Musical Criticism and Composers

by evanhechtman

In class, we discussed a few of the conditions that allowed Beethoven to grow so famous.  These included the rise of musical criticism, and there can be no doubt that Beethoven benefited from some remarkably good publicity.  If you’ve read E.T.A. Hoffman’s review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, you’re aware that he’s quite a fan of the work.  Included among his glowering praises, Hoffman says that Beethoven awakens within us “the pain of infinite yearning, in which every desire, leaping up in sounds of exultation, sinks back and disappears.”  (I would be hard pressed to pay my favorite band, U2, such a strong compliment!)

Everyone knows who Beethoven is, and most people have at least some familiarity with the Fifth Symphony.  Even my musically illiterate self did prior to this class, although it was mostly because of a Chuck Berry song.  But is Beethoven so legendary purely because of his musical genius, or is it because he had fans in the media?  While Beethoven’s brilliance is unquestionable (Hoffman is far more qualified to make this point than I am), was he truly that much better than all his contemporaries, or did his reputation benefit from some timely critical praise?

It’s interesting to think about the rise of musical criticism and how this might have impacted composers.  We’ve already seen composers with salient egos (e.g. Handel), so it’s realistic to assume that composers might have desired to impress critics to build their own fame.  To what extent do you think factors like this influenced Beethoven?  Or was he pure in realizing his artistic vision, ignoring external motivations?

Today, many musical artists are criticized for appeasing critics or changing their style for publicity.  Miley Cyrus, I’m looking at you.  Do you think a similar process of pandering to critics was a prominent factor in classical compositions?  How do you think the rise of musical criticism changed the course of music?