumental movement that comes later—a fugue-style presto in 2/4—was inserted here, where all vocal parts are silent, and comes back into force as the final element of the entire piece just as the dona is recapitulated. To have everything be a little more concise and less fragmented would be too much to hope for.
With pretension toward musical specificity, and the pedantic composition teacher’s favorite comment (“What is the justification for this?”), this critic in the must-read music journal of its day obscures the emotional impact of this movement—and quite possibly the fact that he has no idea what he’s talking about—in a hail of musical terms.
Concert Review in The Harmonicon, 1825
[The Seventh Symphony] is a composition in which the author has indulged a great deal of disagreeable eccentricity. Often as we now have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts. Altogether, it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma—we had almost said a hoax.
There are Beethoven pieces that lack design (“Choral Fantasy” Op. 80, cough cough). But to make that accusation about the Seventh Symphony, one of the most exquisitely-structured orchestral pieces ever written? Besides, the last sentence hardly makes sense: Enigma is an excellent condition for art to aspire to, and very different from a hoax.
Gottfried Weber on “Wellington’s Victory” Op. 91, in Caecilia, 1825
Would not anyone, the more precious Beethoven and his art are to them, be inclined to wish all the more fervently that oblivion may soon cast a conciliatory veil over the confusion of his muse, through which he desecrates the celebrated subject, the art itself, and himself?
OK, the critic was actually right about this one. (Beethoven responded to him, “My shits are better than your thoughts!”)
Ludwig Louis Spohr, Lebenserinnerungen, Volume One (1847-1858)
His constant endeavor to be original and to open new paths could no longer, as formerly, be preserved from error by the guidance of the ear. Was it then to be wondered at that his works became more and more eccentric, unconnected, and incomprehensible? It is true there are people who imagine they can understand them, and in their pleasure at that, rank them far above his earlier masterpieces. But I am not of the number, and freely confess that. I have never been able to relish the last works of Beethoven. Yes! I must even reckon the much admired Ninth Symphony among them, the three first themes of which, in spite of some solitary flashes of genius, are to me worse than all of the eight previous Symphonies, the fourth theme of which is in my opinion so monstrous and tasteless, and in its grasp of Schiller’s Ode so trivial, that I cannot even now understand how a genius like Beethoven’s could have written it. I find in it another proof of what I already remarked in Vienna, that Beethoven was wanting in esthetical feeling and in a sense of the beautiful.
It’s a bit rich that Ludwig Louis Spohr, composer of some the most profoundly forgettable works in the classical literature—and the bane of 14-year–old clarinetists everywhere—decided to take on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in his memoirs. Published from a safe distance (30 years after the master’s death), this passage shows that misjudging contemporaries isn’t the territory of music critics alone.
Heinrich Heine, Concert Review in Lutetia, 1841
Beethoven in particular drives spiritualist art to that resounding agony of the phenomenal world, to that destruction of nature that fills me with a terror I cannot conceal, although my friends are dumbfounded by it. For me, it is highly significant that Beethoven became deaf towards the end of his life, so that even the invisible world of musical notes no longer had a sounding reality for him. His notes were only memories of notes, ghosts of lost sounds, and his final productions bear an eerie monument to the dead on their foreheads.
For the poet Heinrich Heine, the compositions of Franz Liszt and Beethoven were two sides of the same coin: Anticipating the new concert season in Paris, he worried that audiences “would nearly drown in the loud music.” Here, he appears to be dismissing Beethoven’s entire oeuvre. But try reading some of Heine’s own rhymes without being “filled with horror”: “Das Glück ist eine leichte Dirne, / Und weilt nicht gern am selben Ort; / Sie streicht das Haar dir von der Stirne / Und küßt dich rasch und flattert fort.”
Philip Hale, Concert Review in Musical Record, 1899
We heard lately in Boston the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. The performance was technically most admirable … But is not worship paid this Symphony mere fetishism? Is not the famous Scherzo insufferably long-winded? The Finale … is to me for the most part dull and ugly … [o]h, the pages of stupid and hopelessly vulgar music! The unspeakable cheapness of the chief tune, ‘Freude, Freude!’ Do you believe way down in the bottom of your heart that if this music had been written by Mr. John L. Tarbox, now living in Sandown, N.H., any conductor here or in Europe could be persuaded to put it in rehearsal?
This review puts the finest essence of Boston’s musical provincialism on display. And yet it is still hilarious, because of the burn at the end which manages to rip both Beethoven and—almost certainly the priority—New Hampshire. Classic Masshole behavior on the cusp of the 20th century.
John Cage, Defense of Satie, 1970
With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie … they were defined by means of time-lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that we must now ask: Was Beethoven right or … Satie? I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.
Even for a born provocateur like John Cage, the idea that Beethoven was focused structurally on harmony to the detriment of time-lengths is a bit much. Perhaps the futurist interplay of sound and silence in the introduction to the Große Fugue Op. 133 was just a bit too Cageian for Cage’s comfort.
Text: Jeffrey Arlo Brown, VAN Magazine