31 January 2015

Beethoven's Backers

An email from a colleague asking for money is nothing out of the ordinary; not, I hasten to add, that musicians are in the habit of sending begging emails to each other.  Such emails are generally the consequence of our spending so much of our lives travelling to far-flung corners of the globe.  We are obliged to make use of open Wi-Fi channels in hotels and, when we baulk at the exorbitant charges so many hotels levy on Wi-Fi connections, even less secure internet cafés, so are particularly prone to having our email accounts hacked.  Thus it is that I frequently receive fake emails using colleagues’ accounts asking for urgent financial assistance.  The first of these I received came from my good friend and examiner colleague James Griffiths, and it offered a most plausible – and pitiable - story about how he had lost all his money in the Philippines and needed immediate cash aid to help him out of a tricky situation.  As it was, I knew full well that no exams were being held in the Philippines at the time and that it was the last place on earth James would have visited for any other reason, utterly content, as he always is, to luxuriate in the soaring summits of Snowdonia and the murmuring mysticism of Ynys Môn.  When a whole host of identical emails started arriving from different colleagues in different parts of the world, the cat was properly out of the bag, and now they merely bring on a welcome bout of risibility.  However, this latest email appeal for me to dig into my empty pockets is a genuine request for me (and the many other recipients of the same email) to give our support to a musical organisation of which my colleague has recently been appointed Chairman; the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe.

I heartily approve of societies which devote their energies to promoting the music of a particular composer.  When I was the piano playing part of a duo alongside a fine bass singer by the name of Ian Dollins, we explored the riches of Peter Warlock’s songs to the extent that we began to think he was one of the true wonders of British music, and for my part I took an active, if ultimately short-lived, interest in the work of the Peter Warlock Society.  An unforgettable encounter with the gargantuan “Gothic” Symphony fired me with the enthusiasm to support the Havergal Brian Society, while after I made a commercial recording of York Bowen’s organ Fantasia someone from the York Bowen Society suggested I might to join that.  At various times I have been a member of societies (now mostly defunct) devoted to the music, among others, E J Moeran and Sigfrid Karg-Elert.  The thing they all have in common is devotion to the music of a composer they feel has been unjustly neglected by the musical world at large. 

But Beethoven?  And, more particularly, Beethoven’s piano music?  This is hardly neglected territory.

With the possible exception of Mozart, is any other composer in the history of music so well known even by those who never listen to music?  Ask anyone in any street if they know who Beethoven was and, apart from those sad souls whose horizons are limited by movie channels on TV (who will associated Beethoven with a dog) you will find nearly everyone has heard of him and most will even be able to quote a piece of his music; I would think that the opening four notes of the Fifth Symphony are more universally known than any other non-visual, man-made object.  And as for his piano music, while modern scholarship may have adjusted our ideas now to talk of his six piano concertos and 35 piano sonatas, few bits of piano music are better known than the “Moonlight” Sonata or “Für Elise”, and comparing the exhaustive list of his piano works in Grove with recordings easily available free-of-charge online, you will find that there is no significant area of Beethoven’s piano output which needs any further promotion; let alone by a society specifically created for such a purpose.

Of course composer-centric societies often do more than promote overlooked composers.  Some years ago I had a highly entertaining coffee morning with two devoted ladies who ran a Chopin Society.  They agreed that Chopin’s music needed no promotion amongst today’s generation of pianists; rather they saw the function of that society was more to encourage pianists to play Chopin better.  With a whole generation of hammerers and crashers (as they saw it) taking on Chopin in some kind of gladiatorial contest, promoting subtle, delicate and sensitive performances of their hero’s music was, as they saw it, the prime purpose of their society.  I’m not, sure, however, that with the likes of Alfred Brendel, Paul Lewis and Richard Goode out there striding through Beethoven’s oeuvre with magisterial authority, we need a Society to do more.

Perhaps there is a place for a society which encourages its members to look behind the usual perceptions of well-known composers and try and assess their place in musical history without the bias of accepted fact.  Why is it that we all seem to accept as an unquestionable truth the so-called Classical Canon; that list of composers (all, of course, German) drawn up by a coterie of 19th century German critics who proclaimed them the “great” figures in music?  It irks me that so many people blandly describe Bach as a “great” composer, but when asked to justify this claim, resort to mentioning the St. Matthew Passion and, at a stretch, the “Brandenburg” Concertos.  In many ways these are a-typical of Bach’s output; which would seem to imply that in the bulk of his “typical” music Bach did not achieve greatness.  As an organist I am intimately acquainted with Bach’s manifest weaknesses;  that grotesque glutinous glob of Grave G major which forms the turgid core of the Pièce d’Orgue (BWV572),  that pointless note-spinning in F major of the BWV540 Toccata (which Bach then compounds by regurgitating in C), and, most obviously, that tiresome and silly Prelude and Fugue in D (BWV532), which would never have got a second glance if it was by anyone other than a composer some 19th century Herr Doktor decided in a fit of nationalist fervour to tell the world was “great”.  But what shortcomings there are in the piano music of Beethoven have been amply explained and justified by a whole host of compellingly articulate scholars (not least among them being Barry Cooper) and we do not need to form a society to put it to the world that Beethoven was a flawed genius.

So, with apologies to my colleague, I do not feel moved to hand over my hard-won shilling (or euro) to the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe.  But there will be many who disagree with me - not all of them current members of the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe – and for them I would be failing in my duty if I did not point them in the direction of the Society’s website (http://bpse.org) where they will find, among a lot of other things, details of their exceedingly modest subscription rates.


  1. Hello Marc. I have to admit that reading your mention of Ian Dollins brought many fond memories flooding back. You will be aware that 2015 marks the fortieth anniversary of Ian’s wedding at which I was best man and you were his organist. Am I correct in remembering that you included a brief adaptation of Peter Warlock’s “Maltworms” at that service – or am I confusing it with some other solemn occasion? Do let me know.

    Stuart Nettleship

    1. Stuart - You do yourself a disservice. You were not only best man but also composed the bridal introit - a fine piece which worked remarkably well on a less than magnificent Gloucestershire village organ. And while Maltworms was there, I am remiss in not acknowledging that it was you who first put me on to it. Marc