Music has always seemed fair game as a subject for writers who are prepared to admit they don’t know much about it. The trick is to state firmly at the outset that you are not and don’t pretend to be a musicologist, and that you have no interest in or gift for musical analysis, then launch in without a care in the world. Musicologists, the implication goes, are all dullards who write only for each other, and musical analysis is nothing but charts and technical jargon. John Clubbe is only the latest of this happy band. A cultural historian of considerable parts – author of books on English Romanticism, Byron and Thomas Hood, editor of works about Carlyle – he reminds us uncontroversially in his introduction that ‘musicologists comprise only a small percentage of those who love Beethoven’s music and desire to learn more about it and the man who wrote it’. So let’s forget about them. Only nonspecialists, the argument suggests, can be trusted to talk intelligibly about music to other nonspecialists.
That may be so. But my advice is: don’t read a book on rock climbing or edible mushrooms on such an assumption. Clubbe has much of interest to tell us about the world in which Beethoven worked, about the literary, aesthetic and political influences that arguably helped shape