Untimely Meditations | The Nation


Untimely Meditations

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Beethoven has been particularly fortunate in his recent critics and biographers. As a start, Elliot Forbes's revised edition of Alexander Thayer's standard early-twentieth-century five-volume Life appeared to great acclaim in 1964 and was further revised by Forbes in 1967. This was followed by a spate of biographical and critical studies of a very high order, including works by Joseph Kerman, Scott Burnham, Charles Rosen, William Kinderman, Martin Cooper and Lewis Lockwood, the senior figure in Beethoven studies, whose magisterial Beethoven: The Music and the Life, the culmination of years of monographic studies, has also just appeared. But for sheer interpretive genius and an uncommon gift for rendering in prose the complex, humanly compelling subtleties of Beethoven's music and life, few approach Maynard Solomon. Aside from an excellent critical biography of Mozart and some important work on Schubert, Solomon has over the years focused his scholarly energies almost entirely on Beethoven, producing over the past quarter-century three massive (but eminently readable) volumes on the great composer: a biography (1977, revised in 1998), a collection, Beethoven Essays (1988), and now perhaps the most remarkable, Late Beethoven, which is also a collection unified around the composer's musical and spiritual concerns during the last decade of his life (1816-27).

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Before describing Solomon's book let me say something about late style, which has been a great interest of mine for some years. There is first of all the artist's connection to his or her own time, or historical period, society and antecedents, how the aesthetic work, for all its irreducible individuality, is nevertheless a part--or, paradoxically, not a part--of the era in which it was produced. This is not simply a matter of sociological or political synchrony but more interestingly has to do with rhetorical or formal style. Thus Mozart expresses in his music a style much more intimately related to the worlds of court and church than Beethoven or Wagner, both of whom emerge from a secular environment in which, by virtue of unreliable patronage and the romantic cult of individual creativity, the composer is no longer seen as a servant (like Bach or Mozart) but as a demanding genius who stands proudly, and perhaps even narcissistically, apart from his time. So not only can one often see an easily perceptible connection between, say, a realistic artist like Balzac and his social milieu; there is also an antithetical relationship in the case of artists whose work challenges the aesthetic and social norms of their eras and is, so to speak, too late for the times, in the sense of superseding or transcending them. This relationship is especially difficult to discern in the case of a musician like Beethoven or Brahms, whose art is neither mimetic nor theatrical.

Beethoven's late works, according to Solomon, exude a new sense of private striving and instability that is quite different from earlier works such as the "Eroica" Symphony and the five piano concertos that address the world with self-confident gregariousness. The masterpieces of Beethoven's final decade are late to the extent that they are beyond their own time, ahead of it in terms of daring and startling newness, later than it in that they describe a return or homecoming to realms forgotten or left behind by the relentless forward march of history.

Literary modernism itself can be seen as a late-style phenomenon insofar as artists such as Joyce and Eliot appear to be out of their time altogether, returning to ancient myth or antique forms such as the epic or ancient religious ritual for their inspiration. Among other figures, writers like Lampedusa, the Sicilian aristocrat who wrote only one, backward-looking novel, The Leopard, which interested no publishers at all while he was alive, or Constantine Cavafy, the Alexandrian Greek poet who also published next to nothing during his lifetime, suggest the rarefied, almost precious, but formidably difficult aesthetic of minds that refuse direct engagement with their own time while spinning out a semi-resistant, backward-looking artwork of considerable power nonetheless. In philosophy, Nietzsche is the great prototype of a similarly "untimely" stance. The words "late" or "belated" seem acutely appropriate for such figures.

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