Let’s be honest, many of us in the arts yearn for the approval of critics, even if we claim that we don’t care what our audience thinks. Most modern-day art shows, theater productions, music performances, and soloist debuts aim to get good reviews by word of mouth and reviewers. This is not necessarily to say that critiquing is a negative practice; in fact, it serves, just as the public media does, to inform and make commentary. Much of the time, regular concertgoers disagree quite strongly with music analysts, just as audiences sometimes go see movies that score low points with professional evaluation. Pertaining to classical music, historically, a lot of critics have been quite harsh, close-minded, and severe with their judgements on pieces that are well-loved today. Although, I should add that many musicians and composers in the past have completely disregarded the naive word of their reviewers and defiantly continued their cherishable work.
The honorable Ludwig Van Beethoven was notorious for his contempt for critics and their relentless attacks on his music. Gottfried Weber, a prominent music writer, once wrote of Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory” march, “Should not everyone … the more fervently wish that oblivion might very soon draw an expiatory veil on such an aberration of his muse, through which he has desecrated the glorified object, Art, and himself.” To paraphrase, he was outright saying that Beethoven was a disgrace to the art form and he should disappear from the music scene. Beethoven responded most elegantly by writing a crude insult to Weber that I shall not repeat here.
This was not the first ridiculous criticism that the composer had received. Truly, there were many who believed that his pieces were, no pun intended, not “music to one’s ears.” I’m almost certain that most people reading this column know his Symphony No. 9, recorded by the San Francisco Symphony, especially since it includes the “Ode To Joy.” Also, it should be noted that Beethoven was completely deaf by the time he wrote this magnificent landmark work. It is hardly necessary to say that the ninth symphony, which modern audiences flock to hear, is a timeless masterpiece! However, a great number of 1800s critics thought otherwise, and their opinions are mind-blowing to a musician like me. Be alerted that in the next few lines, you will hear my indignant commentary as I act as a critic of the critics to counter their questionable claims.
An 1853 outstanding review by the Daily Atlas in Boston quotes as follows: “If the best critics and orchestras have failed to find the meaning of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, we may well be pardoned if we confess our inability to find any … We can sincerely say that rather than study this last work for beauties which do not exist, we had far rather hear the others where beauties are plain.” Isn’t it fascinating how minds of a different era interpret forward-thinking music? Especially observing the last line, it can be inferred that these critics are dull people who are not willing to put in any work to try and interpret the beauty of the ninth symphony. It’s actually shocking that these reviewers are so shortsighted that they are unable to dig deeper into the music and find the extraordinary wonder that we current-day listeners hear. This really goes to show how far ahead of his time Beethoven was, for even thirty years after it was written, people met it with resistance and narrow-mindedness.
I won’t go on about the genius of Beethoven because it would take at least three columns for me to express his greatness in its entirety. Instead, I’d like to close with a parting note to critics of all eras: just because you don’t understand a piece of art or you don’t wish to explore its potential does not mean that it is not powerful and lasting. The same approach can be applied in everyday life, for you will discover, just as I have, that having an open mind is fulfilling, and such a blessing.