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Robin Wallace: Reintroducing Beethoven

Oct. 12, 2017

Dr. Robin Wallace, professor of musicology at Baylor since 2003, combines expertise on music criticism, enthusiasm for teaching, and personal experience to bring music history to life for students and readers. His specialty? Ludwig van Beethoven.

“Why Beethoven? That’s the eternal question,” Wallace said. “I always loved his music. It resonates more with me emotionally than any other composer’s.”

Wallace also claims a longstanding interest in music criticism. While developing his doctoral dissertation at Yale University, he explored the reviews of Beethoven’s music that had come out during the composer’s life, research that resulted in the publication of his first book, Beethoven’s Critics. His translation and annotation of the primary texts for that book led Wallace to collaborate with other scholars on a multivolume collection of virtually all of the reviews of Beethoven from his lifetime. In July 2017, Wallace carried the most recent volume of the collection to online publication by the Center for Beethoven Studies at Boston University.

Through his research, Wallace has particularly enjoyed debunking the myth that Beethoven’s music was unpopular and that the composer received numerous bad reviews when his music first came out.

“There was a certain amount of resistance to some of his more radical music, but what I found was that the same half dozen bad reviews got quoted over and over again, often out of context, in order to give the impression that his music got slammed at first and only later caught on,” Wallace said. “I quickly discovered how wrong that was. From the very beginning, the vast majority of reviewers fully recognized the importance of Beethoven’s music.”

While Wallace’s research may seem esoteric at surface level, it informs and enlightens his life’s passion – teaching. When Wallace enters a classroom – whether it’s a third-semester music history course, entry-level music appreciation, or a graduate seminar – he must consider the way students are approaching the subject.

“When I study what music critics write about one of the most important composers in history, I can’t think of really any form of study that could have better prepared me for the challenges I face as a classroom teacher,” he said.

Wallace’s interest in sound pedagogy also led him to write a textbook for introductory college music classes, Take Note: An Introduction to Music through Active Listening, published three years ago by Oxford University Press.

Back in 2003, when Wallace first accepted the position to teach at Baylor, an unexpected change accompanied the many expected ones. The day the Wallace family was preparing to drive from Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Waco to look at houses, Wallace’s wife, Barbara, suddenly lost her hearing.

Barbara, who passed away in 2011, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in her 20s. The radiation treatment she received for the tumor affected her hearing for years to come, and in 2000 she had lost hearing in her right ear. The left ear followed three years later.

“She wasn’t a trained musician, but she had sung in choirs for years. Her mother was a church organist. She loved music. We went to a lot of concerts together,” Wallace said. “Losing that aspect of her life was a huge blow to her.”

Though Barbara’s sudden deafness presented many challenges for her and her family, Wallace found a silver lining.

“I may be the only major Beethoven scholar who has also spent a significant portion of time living with a deaf person – who has seen the experience of deafness firsthand and had the chance to understand it and how people adapt to deafness,” Wallace said. “After Barbara died, I realized that I needed to write a book about Beethoven’s deafness which also drew upon my experience with her. Bringing those two things together allowed me to develop insights into Beethoven that others had not.”

Wallace proposed this project to the University of Chicago Press in 2014, and they received it enthusiastically. The press was determined that the volume should be a trade book, rather than a standard academic publication. Expected to be published next year, the hybrid history and memoir adds an unusually personal touch to an academic work.

“I managed to weave Barbara’s story together with what I figured out about Beethoven’s deafness and some insights into his work and his compositional process, particularly the importance of the other senses – of touch and sight – as a part of the experience of music,” Wallace said.

In this new book, Wallace hopes to challenge readers to rethink Beethoven’s music at a fundamental level, as more than just sound but as a symphony of all of the senses working together.

In 2014, as Wallace was beginning to work on the book, he met Tom Beghin of McGill University when Beghin was at Baylor to deliver a lecture. An expert on historical pianos, Beghin had arranged for a piano maker in Belgium to replicate Beethoven’s Broadwood, the piano the composer had used during the last decade of his life. When Beghin mentioned his interest in replicating the composer’s resonator – a contraption Beethoven had built to go over the Broadwood – Wallace enthusiastically encouraged him to go for it.

Part of Wallace’s research for his book involved the use of technology to aid in hearing music. His late wife, Barbara, had received a cochlear implant that allowed her to recover some hearing; similarly, Beethoven used various technologies to maximize his hearing as it degenerated, like his ear trumpets and the less well-known resonator. The resonator projected the sound back toward the composer, creating an acoustic environment in which he was able to hear – and feel in the case of the vibrations – as much as possible.

“I worked together with Tom on some of his replication process, and I had the opportunity to visit Belgium during my sabbatical and play on the instrument. This also helped to change my understanding of what Beethoven was doing in his late piano works, just how much of it really does have to do with touch and vibration and the way it felt to him,” Wallace said. “I’m suggesting [in my book] that the physical, tactile contact with the instrument became even more important with him after he couldn’t hear, as did the physical, tactile process of writing.”

Wallace contributed an essay on these observations to the extensive liner notes that will accompany Beghin’s recording Inside the Hearing Machine, to be released in October.

For Wallace, the unique experiences of his life and a dedication to primary research have expanded and challenged his knowledge and understanding of one of history’s greatest composers. “Do not practice art alone, but penetrate its inner meaning as well; it deserves it, for only art and learning elevate people toward the divine,” Beethoven once advised a young student. By studying Beethoven’s music and the acoustic environment in which he composed, Wallace has gained a greater understanding of the man behind the piano and is reintroducing that man and his gifts to the world.