Review of “Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision” by Lewis Lockwood

John Newlin


Professor Lewis Lockwood’s latest book, Beethoven’s Symphonies: An Artistic Vision, takes a fresh look at Beethoven the man and the creative process he used in composing the nine monumental orchestral works that forever changed the symphonic music landscape.  Professor Lockwood, a brilliant Beethoven researcher and expositor, has used the musical notebooks Beethoven compiled to demonstrate how the symphonies had their gestation, with some surprising discoveries.  In doing so he has fashioned a book to be enjoyed by musical scholars, but one that also can be pleasing for the less formally musically educated reader as well.

Professor Lockwood has now written six published books describing the life, times, and artistic achievements of Beethoven, arguably the most brilliant composer of all time.  In writing this latest work, the author studied the “vast body” of documents Beethoven left behind, paying particular attention to the musical sketchbooks Beethoven compiled, including the smaller ones the composer carried with him.  His painstaking readings and analysis of the material led the author to several important conclusions: Beethoven was constantly sketching out and drafting movements for new symphonies; his source material for his larger works were drawn from a rich, divergent variety of sources; the composition of his symphonies often overlapped other projects and each other; and much of his source material, especially for his First and Ninth Symphonies was in hand long before he actually composed them. From these sketches it is possible to learn how Beethoven put together the individual movements of his symphonies.

Professor Lockwood’s scholarship is of the highest caliber.   He has carefully constructed a helpful appendix listing chronologically 33 sketches and movement plans Beethoven employed.  His bibliography is exhaustive.

For the under-initiated student of Beethoven the author has set up the book logically, describing the gestation process of each symphony in chronological order, work by work.  He has also included some of the major highlights of Beethoven’s creative years, focusing on the impacts of Beethoven’s worsening deafness, the failures of his love life, and his compulsive personality as the catalysts for his creative output, while also creating a clear picture of Viennese life and the people who most influenced the composer during his most creative years.

Professor Lockwood describes how, even though Beethoven scoffed at the idea of writing pure program music, he deviated from his beliefs when he composed “Wellington’s Victory”, which epitomizes music written to tell a specific story.  He further depicts Beethoven as an artist who believed he should have been above needing to “publish and disseminate his works”.

One question arises:  For whom is this book written?  The author’s observations about the man and his life, as well as the meaning and impact of his music, are fascinating and accessible to everyone.  However, Lockwood’s discussion of the artistic structure of each symphony assumes a high level of musical knowledge, at least of musical terminology, on the reader’s part.  Terms such as cadenza, triad, sonata-form, three-chord cadence, tonic chord, and others are all familiar to musicologists, music majors, choristers, and instrumentalists.  They may be unfamiliar territory to the more casual lover of Beethoven’s music.

It is helpful that Professor Lockwood has keyed his examples to the website: (though one needs to know solfeggio in order to understand the examples) because the analytical breakdown of each symphony, appearing as it does only on paper, otherwise sometimes becomes highly abstract. An exception is his brilliant exposition of the Seventh Symphony in which Professor Lockwood concludes by demonstrating how Beethoven almost certainly used Irish and Scottish folk-songs to fashion thematic elements of the first and fourth movements, thus broadening the symphony’s appeal to general audiences.

It behooves the reader to listen to each symphony as he or she reads Professor Lockwood’s exposition of it.  Even so, there remain times when the descriptions prove elusive. He describes the Section B of the second movement of the Fifth Symphony in part: “…the whole theme then repeated “sempre ff” in C Major, reinforcing its use of the 3 + 1 from the first movement.” the meaning of which escapes all but the highly musically educated reader.  It may seem obsessive on the reviewer’s part, but an accompanying CD with the musical highlights keyed to the text would be immensely gratifying for the less musically-informed reader to have.


Beethoven’s Symphonies, An Artistic Vision, by Lewis Lockwood

W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2015