Facing Beethoven: Literature, sculpture and identity

Lectures and events
Publication Date
Dr Nathan Waddell

Video details

Beethoven – celebrated as much as a mythic icon as he is treasured as a man, musician, and composer – was often cited by early twentieth-century writers in novels and in discussions of art, politics, and society.

In this lecture, Nathan Waddell explores how Beethoven’s image, in the forms of life and death masks, portrait busts and statues, has been used by H. G. Wells, Wyndham Lewis, Dorothy Richardson and Stephen Spender, among others. He raises questions about identity, art’s roles in everyday life, and the explanatory force of legend.


Dr Nathan Waddell
Assistant Professor in the School of English at the University of Nottingham.

Lecture report

‘Facing Beethoven’ has several meanings, Nathan Waddell observed. One might look in the face of Beethoven, confronting him visually in relation to the many Beethovenian images that have been
produced in the last two centuries or figuratively to try to get a measure of the man and his music. A more troubling idea involves not only confronting a particular composer in a particular moment in
musical history but rather the full and still-unfolding totality of all that’s been said, thought and written about him.

Beethoven is probably the most familiar case of a life subjected to purely personal impressions, Dr Waddell said. Hence the so-called Beethoven myth: the fiery genius who loses his hearing yet perseveres, making his accomplishments that much greater for having originated in a life so filled with pain and sadness. Dr Waddell focused his talk on a single material vector from the Beethoven myth: literary representations of the portrait sculpture of Beethoven. Why would you want to do this? “One answer is that in studying how writers respond to sculpture, we can see how they assess the status
of Beethoven as a cultural landmark and not just as a figure of fame but also of other conditions such as a form of ordinariness – his all-too-familiar place in culture,” Dr Waddell said.

All writers from 1830s onwards seem to have an opinion about Beethoven. For instance, in an extract from a letter of 1908, the New Zealand modernist writer Katherine Mansfield wrote: “I saw today such a fine picture of Beethoven. It would have appealed to you – I know – the wind seemed to be in his hair and he seemed to hear with his eyes … frowning so.” Dr Waddell’s interest resides in exploring the links between writers and the historical influences on their writing: “I want to know where writers took their views from, why they wrote what they did.”

Mansfield’s reference to Beethoven’s frown provides one such opportunity. The idea of Beethoven’s scowl is largely the product of visual and rhetorical convention, which began with Beethoven’s life mask, taken by Franz Klein in 1812. Dr Waddell said: “This mask captures a face seemingly in the throes of artistic torment. But the truth is more clear-cut: Beethoven disliked the casting process. The expression, to quote Jan Swafford, shows the face of a man scowling because he is angry, uncomfortable and frightened.” Nevertheless, the myth has proved far more durable than the truth. Klein’s mask appeared to embody the lifelong strife of a composer who, by 1900, would be installed as the ideal example of the artist figure struggling against an inevitable, inspiring fate, Dr Waddell said.

That formidable expression can be seen in portraits of Beethoven created throughout the 19th Century, including Klein’s portrait bust, also produced in 1812. Another literary reference can be found in H.G. Wells’s 1905 novel Kipps, when the eponymous protagonist visits the Cootes’s house. Wells wrote:

“There was a bust of Beethoven over the bookcase and the walls were thick with conscientiously executed but carelessly selected ‘views’ in oil and water colours and gilt frames.”

H. G. Wells — Kipps

Dr Waddell observed that Wells wanted the reader to know that the Cootes are not quite in control of the means with which they try to manipulate their cultured appearance. The inclusion of “a bust
of Beethoven” indicates the ubiquity of such busts at the turn of the 20th Century. “It also suggests an indifference to whether such ubiquity matters except as a sign of respectability: to be seen to
have such an ornament is really the only reason to have it,” Dr Waddell said.

By the start of the First World War, the bourgeois implications of Beethoven busts had become familiar to the point of being hackneyed. In Dorothy Richardson’s novel sequence Pilgrimage, this
predicament gives rise to an ambiguous form of scorn. In Honeycomb, the series’ third novel, London’s suburbanites are labelled weak, thoughtless and materialist; amongst their furniture “they
did not even have busts of Beethoven”. The plaster cast that Wyndham Lewis wanted readers to think about in his 1918 novel Tarr was, Dr Waddell argued, likely to be of Klein’s life mask:

“There was the plaster-cast of Beethoven (some people who have frequented artistic circles get to dislike this face extremely), brass jars from Normandy, a photograph of Mona Lisa (Tarr could not
look upon the Mona Lisa without a sinking feeling).”

Wyndham Lewis — Tarr

Dr Waddell said that Tarr and Lewis briefly overlapped here, with the author’s antipathy to the reductive use of Beethoven’s face in so many households making the cast a sign of commonplaceness to Tarr, his character. The reference to “the” plaster cast of Beethoven suggests that what is being satirised is the lamentable inevitability of the composer’s face being used merely as an ornament.

Paradoxically, the definite article signals the indefiniteness of the article being defined and that a Beethoven cast is something one expects to see in a bourgeois-bohemian household,” Dr Waddell said.
It was likely, Dr Waddell suggested, that Lewis misidentified Klein’s work as a death mask. He was not alone in making that mistake. The muddle has implications for how we interpret Stephen
Spender’s poem ‘Beethoven’s Death Mask’, which arguably takes as its point of departure the fact that by the 1920s an obsessive interest had developed around an object – Beethoven’s life mask –
which was routinely mistaken for a memento mori. Klein’s life mask achieved commonplaceness by virtue of its seemingly innumerable replications.

The real death mask, taken by Josef Danhauser in 1827, is a reproduction of a withered body distorted by the mask being cast after Beethoven’s temporal bones were carried away to facilitate
an examination of his organs of hearing.

“The difference between Klein’s life mask and Danhauser’s death mask is obvious if one knows that there are two masks to confuse,” Dr Waddell said. But by 1900, that distinction had slipped away. Danhauser’s death mask was given a boost by Ernst Benkard’s Undying Faces, which appeared in 1927. Isaiah Berlin, reviewing this book, noted that Beethoven’s mask was the highpoint but that it had never been done in prose. Berlin gave a copy of Benkard’s book to Spender, whose poem ‘Beethoven’s Death Mask’ was published in 1930. The gift helped the poet write more exactly about an often inaccurately identified sculpture amid the innumerable reproductions of Klein’s life mask.

Dr Waddell noted: “For Spender, this mattered because it said something about our collective attitude to our cultural forebears, about our understanding of a figure who loomed so large in our history as to be rendered almost invisible by the processes of mismemory.”

Spender’s poem begins:

“I imagine him still with heavy brow.
Huge, black, with bent head and falling hair,
He ploughs the landscape. His face
Is this hanging mask transfigured,
This mask of death which the white lights make stare.”

Stephen Spender — Beethoven’s Death Mask

The poem as much about a specified object – a death mask – as it is about the impressionistic reactions to witnessing it. The subject is moved to imagine Beethoven in idealised life by the sight
of the mask, forcing him to reflect on the distance between the towering creator of so many musical masterpieces and the small, fragile face shut off from being before him.

Dr Waddell said that part of the poem’s meaning seems to be that the new is not possible without the old. The first line refers us back to the frowning Beethoven associated with his 19th-Century
depiction just as the second line alludes to the image of Beethoven enshrined in sculptures like Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s portrait sculptures. These gestures away from Danhauser’s mask highlight the difficulty of imagining Beethoven in terms that do not draw on prior representations and that the human characteristics of the great man become hidden behind an idealised mask of legend.

Dr Waddell said: “The poem tries to find a space for new impressions of Beethoven amid the idealising masks of his own iconographic legacy.” Nevertheless, ‘Beethoven’s Death Mask’ suggests that there can be no return to some unmediated view of a composer inextricably bound up with the rhetorical and visual impressions of others. Dr Waddell said there was an analogy here with the fact that masks are not unerringly faithful copies of the faces they seem to exactly duplicate.

“Spender’s poem does not suggest that some simplistic authentic access to the reality of what Beethoven looked like is possible even by looking at a mask,” Dr Waddell said. There is no simple way in which Beethoven’s significance can be construed. Dr Waddell said: “Writers don’t just refer to Beethoven portrait sculptures because they do or don’t like them but rather because their valuations of Beethoven were bound up with their sense of how his image was received in the wider culture.”

The fact that they made such sculptures part of their literature means that they wanted to foreground their role in different aspects and tendencies of the modern world. Lewis, Richardson, Wells and Spender among others knew that they could be integrated with varying degrees of symbolism into their work in meaningful ways.


Would you have been giving this lecture if Beethoven hadn’t merely been a better publicist than other musicians of his time?

“It raises the question: Why are these writers fixated on Beethoven? You have to think carefully as to whether what you find isn’t just a mark of cultural esteem. There are many more references to
Beethoven where what matters is that sense of a cultural marker rather than a proper engagement.”

Do you think that today, in an age of selfies and digitised images, we have lost the kinds of ambiguous materials that could foster and cultivate this sort of romantic interpretation in the future?

“I hope not. That process is already underway in the period I’m looking at. The writers are engaging with the idea of mediation, reproducibility, the possibility of an original copy as opposed to an original. It is no longer enough to know that there’s a Beethoven bust – you have to own your own, or own it by having a copy. And there is a Twitter feed devoted to the Beethoven bust.”

The face is an extremely dynamic feature. Its muscles, whether embalmed or in rigor mortis, are depicted in a death mask in a state they never are in in life. Can anything ever give us a true impression of what a face was originally?

“Spender is fascinated by this question because it’s making a claim about some truth of Beethoven that’s invisible to us in death. It is a moment of non-activity, capturing him as something limp and lifeless, at his most non-Beethovenian. What do you capture in a mask? A frame of someone’s emotional life or something that cannot be captured in any other way and hence reveal the truth of that subject, whatever that might be? The irony is important to think about.”

I was wondering about the function of the bust relating to music as something that needs to be experienced through performance. Could these mass-produced busts act as a way to make people
think of Beethoven’s music before the technology of mechanically-produced music existed?

“One of the key things that I did not mention in the talk is the way that busts are used in a noncritical way, e.g. as a sign of respect: for instance, Liszt had the death mask of Beethoven on his wall. It’s a shorthand of some sort of greater experience, a vehicle to get to music through other means. The way I’m reading it as an ornament is one of mechanically-attenuated or lessened art. Nevertheless, it may still be valuable to people but in the examples I found in literature it always appears as something to be sceptical about or distrustful of. It goes back to the modernists seeing mass-produced art as a problem and those who enjoy mass-produced art not seeing it as a problem – and why should they?”

Presumably those people who have a mask of Beethoven as a furnishing accessory to indicate their culturedness would have preferred it to be a death mask because that’s more romantic?

“It is the ease of the legend. Beethoven is a privileged case by virtue of how he has been allowed to develop that reputation and the aura that goes with it. These objects seem to capture an aura of the subject. You imagine that you’re in the presence of the person that they captured.”

One of your first slides showed the Beethoven frieze in Vienna with the sculpture of Beethoven in the centre of the room. That’s a tremendously powerful concept and set-up – how do you see that?

“As far as I’ve been able to determine, there’s no literary interaction with that object. This is important for a famous scene in a novel I haven’t discussed tonight, E.M. Forster’s Howards End: the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I’m convinced that through that scene Forster is signalling not only the more intangible sense of Beethoven’s ‘sublimity’, something that is aesthetically, overwhelmingly powerful, but is also referring to things of the sort generated by that image – a sense of immediate sublimity, the overwhelming sense of Beethoven as a cultural presence not just as a god as he is depicted in the Vienna monument, but also of a commanding figure that you can’t ignore and that creeps into literature even if it’s not directly about it.”

A bust of Ludwig van Beethoven
Lectures and events
Publication Date
Dr Nathan Waddell
Share This