Moonlighting: Beethoven and Literary Modernism, by Nathan Waddell

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Review by Rob Spence

moonlighting nathan waddell

When the newly-elected Brexit party MEPs took their place at the European Parliament in June, they used the opening ceremony as a stunt, turning their backs during the playing of the European Union anthem. That anthem is, as everybody knows, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, by common account a life-affirming, soul-stirring setting of Schiller’s poem. It is a work that has deep resonance, and one that has been used repeatedly as a symbol of hope and progress. So one can quite understand why the members of Mr Farage’s faction are so against it.

The protest derived much of its impact from the status of Beethoven in our culture. Since his death in 1827, the figure of Beethoven has become a colossal one, not just in the musical arena, but across the whole of western culture. It is this status, and its interaction with the literature of the early twentieth century that Nathan Waddell examines in this exhilarating and original book.

Waddell’s premise is a fascinating one: he is not concerned here with structural correspondences between Beethoven’s music and modernist literature, but rather with the ways in which modernist writers have used the idea of Beethoven and his music as a cultural construct in their work, showing how the composer’s afterlives offered material and inspiration for their writing. Waddell explores how the “legend” of Beethoven developed through successive generations, how that fed into the cultural sensibilities of the modernist era, and therefore into the narratives of writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Wyndham Lewis and others. He shows how Beethoven’s “musico-historical massiveness” permeates much of the literary discourse of the period. In particular, he highlights two moments:  the 1902 Vienna Secession exhibition, dedicated to and focused on the composer, at which Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze was unveiled, alongside Max Klinger’s enormous monument of Beethoven; and the 1927 worldwide commemoration of the centenary of Beethoven’s death, during which his status as the ultimate figure of Romantic artistic endeavour. It is no coincidence that those two dates, a quarter of a century apart, pretty much encapsulate the era of high modernism.

Such is Beethoven’s status in the cultural discourse of the period that even passing references to him carry lots of cultural baggage, signifying a whole range of pre-existing assumptions, derived from decades of accumulated allusions in both highbrow and popular culture. Waddell is particularly adept at teasing out the intricacies of Beethovenian reference in the texts that he presents. His analysis of the ways in Forster uses Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Howards End is a masterpiece of intelligent close reading, carefully navigating through a complex, multi-faceted and allusive text to show the influence of the common perception of Beethoven on the narrator.

It is not just the giants of modernist literature such as Forster who are considered here. Indeed, one of the features of the book is its range of reference: we encounter E.F. Benson, Edith Nesbit, Jerome K. Jerome,  Rebecca West and Rose Macaulay alongside figures such as Joyce, Eliot, Pound and Huxley. Waddell also acknowledges, quite properly, the work of other critics, and adeptly utilises their insights in developing his own critique. This is a key feature of the book: Waddell, one of the brightest of our younger literary critics, displays prodigious learning across a range of disciplines here, but manages never to allow the book to become a tedious parade of textual exegesis. Instead the reader is presented with a series of startling insights, backed up by extensive references, that together form a coherent and entertaining argument, showing decisively how the notion of Beethoven influenced the writers of the early twentieth century.

What, then, of the title? “Moonlighting” refers, of course, to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, “Quasi una fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 2, a work that has taken on a almost mythic status in the musical canon.  As Waddell points out, the “Moonlight” nickname has no historical authority, and no relation to Beethoven’s intentions: its original use is attributed to the critic Ludwig Rellstab, who felt that the first movement evoked moonlight on Lake Lucerne. The sentimental picture thus suggested has since become a lens through which the work has been seen by the public, even though, as one Edwardian writer noted, there was no more moonlight in it than there was sunlight in Sunlight soap. The cultural legacy of the sonata provides Waddell with a fascinating case study, and shows very clearly how the Beethovenian myth was propagated, not just in modernist works, but in such obscurities as Johan Nordling’s 1912 novel The Moonlight Sonata in which a titanic Beethoven battles through Sturm und Drang to fulfil his creative destiny.

Ultimately, what strikes the reader most about this book is the originality of its concept and the elegance of its execution. Make no mistake: this is an intensely academic book, replete with footnotes and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary material. But the author writes with admirable clarity, allowing even a reader with only rudimentary musical knowledge (like me) to appreciate the nuances of his arguments, and to discover a rich seam of cultural history. The book defies categorisation, really: part literary criticism, part musicology, part cultural history. What is certain is that Waddell has produced a brilliant account of the ways in which Beethoven’s work was perceived, consumed and transformed by the writers of the modernist era. It is a work of tremendous erudition, full of thought-provoking ideas, conveyed with zest, discrimination and enthusiasm. Scholars of literature and music will discover something new on every page, and the general reader will marvel at the breadth and scope of this excellent book.

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Nathan Waddell, Moonlighting: Beethoven and Literary Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2019) 978-0-19-881670-6, 248pp., hardback.

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