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Research Seminar: Resisting Middlebrow Mediation: Beethoven's ‘Grosse Fuge’ in interwar Britain

Wednesday 11 November 2020, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Laura Tunbridge (University of Oxford)

In 1931, editor of The British Musician, Sydney Grew, reported that he could find very few articles on Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge” from the past thirty years, despite all of the publications inspired by the recent centenary of the composer’s death. The few articles there were repeated “nineteenth-century condemnatory clichés (“impracticable”, “turgid”, “extravagant”, “obscure” etc.) or implied the writer’s doubt as to the work really being “music.”’ Everything changed with the release on December 17, 1930, of a recording of the “Grosse Fuge” by the Léner Quartet. Now that the work was “next door to popular in England,” Grew had become convinced that this was, in fact, the greatest music ever composed, even “capable of moving simple, average listeners deeply at a first hearing.”

It seems remarkable, now, that a piece for string quartet by Beethoven should not have had a secure place on the concert platform or in scholarship and journalism before the mid-twentieth century. The transformation of attitude towards the “Grosse Fuge” that took place through the interwar period is in many ways a familiar narrative, reflecting the influence high-quality live and recorded performances, along with new, attentive and informed, ways of listening, had on interpretations of the piece. Yet despite Grew’s claims that “simple, average listeners” would be moved by hearing it, there was something about the “Grosse Fuge” that ultimately resisted its incorporation into the middlebrow canon. The most successful means of explaining the significance of the “Grosse Fuge” was less as a piece that would regularly grace concert programs and radio broadcasts than as an exceptional work that, despite being composed in the 1820s, could stand next to modernist pieces by Bela Bartók and Alban Berg. The Anglo-American interwar reception of Beethoven’s op. 133 thus illustrates the tensions between middlebrow and modernist historical narratives and serves as a test case for media technologies’ oft-touted potential to “democratize” access to Western classical music.

Laura Tunbridge

Laura Tunbridge is a Professor of Music at the University of Oxford and Henfrey Fellow and Tutor in Music at St Catherine’s College. Her publications include The Song Cycle (Cambridge, 2010), Singing in the Age of Anxiety: Lieder Performances in New York and London Between the World Wars (Chicago, 2018), and Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces (Penguin, 2020).

Location: Meeting ID: 915 8006 2656 Passcode: 840125