Sunday, August 21, 2011

Book Review: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by Heinrich Schenker

I bought this translation when it first came out back in 1992, so I've been through it before. After all these years, though, I had only vague recollections of it - almost all I remembered was being disappointed that there were not more insights into Beethoven's compositional practice - so I decided to give it another shot.

What I appreciate now that went right over my head before is that Schenker was responding to several egregious liberties taken with the Ninth by musicians who did not understand it, most notably the execrable Richard Wagner.

More than just a simple failure to understand the text of the score, what Wagner and those in his camp believed was that Beethoven's deafness made his orchestrations faulty. Schenker provided history with a much needed remedy to these wrong-headed ideas that goes beyond being merely a palliative: He actually cures the disease of thinking Beethoven's inner-ear was not up to the task of orchestrating in a very powerful and dispositive way.

About that powerful style: I also remembered being turned off by Schenker's mode of writing here, which is harshly polemical. Evidently, this is, if anything, more so with the original German - You could fill an ocean with the exclamation points in this book.

Now I understand why Schenker was so insensed [Dictionary says that's not a word - Ed.] (Yeah, but I use it all the time anyway - Huc.): He was trying to rescue this transcendent masterpiece from the ignorant hoi polloi who were desecrating it. For that, then, we owe Schenker a huge debt of gratitude. We take for granted now that these issues have been settled, but it was not always so. As late as 1912, when Schenker wrote the original of this book, many misconceptions about the Ninth still persisted.

If you want to get any "Shenkerian Analysis" insights from this, you can forget it: 1912 was before Schenker came up with those - IMO dubious at best - theories. Also being from 1912, the harmonic analysis is quite primitive, but useful enough as a guide that I intend to build on it next time through. Yes, I feel the need to go through this again, but next time with a full score (The only score of the Ninth I have is the Liszt piano transcription, which is great for analyzing the harmony, but impossible for the orchestration, obviously).

Not for the faint of heart then, but highly valuable from a historical perspective at least, and there are some cool compositional insights, they are just few and far between.


Blogger Minicapt said...

in·cense2    [in-sens]
verb (used with object), -censed, -cens·ing.
to inflame with wrath; make angry; enrage.
1400–50; late Middle English incensen < Latin incēnsus ( see incense1 ); replacing Middle English encensen < Anglo-French < Latin, as above


10:48 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Ah ha! A spelling error. Weird, as I discounted that possibility: Incense is stuff that smells good when you burn it. lol.

7:54 PM  

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