Beethoven in France

Nikita Niconov | April 2018

Readers of this magazine may be aware of the concert series Viennese Legacy, where musicians present chamber works by composers Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Its opening concert is an associated programme of this year’s Le French May, an annual arts festival organised by the Consulate General of France in Hong Kong and Macau to promote French art and culture. I was curious about the relationship between these Austrian/German composers and France.

With a quick Google and online library search, I realised that it was not as simple a subject as I expected – it concerned musical and cultural history as well as musicology. Owing to the limited space here, I will only focus on Beethoven, in particular on how he became known in France.

Prior to 1828

Before 1800, Beethoven was not known among the French, but details of concert programmes between 1800 and 1822 can be found in archives of concert reviews. Beethoven’s works were performed much less frequently than those of his contemporaries Haydn and Mozart. His trios, string quartets and early symphonies were presented but, by and large, the composer’s works failed to arrest persistent interest from French concertgoers during these years.

The First Symphony was premiered in Paris in 1807, but it was close to a failure. Here is an excerpt of a concert review: “It is believed to produce an effect by giving the most barbaric dissonances and employing bursts of every instrument of the orchestra. Sadly, this only loudly tortured our ears, without any emotional appeal…1

And on a performance of the First in 1811:

… he creeps along grotesque paths. … He seems to harbor doves and crocodiles at the same time.”2

Responses from audience, unfortunately, were lukewarm for the following seventeen years. The first two symphonies were performed only twice, in 1813 and 1814, until the First was presented again, many years later, in 1819.

When the Third Symphony, Eroica, premiered in 1815 in Paris, audiences laughed loudly3 after the orchestra had played just the first few bars. The only works received better were his string quartets, probably because they were often performed by the renowned composer violinist Pierre Baillot from the Paris Conservatory.

The Change

In contrast, by 1828, the year after the composer’s death, French attitudes towards Beethoven’s music had taken a dramatic turn. One music critic wrote, “a revolution has just occurred in the musical world4 after the newly founded Société des Concerts (SDC) gave a concert featuring Eroica on 9 March in that year.

French literature also appraised the composer’s works. In Séraphita (1834), Honoré de Balzac wrote, “… like Beethoven built his palaces of harmony with thousands of notes …”5 and, on the Fifth Symphony, “after this sublime musical poem, there is nothing more to say, we can only bow our head and mediate”.

In the next concert by the SDC that included Eroica, the audience shouted “Divine! Delicious! Admirable!” towards the end. One spectator reportedly offered three thousand francs (ticket prices ranged from two to five francs in those days) to have the orchestra perform the same programme again at l’Opéra – but it was duly rejected. Writers also joined in to blame the earlier carelessness of the French for ignoring Beethoven.

Between 1828 and 1859, Beethoven’s music was much loved by the French. Among the 200 or so concerts given by the SDC, there were 280 performances of Beethoven’s symphonies, compared to 58 of Haydn’s and 37 of Mozart’s.

The question then is what happened during these two decades that caused such seemingly sudden enthusiasm towards Beethoven?

The Dominant View

German-born American musicologist Leo Schrade first produced a comprehensive account of Beethoven’s music in France by examining literary texts. Romanticism, he suggested, first arrived in French literature, ideas then spread to critics and journalists alike and, in turn, to the concert audience. In a separate article6, Newman developed similar conclusions: the French Romantic writers, among them Hugo, Balzac, Deschamps, Gautier and Sand, began to appreciate Beethoven’s music in their writings and convinced readers and audiences to accept Beethoven and furnished them with expressions to articulate Romanticism. Overall, this dominant view appears plausible; the French were well known for the influence of their literature.

Yet, in a more recent publication7, Johnson highlighted some issues with the arguments of the dominant view. The first was timing and the second was the essence of French attitudes towards Beethoven’s music before 1828.

An Interpretation

On timing, Romantic writers in favour of Beethoven praised the composer only after the 1828 performance by the SDC and Romantic texts prior to 1828 were not considered mature. On the second point, evidence indicates that it was not simply a love–hate relationship by the French – they spoke of, for example, symphonies “filled with barbarous chords, incoherent progressions in lack of meaning”. It was not simply the misuse of instrumentations or the unexpected rhythms or harmonies. It was more as if one travelled to a foreign country listening to locals speaking a completely incomprehensible language – what meaning would that have?

Moreover, Johnson postulated an alternative explanation related to cognitive science in psychology – the way audiences organised their musical meaning and made sense of a new category of music that they could not understand.

According to this theory, humans construct mental structures, called schemata, of preconceived ideas to assist with interpreting the world. Yet, schemata can influence and hinder the uptake of new knowledge/information because of existing stereotypes, prejudices, biases and expectations. Upon encountering new information, humans try to fit them into their own schema, reinterpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit.

The Transition

Returning to the current context, French listeners’ change of heart can be seen as a broadening of musical experience from programme music in the late eighteenth century, which was about imitating natural sounds and painting images, to Beethoven’s pure music in 1828.

By 1811, programme music, such as works by Haydn and Mozart (especially his Italian operas), were already sought-after in France. There was indeed evidence to support the notion that French audiences were expecting music that expressed concrete ideas of sounds and images, such as storms, laughing and birdsong.

Manuel de l’homme du monde, a 1761 Parisian publication on general world knowledge, defined music in this way: “Same as Poetry, all music must have meanings, in accordance with the things it expresses. Besides the general tone of expression, all expressions, in particular, must be clear, just, vivid, delicate, easy and simple.”8

The music of composer Jean-Philippe Rameau was much loved by the French at the time and was deemed meaningful for its ability to paint images and imitate sounds. His operas also conformed to listeners’ expectations.

It was no surprise, then, that around 1800 the most popular works of Haydn were those associated with concrete representations – “The Hunt”, depicting hunting scenes, “The Military”, imitating marches, “The Hen” and “The Queen of France”, just to illustrate a few examples.

In contrast, here was a review of Haydn’s more abstract oratorio Die Schöpfung (The Creation);

Haydn had taken aback on its artistic boundary: he claimed to describe what could not be described with music. His Creation was a piece of chaotic music.”9

Even in the music of Mozart, who was one of Parisians’ favourite composers at that time, “the harmonies were so rich that the effects were complicated and scientific such that audience could only manage to follow and conceive the details with tiring attention, in order to form the vast images Mozart wanted to draw10, as a reviewer commented on his symphony No. 41.

These examples gave some support to the notion that poor reception from the early audiences of Beethoven in Paris was due to their difficulties in coming up with concrete imageries with absolute music.

Later on, by the time the SDC performed Eroica in 1828, critics and audience were already familiar with symphonic music, without the need to reference specific perceptions. This was a crucial step for French audiences towards accepting Beethoven’s music.

In 1827, two months after the composer’s death, a reader submitted a letter to Revue musicale, a music periodical, to express his remorse. He wrote, “… the new musical regime is so powerful and so ineffable11.

Our readers may ask: as human minds were very unlikely to alter overnight, what cultivated the change in attitude leading to Beethoven’s triumph in 1828? Johnson explains that, in fact, the idea of pure music had been developing gradually over a number of years while the French were being exposed to more such types of music. For instance, audiences used to the programmatic music of Haydn’s moved on to that of a more abstract form, such as The Creation, as mentioned before. Another factor was the chamber music performed by established musicians, such as Pierre Baillot, who drew admirers for his performance of chamber works including those of Bocherini, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (e.g. Op. 18), which were themselves beyond imitation. This could account for the development, over a period of some twenty years, of appreciation for Beethoven in the minds of audiences.

1 “On croit produire de l’effet en prodiguant les dissonances les plus barbares et en employant avec fracas tous les instruments de l’orchestre. Hélas! on ne fait que déchirer bruyamment l’oreille, sans jamais parler au Coeur.” Tablettes de polymnie, May 1810, p. 9.

2 Schrade, L. (1942). Beethoven in France, New Haven, p. 3.

3 Schindler, A. (1842). Beethoven in Paris, Aschendorff, p. 4. Cited in Wallace, R. (1986). Beethoven’s Critics: Aesthetic Dilemmas and Resolutions during the Composer’s Lifetime, Cambridge, p. 106.

4 Revue musicale 3 (1828), 145-48; Journal des Debats, quoted in Prod’homme, Les Symphonies de Beethoven, pp. 124–5.

5 “… comme Beethoven a bâti ses palais d’harmonie avec des milliers de notes …” Séraphîta, August 1835, p. 261.

6 Newman, W.S. (1983). The Beethoven Mystique in Romantic Art, Literature, and Music, Musical Quarterly, 69, pp. 354–87.

7 Johnson, J.H. (1991). Beethoven and the Birth of Romantic Musical Experience in France. 19th-Century Music, 15(1), pp. 23–5.

8 “Toute Musique doit avoir une signification & un sens, de même que la Poésie; anisi les sons doivent être conformes aux choses qu’elle exprime: outre le ton général de l’expression, toutes les expressions en particulier doivent être claires, justes, vives, fines & delicates, aisées & simples.” Manuel de l’homme du monde, 1761, p. 398.

9 “Haydn a voulu reculer les bornes de son art; il a prétendu décrire ce qui ne peut être décrit par la musique. Sa Création est une espèce de chaos music.” Journal de l’Empire, 19 April 1811, p. 4.

10 “Sa symphonie en ut offer de tells richesses harmoniques, les effets en sont compliqués si scientifiquement que ce n’est qu’avec une attention fatiguante qu’on parvient à suivre et à concevoir les détails de l’orchestre, et à former une idée des masses de tableaux que le compositeur a voulu tracer.”, Tablettes de polymnie, May 1810, p. 13.

11 Letter from P. Porro to Revue Musicale, 1(1827), p. 425.