Untimely Meditations | The Nation


Untimely Meditations

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Solomon's description of the late work's openness explains somewhat the Ninth's various cultural appropriations since its first Vienna performance in 1824. This amazingly persistent phenomenon has been studied with sociological rigor by Esteban Buch in Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History, which demonstrates how Beethoven's music played a major part in the formation of national identity (along with national anthems like "God Save the King" and "La Marseillaise"). The Ninth ended up tragically in the employ of twentieth-century German nationalism at its worst, but it also lent itself to the struggles against apartheid and totalitarianism. No other musical work has had as far-reaching political effect all over the world as the Ninth, especially its celebration of human fraternity and an empowering freedom.

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Edward W. Said
We mourn the loss of Edward Said, who passed away on the morning of Thursday, September 25, 2003. Edward W. Said, the...

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Solomon's focus, however, is exclusively on the composer's own internal world, which, beginning in the years around 1810 and "gaining momentum as the decade proceeded...eventually amounted to a sweeping realignment of his understanding of nature, divinity, and human purpose, constituting a sea change in Beethoven's system of beliefs." Using the composer's prose jottings in his Tagebuch, an intimate diary kept between 1812 and 1818, Solomon tries to do nothing less than connect these quite explicitly verbal and often philosophical thoughts to the entirely musical, nondiscursive, nondenotative world of tones and abstract form.

In a series of twelve chapters and a prologue, Solomon sketches out the revolution in thought, feeling and musical form that Beethoven accomplished during his last years as an active composer. These were years of increasing deafness and solitude, of political disillusionment (especially after the Congress of Vienna) and a heightened sense of his own mortality. During this period he withdrew into himself, seeking through intense concentration to come to terms with his art not in an adversarial but in a creatively cooperative way, at the same time that he felt he had to renounce urban life for "the quasi-monastic solitude of rural life, removed from the hurly-burly of the city." What might have become instead an unforgiving sacrificial imperative was tempered by Beethoven's unstilled need for human kinship: Solomon opines that that need accounts for the lonely bachelor's efforts to become his nephew's guardian and mentor. But this too became for Beethoven "another form of self-denial," while musically he worked out "possible reconfigurations of musical form...[in order] to sound unplumbed depths of expressivity."

Read this way, Beethoven's last compositions, his late style, undertake all sorts of unconventional excursions in content and form, from a leisurely pastoral setting in his last violin sonata, Opus 96, which moves toward "a restoration of the full range of classical pastoral experience that Virgil, Bion, and Theocritus had known, including its Elegiac and Bacchic strains, thereby rescuing musical pastoral from its ongoing slide into a picturesque, devitalized celebration of the bucolic," to a "devotional journey in his [monumental piano work, the] 'Diabelli' Variations," and then finally to "a colossal symphony that presumed to dissolve boundaries between language and music, thus perhaps to restore the union of the arts rumored to have existed in ancient ritual drama." Many of these ideas are scattered in Beethoven's notebooks, letters and diaries of the period, but it is Solomon's ingenuity to have seen in that often inchoate and fragmentary material the adumbration of huge formal outlines that, in their philosophical challenge to students of Beethoven, go well beyond the fussy schematic formalism imposed traditionally on orthodox musicology.

To Solomon, it is clear that besides being a great artist, Beethoven is also a thinker, and what he does in music is to think, feel and survey new territory in order to produce sound that almost has the feel of a landscape, or that of a Dantesque voyage, all of it realized in an exactingly personal, even rebarbative musical language. Thus, the older Beethoven abandons an anthropocentric classical worldview inherited from the Enlightenment and, like the literary and philosophic Romantics who were his contemporaries, he returns again and again to a transfigured or renovated classical world, even to the point of adapting classical Greek meters to organize his great Seventh Symphony in an attempt to "evoke the ancient pagan world via a fantasy reconstruction of its music." This, says Solomon, is a Classic-Romantic revalidation of "the cultural, ethical, and aesthetic premises of Antiquity." It is also, we need to add, yet another instance of what E.M. Butler has called the tyranny of Greece over Germany.

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