beethoven the pianist, neefe, and a clarification

© Tilman Skowroneck 2011

Early Music has, to my knowledge, been first with an encouraging and generous review of Beethoven the Pianist, for which I am very grateful. For subscribers of EM, the full text is available here.

Reviews inevitably reveal some points of lacking clarity. In this case, reviewer Siân Derry alerts me to a missed chance of an explanation during my presentation of one of my side plots, which addresses the extent of Christian Gottlob Neefe’s influence on the young Beethoven (I am arguing that that influence may not have been quite as great as the usual Beethoven biographies are claiming).

Here is the passage of the review that explains the problem:

[Skowroneck’s] assertion that Neefe “does not mention giving Beethoven keyboard instruction at all” and that “by 1783, any keyboard tuition by Neefe (if it ever took place) belonged to the past” (pp.43-3) is compromised by his omission from consideration of Neefe’s letter of 19 January 1785. Yet on an earlier page (p.41) Skowroneck includes parts of this letter–which states that Neefe was forced to teach six hours each day and that “Beethoven will be most happy of all, but I doubt nevertheless that he will truly profit from this” — but fails to pursue its implications for his argument.

What Neefe actually addressed here is explained by his own position in early 1785. After the death of the old Elector Maximilian Friedrich on April 15, 1784, some influential people at the Bonn court acted to diminish Neefe’s influence there, partly because he had been frequently absent, replaced by Beethoven. The situation quickly turned ugly; the last one of various pro memorias written by court officials in order to provide information to the new Elector suggested to dismiss Neefe from court service altogether. While waiting for the situation to disentangle, Neefe was temporarily pushed out of his position. As he wrote in the letter from January 1785, he was, as a consequence, forced to give private music lessons, for his income.

The crucial twist to the story is that the campaign to get rid of Neefe was launched explicitly in favor of Beethoven (though perhaps not on his initiative, but we don’t know), who was now taking over Neefe’s responsibilities at court (this is outlined on p. 43 of my book).

In my interpretation of the passage where Neefe says “Betthoven [sic.] will be most happy of all, but I doubt nevertheless that he will truly profit from this [circumstance],” I should have explained the nature of “this”: Neefe acknowledges that Beethoven’s sudden gain in musical responsibility at court will likely make him happy, but he has, at this point, neither the energy nor the grace to be optimistic about the “profit” for Beethoven of the situation.

When I call to mind Ludwig Schiedermair’s somewhat scattered presentation of this case in Der junge Beethoven (I do not have the book here to check this in detail, but the relevant pages are 57, 146-8 and 166), this interpretation of Neefe’s letter is not controversial. The same applies to the suggestion that, by early 1785, Beethoven was in any case not Neefe’s pupil any more, and that, hence, Neefe’s assertion has nothing to do with Beethoven being taught by Neefe. It is with this understanding that I phrased my concluding words of that section (p. 42):

The complete meaning of Neefe’s allusions remains hidden. It seems for instance, unlikely that he thought Beethoven was happy because Neefe was forced to give private music lessons against his will. It is, however, clear that Neefe (as Beethoven’s former teacher) doubted that the situation was doing Beethoven much good, musically speaking. It is also clear that Neefe had no influence on Beethoven whatsoever during his time of absence from the Bonn court. On February 8, 1785, Neefe’s former allowance was restored.

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