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Ludwig Van Beethoven's Genius

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In her book ‘Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical politics in Vienna, 1792-1803’, Tia DeNora attempts to interpret Beethoven’s primary success and ‘the construction of genius’. The main concern she brings up is that “the crux of the problem with most Beethoven literature as it addresses the composer’s reputation is that, to varying degrees, that literature consists of retrospective accounts that isolate the quality of Beethoven’s works as the cause of his recognition… in retrospect, influence is conceived as independent of the local, often mundane conditions under which composition occurs. This misconception of influence leads to overidealized and musically imperialistic conceptions of the compositional process, which sidestep the issue of social circumstance… Beethoven’s recognition, for example, is often explained in ways that overemphasize his ‘own’ talent at the expense of the social bases of his acceptance and celebration” (DeNora, 1997, p.5-6).

DeNora’s ‘construction of genius’ relies on background contexts to determine how someone’s genius has been formed – in this instance, Beethoven’s. She believes we can’t use perspectives from appreciative cultures to decide one’s actual genius. We need to open ourselves to the inquiry of how and why some individuals, findings, and enterprises are celebrated over others, why some are perceived as exemplary and others not, because to ignore these issues is to mystify genius, to take it out of historical and interactional contexts (DeNora, 1997, p.6). Thus, she attempts to refute the hypothesis that Beethoven’s success is only a result of his sheer talent, as societal factors played a significant role. She asks why Beethoven, more than his contemporaries, was well positioned for becoming a new kind of musical talent. The answer lies in Beethoven’s situation in the organizational structure of the Viennese musical world and, in particular, his relation to a culturally powerful segment of music sponsors who were becoming increasingly concerned with the idea of great music” (DeNora, 1997, p.82).

According to DeNora, those who have failed to consider social process are only able to guess the means by which Beethoven became an international success. DeNora bases a large amount of Beethoven’s prosperity on his initial acquaintances. She states, “Beethoven’s claim to legitimate success and recognition became powerful because his exceptional abilities were accompanied by and interacted with a network of practices, musical-critical discourse and music technology produced over time by Beethoven and his ‘support’ personnel, his patrons and other music assistants. Beethoven succeeded because a complex network was constructed and oriented to the production and perception of his talent” (DeNora, 1997, p.187). Though relatively unknown to the public upon his first arrival in Vienna in November 1792, Beethoven was not without social connections. He had powerful links to Vienna’s Austro-Hungarian aristocratic patronage network: Beethoven’s Bonn patron Count Ferdinand Waldstein was related to five princes and one count who were members of van Swieten’s music-loving noblemen association, the Gesellschaft der Associierten, while his Bonn Elector Max Franz was a brother to Emperor Joseph and uncle to the following two emperors (DeNora, 1997, p.60).

As aristocratic connections were vital to a musician’s economic survival, Beethoven’s associations helped him with his entry into Viennese concert life and acceptance by the upper class of Viennese musical life. He had opportunities to meet Haydn, Abbe Sterkel, and Carl Ludwig Junker, made possible by his position in prominent musical circles (DeNora, 1997, p.67). Once established as a court musician, he had further advantages, such as approval from important figures and well-paying commissions (DeNora, 1997, p.69). From 1792 to 1796, his career expansion is evident by his growing network of patrons and support personnel (DeNora, 1997, p.69). Beethoven’s sponsor may also be credited for his musical uniqueness – he had the freedom to take artistic risks “because he could afford to do so socially” – and his reputation as a large-scale production composer rather than a pianist-composer with the possession of a privately sponsored string quartet and orchestra (DeNora, 1997, p.70).

Charles Rosen is one critic of DeNora’s work. He states in his article, “DeNora and other sociologists are right: the status of Beethoven as a great composer is not a fact of nature, but the result of a system of values and an ideology in which we have been educated and by which we continue to judge, think, and behave. They are wrong, however, to believe that this system of values was imposed by a single class, even a class with political authority and a lot of money… Neither the more general culture nor the musical language, however, could be simply altered at will, either by a class or by an exceptional individual: both of them could only be inflected and partially shaped” (Rosen, 1996). He proceeds to pick the holes in DeNora’s argument in ‘Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical politics in Vienna, 1792-1803’.

Rosen counters what he considers a naïve view of history – that “there must be hundreds of symphonies just as good as ‘Eroica’, but we just don’t know them” - with the statement that “hundreds of symphonies by dozens of contemporaries of Mozart and Beethoven have been exhumed and republished in the last two decades, and no one has been found willing to make any extravagant claims for them” (Rosen, 1996). DeNora and her peers say that we’ve been brainwashed to accept Beethoven as a genius, but Rosen says that this view is undermined “by our realization that the supremacy of Beethoven was not imposed by posterity but accepted, sometimes by reluctance, by Beethoven’s contemporaries” (Rosen, 1996). Beethoven was popular with the aristocracy, but he was also acknowledged as a temperamental genius by revolutionary musical figures like Haydn and Mozart.

Rosen questions the importance of Beethoven’s aristocratic patronage in his musical career: DeNora had a list of Beethoven’s patrons, and while Beethoven did have a number of ‘musicians’ in his list of supporters, Rosen finds this record insufficient because “we never hear anything about these ‘musicians’. If they were supporters of Beethoven, they do not interest DeNora” (Rosen, 1996). He says that the group of music lovers on the previous list with the ‘von’ before their family names have no real authority (Rosen, 1996). He is also correct that DeNora shows a bias in her presentation of the musical life of the period in her comparison of Dussek’s versus Beethoven’s career: DeNora had only focused on Beethoven’s successes and neglected his defeats, while also failing to mention that Dussek was a favorite in the royal courts of Catherine II of Russia, as well as Marie Antoinette of France (Rosen, 1996). Rosen further criticizes the decision to evaluate Beethoven’s growing reputation only by the statistics of public performance because true aristocrats tended to have intimate, private performances held for themselves. This would have meant that composers like Dussek, who played mostly in smaller settings, would be considered unpopular just because they didn’t have large concert halls at their everyday disposal. DeNora had a valid rebuttal to Rosen’s critique that Beethoven’s popularity couldn’t be analyzed by his public performances, however, for though she had mentioned in her book that “relatively few Leopoldstadt’s concert programs survive, generalizations about the repertory there must remain speculative” (Rosen, 1996), she later added that “the caution is not a disclaimer, private concert programs did not differ wildly from their public counterparts of the same scale. The boundary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ was permeable and aristocrats often premiered works in private before launching them in a more diverse and larger settings” (DeNora & Rosen, 1997). Her counter makes sense, which aids her theory that Beethoven’s level of popularity can be accurately induced by his frequency of public performances.

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Rosen believes that DeNora was wrong to only consider the historical background of Beethoven’s life, instead of considering Beethoven within the history of the study of music. Instead, he asserts that Beethoven’s prosperity can be explained by history at the time. He said that it was “a grave error of sociologists to make them [social status] the principal driving impulsions in the development of styles and reputations” (Rosen, 1996). Serious music was already more popular and developed than DeNora lead her readers to believe, as it was a natural result of the decline of the church and court patronage. Serious music already existed; Beethoven wasn’t the founder of serious music. Vienna was the most likely choice for Beethoven for his career because as a budding composer with high ambitions, “the latest developments in pure instrumental style there were attracting international attention and revolutionizing the aesthetics of music” (Rosen, 1996). Beethoven aspired to show off his talent by one-upping his serious music predecessors such as Haydn and Mozart. Their influences and his efforts to beat them continued to be prevalent in his life’s work.

Rosen took the approach of Beethoven’s music as the true reason for his fame, and greatly criticized DeNora for refusing to do so. “One cannot explore ‘music’s social meaning’ with no reference to the music… It is one thing to ignore twentieth-century notions of form, but DeNora offers no discussion of eighteenth, or early nineteenth-century conceptions” (Rosen, 1996). He argues that Beethoven had a “shocking and even alarming originality of improvisation and composition with a brilliant and imperious virtuous style of performance” and entered European society when it was trying to make music as the new archetype of Romantic art. Sometimes, to get by, he did have to comprise his serious status – writing cheap symphonies, easy sonatinas, ineffective arrangements, and transcribed folk songs to make money – but he also took drastic risks with his personal musical ideas that made him the visionary he is known as today (Rosen, 1996).

While DeNora and Rosen bring up valid points, both are subject to faults within their arguments. DeNora’s opinions involves an extreme as the determining cause of Beethoven’s success. Meanwhile, Rosen appears to try too hard to counter all of DeNora’s arguments, even the ones that are valid, and is guilty of some of the same criticisms that he gives DeNora.

DeNora’s initial concern arose because she disliked that people didn’t consider historical context when analyzing musical success. However, she went to the other end of the spectrum by examining Beethoven’s past as the only definite factor for such prosperity. She says that Beethoven’s success was preconditioned due to “an organizational and ideological receptivity to the idea of the ‘great’ musician during this time” (DeNora, 1997, p.82). I can agree that historical factors played a role in Beethoven’s success, but she mistakenly says that “we cannot point to Beethoven’s originality as an explanatory factor for Beethoven’s success” (DeNora, 1997, p.189), and that “the point it rather that there were numerous other musicians who, under different circumstances, could also have ended up as celebrities” (DeNora, 1997, p.69). Meanwhile, when DeNora attempts to compare Dussek and Beethoven to imply that Dussek would have had Beethoven’s level of affluence, had he had access to the same opportunities Beethoven did, she contradicts herself by mentioning the contrasting musical culture in London, Dussek’s place of residence, versus Beethoven’s Vienna. Even if Dussek had powerful patrons, he still might have been mainly known for piano compositions because he was living in a city with a distinguished school of composers for piano (Rosen, 1996). The two also had different teaching goals that was unaffected by their respective number of patrons: Beethoven taught to gain more patronage by particular families, while Dussek taught to advertise his own status as a teacher in London’s highly developed music ‘market’, as personal relationships were less common between musicians and patrons in London than Vienna (DeNora, 1997, p.78).

Rosen says of DeNora: “She interprets the opposition as a conflict of ideologies overcome only by the influence of the aristocracy in Beethoven’s favor” (Rosen, 1996). At another point, he says that she must not understand her own use of the word ‘inappropriate’ in a sentence, and that her inappropriate use of societal class shows her “patronizing attitude of a cultural critic who works in an academic atmosphere” (DeNora & Rosen, 1997). However, this just shows his own patronization of DeNora. One of DeNora’s points was that the conflict of musical ideologies between Beethoven and the public was overcome by aristocratic favoring of Beethoven, but Rosen insists that the more natural explanation is that “it was overcome principally by greater familiarity with Beethoven’s music and the support of the professionals and amateurs who were fascinated by it” (DeNora & Rosen, 1997). The gist of their arguments is the same – that people supported Beethoven’s music – yet Rosen writes as if he came up with the solution to DeNora’s wrong answer. He also said that Beethoven’s acceptance had little to do with aristocratic ideology, for “the few aristocrats who financed Beethoven were advised by musicians who told them where to put their money for the best cultural investment”. Nevertheless, this statement still agrees with DeNora’s thesis on the importance of the upper class for Beethoven’s reputation, for they were the ones financially backing Beethoven’s endeavors, which helped him become accepted in social circles.

Rosen also said that Beethoven’s superiority was accepted by even his contemporaries. However, he neglects to explain anything more about these contemporaries, giving no names or indication of whom they might be. This is reminiscent of the ‘musicians’ in DeNora’s list of Beethoven’s patrons, which Rosen had criticized because there is no further information about these ‘musicians’. He complained how DeNora didn’t clarify who these ‘musician’ patrons were, yet he does the same by not explaining who these contemporaries were and what insights they gave about Beethoven’s work.

After consulting both authors’ writings, I prefer Rosen’s approach in the analysis of music history. DeNora relies too much on historical facts, with quotes from Beethoven’s critics and a side-by-side comparison of Beethoven’s versus Dussek’s lives. She doesn’t attempt to evaluate the criticisms of Beethoven nor try to predict Beethoven’s potential life without his powerful patrons, a possibility she can’t conjecture because she hasn’t considered Beethoven’s musical ability in her analysis. I also agree that DeNora’s focus in her book was too narrow, as Beethoven’s social achievements need to be studied in both personal and historical context; “the ‘construction of genius’ cannot be studied, as DeNora does, in isolation from the construction of Western art music or, indeed, from the development of the concept of ‘genius’ fashionable in aesthetics in the late eighteenth century” (DeNora & Rosen, 1997). Success should be attributed to the “interaction of individual talent, social pressures, and the musical system already in place” – as a combination of nature and nurture.


  1. DeNora, T. (1997). ‘Beethoven and Social Identity’. In ‘Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical politics in Vienna, 1792-1803’ (pp. 1-10). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  2. DeNora, T. (1997). ‘Beethoven and the Resources of Cultural Authority’. In ‘Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical politics in Vienna, 1792-1803’ (pp. 186-191). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. DeNora, T. (1997). ‘Beethoven’s Social Resources’. In ‘Beethoven and the Construction of Genius: Musical politics in Vienna, 1792-1803’ (pp. 60-82). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. DeNora, T. & Rosen, C. (1997, April). ‘Beethoven’s Genius: An Exchange’. New York Review of Books, 44(6), Retrieved from
  5. Rosen, Charles. (1996, April). ‘Did Beethoven Have All the Luck?’ New York Review of Books, 43(18), Retrieved from
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