Beethoven the fuddy-duddy

Name a famous musical revolutionary.  Are you thinking of Beethoven?  Most people would agree that Beethoven represents the ne plus ultra as far as radical, creative geniuses are concerned.  I mean, if Beethoven wasn’t a program-bucker, nobody was.

Those same people might be surprised to learn what sort of musical thinking exerted a profound influence on their rule-breaking hero, and what sort of musical thinking went on in his own mind.

Johann Josef Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum would perhaps be regarded by many as the ne plus ultra as far as stodgy, rule-oriented “non-music” is concerned.  In it he describes how best to lead individual voices so as to create variety and avoid redundancy.  He provides several musical examples, one of which (in 4 voices, some proceeding with different note-values) contains an intentionally crafted mistake: proceeding from one perfect interval to another via similar motion.

Fux says that this is not strictly desirable, but nevertheless permissible “because of the difficulty of th[e] species.”  (Perhaps Fux was aware of this, but the hidden fifth created by the similar motion between the outer voices is not the only problem with the progression; it also represents more overt parallel fifths, when one counts only the first notes of each measure.  The intervening scale in the lowest voice does not obliterate this parallel.)

Beethoven diligently studied Fux’s treatise, and made comments about what he learned.  About the above example specifically, Beethoven says: “The second progression, at B, would never be excusable for my ear.”

It seems Beethoven out-stodgied the stodgmeister.

Beethoven’s innovations were not necessarily ones that dealt explicitly with the musical content itself; rather, with surface phenomena: dynamic contrast, instrumental range, difficulty of performance, length of movements, etc.


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