Beethoven And His Nine Symphonies

3D front cover of Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies by George GroveSir George Grove (1820–1900) says, in his preface to Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies, that the work ‘is addressed to the amateurs of this country’. Well, you don’t get much more amateur in music than me, so I thought I would give it a go.

George Grove, a fishmonger’s son from Clapham, started his career at sixteen, as an apprentice to a railway engineer. After graduating from the Institute of Civil Engineering in 1839, he was involved with the building of lighthouses in Jamaica and Bermuda, then joined Robert Stephenson’s team and was involved in the building of the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Strait.

However, music and its history had always been his great passion. In 1850 he made a major career change by taking on the position of secretary to the committee responsible for organising the Great Exhibition, and he went on to act as secretary of the Crystal Palace when it moved to Sydenham. Here his enthusiasm for music came into its own, and he organised a wind band for concerts, which later, under August Manns, became a symphony orchestra, for which Grove and Manns compiled popular programmes for the ‘Saturday Concerts’ and for which Grove himself wrote the programme notes.

He also wrote in other areas, characteristically absorbing himself in research until he had mastered his subject to his own satisfaction. After helping Dean Stanley with the writing of Sinai and Palestine, he became assistant editor to the very influential Bible Dictionary of William Smith, for which he paid two visits to the Holy Land: he later became honorary secretary to the Palestine Exploration Fund. (He also visited Vienna, in the company of Sir Arthur Sullivan, and while there located the score of Schubert’s music for the drama Rosamunde, which had been thought lost: it was played for the first time in Britain at the Crystal Palace.)

In the tussle between his various interests, writing won, and in 1873 Grove resigned as secretary to the Crystal Palace (though he kept his part in the concerts) and became an editor for Macmillan. The following year, the role which would combine all his various interests and talents was offered to him: the editorship of a dictionary (originally planned to be in two volumes) of music and musicians. And the rest, as they say, was musicological history. (There cannot be many works referred to and recognised worldwide by the name of their author, in the way that ‘Grove’ or ‘the New Grove’ are.)

While the five volumes of the dictionary appeared between 1879 and 1889, Grove was also heavily involved in campaigning and fund-raising for the new Royal College of Music, of which he was appointed first Principal when it opened in 1883, the same year in which he was knighted. His staff in the college included Stanford and Parry, and by the time he retired in 1894 it had (after some rocky patches) developed a reputation for excellence which it has never since lost.

The Beethoven book was published in 1896. Grove urges study of the editions of the scores published in Beethoven’s lifetime: ‘whatever their faults, they come nearer his wishes than subsequent editions’.  (He also argues for the publication of photographed facsimiles of the autograph scores, which had recently become technically possible.) Each symphony is analysed  (with frequent music examples), and placed in its musical context, with comparisons with earlier and later works. But passages of technical hard going (for this ‘amateur’ at any rate) are balanced by descriptions of first performances and reception, and other biographical information. The ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ is translated at the end of the chapter on the Second Symphony, for example, and Grove gives an account of the controversial dedication of the ‘Eroica’ to Napoleon at the beginning of his analysis of the piece.

There are also some wonderful anecdotes. Wagner was conducting a court concert at Dresden in 1848, and could feel the audience’s lack of enthusiasm. ‘Keep going’, whispered the leader of the orchestra, ‘the C minor [Beethoven’s Fifth] is coming and all will be right.’ And it was. Weber said that the Vivace of the Seventh Symphony demonstrated Beethoven’s fitness for the mad-house. And Louis Spohr said of the finale of the Ninth Symphony that it was monstrous, tasteless and trivial, so that ‘he cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven can have put in on paper’. As Grove remarks,  ‘Such mistakes are even the ablest, best instructed, and most genial critics open to!’

Over the next few evenings, I must work my way through the symphonies, trying to keep up with the commentary and fitting the music examples to the sound (my sight-reading being the most amateur part of all my musical amateurism). Thanks goodness for the pause button on the DVD player! But I take comfort from the fact that when Grove addressed his work to ‘amateurs’, he meant it in a positive, not a negative, way.


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1 Response to Beethoven And His Nine Symphonies

  1. Stephen Barber says:

    I don’t know Grove’s famous book – I was brought up on Tovey’s essays on Beethoven’s symphonies. They are easy to enjoy for even the greatest amateur because of the variety and interest of the themes, the wonderful, unexpected, yet inevitable ways Beethoven handles them and above all for the immense emotional power of the music, which first becomes evident in the Eroica. That, after all, is what has made them classics, which term itself simply means that they have established an enduring appeal to generations of people.

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