Book Review: Moonlighting: Beethoven and Literary Modernism

Jon Churchill, Duke University 

Nathan Waddell, Moonlighting: Beethoven and Literary Modernism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

Beethoven is inevitable. His symphonies sell Kit Kats in television commercials, and wisps of the early sonatas float among bookstores’ shelves and coffee shops’ tables—anywhere erudition is implied. Meanwhile, his likeness adorns countless pianos and desks, always offering a steely appraisal of its surroundings. Schroeder felt this gaze while practicing in the Peanuts comic strip, as have the countless students who glanced at their music room’s posters. 

This ubiquity energises Nathan Waddell’s study of Beethovenian conventionality in Anglo-American modernist literature. Unlike many of its predecessors, Moonlighting eschews structural analogies between music and literature, thereby avoiding an avenue of inquiry complicated by Beethoven’s substantial challenges to form. Instead, it interrogates the establishment of Beethovenian convention, the means by which modernist writers engaged with it, and the products of that interaction. In no uncertain terms, Waddell asserts that ‘many of the most experimental works of modernist literature were shaped by a knowing reliance on Beethovenian consensus… literary modernists knew Beethovenian legend when they saw it, and… were eager to use it’ (p. 1). 

Moonlighting explores this thesis in five chapters, each transacted in lucid prose and demonstrating a remarkable engagement with musicological scholarship. E.T.A. Hoffman, Paul Bekker, and other central figures make their rightful appearances, but one of the monograph’s greatest virtues is its investigative depth. Moving beyond simple citation, Waddell explores musicologists’ contributions in terms of their field’s paradigm shifts, especially the late 20th century’s New Musicology. This extraordinary grasp of an allied discipline provides an authoritative grounding for Moonlighting’s exploration of Beethovenian literature.

The monograph opens by interrogating Beethoven’s inseparability from notions of heroic struggle. After exploring this relationship’s grounding in 19th century musical canon formation, the author probes Beethovenian conventionality in E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), a text marked by its narrator’s ‘variously humorous, prejudiced, metaphysical, and exceptionally idiosyncratic interventions’ (p. 48). The unreliable narrator encourages a degree of suspicion in readers, which is eventually diverted from the narrator to Beethovenian convention itself. In presenting Helen’s effusive reaction to one of several hearings of Beethoven’s Fifth, Waddell asserts that Forster may have sought to ‘undercut [Helen’s] emotions by presenting them so forcefully,’ and thereby challenge Beethovenian consensus. Forster implies that Helen’s reaction is all too predictable, since she too has been influenced by the culturally engrained narrative of struggle in Beethoven’s works.

Waddell then turns to the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (Op. 27, No.2) and its various R/romantic associations, first illustrating the work’s potential to critique characters’ bourgeois sensibilities in Queen Lucia (1920) and Tarr (1918). Simply by being a musical reference, Waddell asserts, Op. 27 also encrypts authors’ socio-cultural standings. In the case of Jacob’s Room (1922), Virginia Woolf’s use of the sonata exposes her understanding of its deathly associations and her broader concern with civilisation’s ills (pp. 104-5). Throughout Woolf’s text, the deceased Jacob is only presented through his acquaintances’ recollections. By including the ‘Moonlight’ in one such remembrance, the narrator invokes the work’s macabre overtones and links them to the titular character. She becomes the ‘voice of the dead’ (JR 16) and joins the acquaintances in mourning Jacob’s manipulation by greater powers and his eventual death in Flanders. While some of the cited musical evidence does not necessarily index mourning—particularly rhythmic repetition and plainchant contours—the musicological resources still provide compelling support for Waddell’s assertions.

Regained voices also feature in the subsequent chapter, which examines instances of young women performing late Beethoven. E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View (1908) and The Voyage Out (1915) by Virginia Woolf both feature young female pianists challenging the idea that ‘…the “late” in “late Beethoven”…meant not for women…’ (p. 112). In the end, however, these young women ‘re-establish the prejudices of Beethovenian musicological convention in the very act of challenging it’ (p. 115). In supporting his position, the author leverages a rich understanding of historical musicology to explore conventions of female pianism, gendered appreciations of the late sonatas, and the problematic three-period model in general. 

Beethovenian conventionality also extends into iconography, especially the busts and masks that Waddell locates in Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr (1918) and Stephen Spender’s ‘Beethoven’s Death Mask’ (1930). These objects may index an elevated lifestyle (p. 140), but they can also criticise their owners—and bourgeois culture writ large—through uncanny powers of observation. Tarr’s plaster-cast of Beethoven scowls back at him, challenging the character’s ‘depthless’ imperialism with a ‘romantic uninhibitedness’ (pp. 142, 143). Meanwhile, Spender’s verse describes the disquieting sensation of being studied by a ‘dead’ object that returns the observer’s gaze (p. 161). As always, Waddell takes care to situate his literary exemplars in a rich context, in this case broader sculptural trends and the genesis of the icons’ associated conventions.

Moonlighting’s final chapter examines Beethovenism’s value relative to early 20th-century authoritarianism. Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928) offers a case study, one that challenges the glorification of Beethoven’s works as expressed in the 1927 centenary celebrations and musicological consensus. Huxley opposes Maurice Spandrell’s Beethovenian devotion and ‘an emergent culture of anti-democratic attitudes’ (p. 187),  and the latter prevails when Spandrell dies to a disinterested soundtrack of Op. 132. Waddell rightly concludes that ‘Beethovenism is neither necessarily the preserve of the virtuous nor inevitably a bulwark against the political “disputes” of the 1920s’ (p. 181). Aside from offering an intriguing analysis of Point Counter Point, this final chapter interrogates the politics of value on a larger scale, examining Beethovenism in light of 20th-century scientific advancements and metaphysical thought. As usual, the remarkable scope of Waddell’s explorations does nothing to hamper their depth. 

A brief discussion of media’s role in generating and preserving the Beethovenian mythos follows, then initiates a useful recapitulation of the monograph. Each chapter passes in review, and this recapitulation is as richly footnoted as the main text. In these final citations, Beethoven’s ubiquity emerges again. Waddell engages new authors and fresh critical perspectives, hinting at a vast corpus of Beethovenian influences awaiting further exploration. In the service of this monumental undertaking, Moonlighting delivers an invaluable appraisal of the Beethovenian in modernist literature, and its contributions to musico-literary scholarship will continue to emerge with the benefit of time and further exploration. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started