Beethoven’s early Viennese works were met with mixed reviews in the Viennese and German press. He was often criticized both for being too learned and too imaginative, sometimes even within a single review. While imagination and technique sound like opposing concepts, these reviewers were responding to the exuberant outpouring of energy and ideas found in Beethoven’s music. While his overall lack of restraint may have puzzled some early listeners, it became the most celebrated feature of his music during the 19th century.
For a sample of what writers were saying about Beethoven’s music in the 1790s, here is a review (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) of his opus 10 sonatas:
It cannot be denied that Mr. v. B. is a man of genius, has originality, and goes entirely his own way... Fantasy such as Beethoven possesses in no common degree, supported especially by such excellent knowledge, is something very valuable and indeed indispensable for a composer who feels within himself the dedication to become a greater artist and who disdains superficial and conventional composition. Rather, he wants to put forth something that has an inner, powerful vitality, which entices the connoisseur to a more frequent repetition of his work. However, in all arts there is an overabundance that derives from a too great and frequent craving for effect and learnedness, just as there is a clarity and charm that can well exist in conjunction with any thoroughness and diversity of composition.
So the reviewer seems to be saying that Beethoven has everything needed to become a great composer except for good taste. But then he goes on to say that after all is said and done, the writer actually admires these qualities of Beethoven.
There are undoubtedly few artists to whom one must exclaim: save your treasures and be thrifty with them! For not many artists abound in ideas and are skilled in their combinations. It is therefore less a direct censure of Mr. v. B. here than a well-meant acclamation, which retains something honorable even if it does censure. (AmZ, 9 October 1799)
A different writer from the same publication (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) reviewed the opus 12 sonatas for violin and piano. He too found Beethoven’s music to be overly elaborate to a perverse degree:
Studied, studied, and perpetually studied, and no nature, no song. Indeed, to put it precisely, there is only a mass of learning here, without good method. There is obstinacy for which we feel little interest, a striving for rare modulations, a repugnance against customary associations, a piling on of difficulty upon difficulty so that one loses all patience and enjoyment. (AmZ, 5 June 1799)
How often have I heard these very complaints regarding modern music! Perhaps it is reassuring to know that after 200 years, those who criticize innovation in music haven’t changed their tune…