Craft By Zen

📖 4 min read

🔖 newsletter   season_1   letters

Musical Discontent

Everybody gets critiqued. Great composers like Beethoven have been critiqued. In this review of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the London Symphony picked up this quote from a Rhode Island newspaper.

The whole orchestral part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony I found very wearying indeed. Several times I had great difficulty in keeping awake … . It was a great relief when the choral part was arrived at, of which I had great expectations. It opened with eight bars of a common-place theme, very much like Yankee Doodle … . As for this part of the famous Symphony, I regret to say that it appeared to be made up of the strange, the ludicrous, the abrupt, the ferocious, and the screechy, with the slightest possible admixture, here and there, of an intelligible melody. As for following the words printed in the program, it was quite out of the question, and what all the noise was about, it was hard to form any idea. The general impression it left on me is that of a concert made up of Indian warwhoops and angry wildcats.

Some phrases pop out at me here.

What amazes me is easy it was for this critic to put down the famous symphony. The descriptions paint a very bleak picture of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, painting the part the critic can recognize, the choral part, as a great relief. Yet, the adjectives used for the rest of the piece draws the critic’s point overboard.

For this critic, Beethoven’s music did not try to copy his classical contemporaries like Mozart or Haydn. Instead, Beethoven injected his character in his music, heralding the sense of individualism felt amongst the contemporary thinkers of the time. It was the time of American and French revolution. It was the time of change. It was the time of new ideas and the tearing down of the old. Part of Beethoven’s character are the strange, the ferocious and the screechy. That’s what makes a Beethoven unique. This is the critic’s failings in understanding Beethoven’s music.


Portrait of Ludwig Van

When I’ve listened to the 9th Symphony, I think it’s a masterpiece. Indian warwhoops and angry wildcats do not come to mind. The good news is, the critic’s words haven’t carried over to this century. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is still played around the world today. Negative criticism for the sake of bitching and moaning from purely subjective responses rarely get carried over as time passes.

If you though Beethoven’s criticism was bad, wait to you hear what this critic says about Anton Bruckner, a Austrian composer from the 19th century. This voiced his opinion to the public, hailing Bruckner as “the greatest living musical peril, a sort of tonal Anti-Christ.” Here’s his argument.

The violent nature of the man is not written on his face—for his expression indicates at most the small soul of the every-day Kapellmeister. Yet he composes nothing but high treason, revolution, and murder. His work is absolutely devoid of art or reason. Perhaps, some day, a devil and an angel will fight for his soul. His music has the fragrance of heavenly roses, but it is poisonous with the sulphurs of hell.

Holy christ! If you give Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 a listen, you wouldn’t think malice towards to composer who wrote this music. You’d probably shake his hand. Allowing time to pass, we see this critic for who he really is, a hater. It doesn’t matter which century you live in, these haters exist. The critic didn’t recognize the Romantic styling of that century. The sweeping melodies. The dramatic accents and motifs carried over by Beethoven. To Bruckner’s credit, he composed two more symphonies, the ninth unfinished, as well as a smaller pieces for another decade. Like Beethoven, Bruckner is still played today.

Anton Bruckner
Anton Bruckner

A picture of Anton Bruckner

As a side note, you may have already realized it. These two pieces were admired by Hitler. This was not intentional, and I would have missed this reference if it was not for Wikipedia. So, to leave this on a high note, Wikipedia says the adagio from Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 was played on the official radio announcement of the German defeat at Stalingrad on the 31st of January, 1943. Karma, I guess.

Lastly, if you want a kick of more bad criticism, I would like to refer you to a book entitled “Lexicon of Music Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time.” It gave me inspiration to write about critics and how terrible wrong they can be after reading them again a century or two later.

Written by Jeremy Wong and published on .

For the newsletter archive, check out Newsletter Series. For this specific series, check out the Newsletter: Season One .

And if you like this newsletter, consider subscribing! You will get monthly updates from me like this one.

Powered by Buttondown.