Beethoven Begat Jacob and Esau

Wagner and Brahms, that is.

“In German-speaking lands, the dispute polarized around Brahms and Wagner and around the dichotomies between absolute and program music, between tradition and innovation, and between classical genres and forms and news ones. What is clear in retrospect is that partisans on both sides shared the common goals of linking themselves to Beethoven, appealing to audiences familiar with the classical masterworks, and securing a place for their own music in the increasingly crowded permanent repertoire. All such music became known as classical music because it was written for similar performing forces as works represented in the classical repertoire and was intended to be performed alongside them.” (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, A History of Western Music)

Fascinating that Brahms looks at Beethoven and sees pure, “absolute” music, music for its own sake. Wagner looks at Beethoven and sees drama, Gesamtkunstwerk, music (as Tom Wolfe might say) with a text at its center. Ralph Vaughan Williams expresses that whole period’s expectancy for a new Beethoven to unite the two schools here.

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Vaughan Williams’ Music History

Ralph Vaughan Williams in “The Romantic Movement and Its Results” (written in response to Brahms’ death) sketches music from 1750 to 1900 in terms of “classical” and “romantic”. These were not, for him, mutually exclusive in the chronological sense, only in the stylistic sense. In other words, he could easily make the case that Schubert was romantic and Beethoven was classical, although they were contemporaries or that Brahms was classical while Wagner was romantic, again, even though they were contemporaries.

Vaughan Williams defines his terms pretty neatly. “Beethoven was a classical composer—this does not mean that he was not imaginative, but it does mean that he was a musician and nothing else—that the emotional gem of his music was simply a musical pattern in his mind, which was translated into an analogous musical pattern on paper. With Beethoven, then, abstract form and emotional expression were inseparable, because they both sprang from the same source,” (Vaughan Williams on Music, 14).

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