Untimely Meditations

Untimely Meditations

Beethoven has been particularly fortunate in his recent critics and biographers.


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).

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.

The second, more problematic aspect of late style on which Solomon draws has a special pertinence to Beethoven, whose late works (notably the Ninth Symphony, the last five piano sonatas, the final handful of quartets, Missa Solemnis) form an identifiable group and show marked evidence of a considerable transformation in his actual compositional style from the romantic heroism of his middle-period works to a difficult, highly personal and (to the listener and even his contemporaries) a somewhat unattractive, not to say repellent, idiom. It is as if the earlier extrovert has turned inward, and now produces gnarled and eccentric pieces of music that make unprecedented demands on performer and listener alike, and at the same time convey a sense not of resignation but of an unusual rebelliousness, breaking barriers, transgressively exploring the basic elements of the art as if anew.

In an introduction he wrote for Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad, Hermann Broch, the distinguished Austrian man of letters and author of The Sleepwalkers and The Death of Virgil, speaks of what he calls the style of old age as follows:

[It] is not always a product of the years; it is a gift implanted along with his other gifts in the artist, ripening, it may be, with time, often blossoming before its season under the foreshadow of death, or unfolding of itself even before the approach of age or death: it is the reaching of a new level of expression, such as the old Titian’s discovery of the all-penetrating light which dissolves the human flesh and the human soul to a higher unity; or such as the finding by Rembrandt and Goya, both at the height of their manhood, of the metaphysical surface which underlies the visible in man and thing, and which nevertheless can be painted; or such as the Art of the Fugue which Bach in his old age dictated without having a concrete instrument in mind, because what he had to express was either beneath or beyond the audible surface of music.

Theodor Adorno’s severely rigorous short essay “Beethoven’s Late Style” catches the gist of this style aphoristically in one of the chapters of his posthumously published and unfinished book on the composer, Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music. What characterizes the late style, Adorno writes in this early part of the book, is not Beethoven’s biographical apprehension of death (which, if it appears at all, does so only in the figure of allegory) but rather a new aesthetic that is fragmentary, incomplete, elusive and surprisingly full of outworn conventions (trills, fiorituras, “ingenuously simple…accompaniments”) that are “made visible in unconcealed, untransformed barrenness.” Far from the ripeness of a mature fruit, this peculiar style and the late works it gives rise to “are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured. They are apt to lack sweetness, fending off with prickly tartness those interested merely in sampling them.” Adorno concludes with this bravura set of formulations:

The caesurae, however, the abrupt stops which characterize the latest Beethoven more than any other feature, are those moments of breaking free; the work falls silent as it is deserted, turning its hollowness outward. Only then is the next fragment added, ordered to its place by escaping subjectivity and colluding for better or worse with what has gone before, and can be exorcized only by the figure they form together. This illuminates the contradiction whereby the very late Beethoven is called both subjective and objective, while the light in which alone it glows is subjective. He does not bring about their harmonious synthesis. As a dissociative force he tears them apart in time, perhaps in order to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.

This may seem impossibly gnomic, and it is certainly complicated to decipher, but its main arguments are clear enough. First of all, late-style Beethoven is not, as one might expect, all about reconciliation and a kind of restful summing up of a long, productive career. That is what one finds, for example, in Shakespeare’s late romances like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline, or in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, where, to borrow from another context, ripeness is all. In Adorno’s account of late style, there is violence, experimental energy and, most important, a refusal to accept any idea of a healing, inclusive restfulness that comes at the end of a fruitful career. Second, and this is crucial for Solomon’s book (which, oddly, mentions Adorno only in passing), the late-style phenomenon overturns our ideas and experiences about the coherence, organic completeness, the wholeness of the work, which is tied together (if that’s the right way of putting it) in unexpected ways. Solomon shows, for example, that for a long time after Beethoven composed the choral finale to the Ninth Symphony, he was endlessly toying with the idea of replacing it with instrumental music and doing away entirely with the choral setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” And what we have now, Solomon continues, is hardly the unitary hymn to joy but rather a composition whose “fusion of styles and procedures is matched by the multivalence of its forms, which constitute a palimpsest of superimposed hybrid structures–a set of variations; one or another sonata form; a four-movement cycle superimposed on a sonata-allegro concerto form with double exposition…; a cantata; a through-composed text-derived form; a suite; a divertimento; an operatic finale; and even a free fantasy.” Everything about the work echoes “resistance to the given. That is why it begins with open fifths, tonal indeterminacy, a sense of the void.”

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.

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.

If one major intellectual source for Beethoven’s late style was the body of ideas and readings he shared with Schlegel, Goethe and Herder–much of it derived from romantic Orientalism, especially that branch of it concerned with ancient mystery cults and religions from the East and the Mediterranean, translations of the ancient Indian classics by William Jones, and of course a renewed interest in Homer and other antique authors–the other was the Masonic tradition, which was extraordinarily influential in early modern Europe. Mozart was a prominent Mason, and so too in much of his thought about ritual purification, initiatory trials of endurance and moral fortitude, a deep veneration of the highest humanistic Illuminist ideals (all of this memorably embodied in Mozart’s Sarastro), was Beethoven. A fine chapter by Solomon on Beethoven’s “Masonic Imagination” goes over this material with great sensitivity, since as with all other fields of endeavor, Beethoven was a vital, if also eccentric, solitary whose prodigious hallmark was to cannibalize everything he borrowed or read and make it his own. Solomon’s method is to show the trends and the inflections that enter the music as music, rather than as programmatic ideas.

The range of material in this book is striking indeed. Solomon moves gracefully between literature, philosophy, literary theory, social history, musical analysis and informed intellectual speculation. What is so impressive about the writing is the extraordinary tact and precision of Solomon’s prose, as he describes music– the most silent and enigmatic of the arts–in terms that relate both to the whole range of one of the most striking of human minds in its historical context while also allowing us to enter the music on its own formal and compositional terms. In analyzing, for example, Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, a complex late-style piano composition consisting of thirty-three variations on what has been usually considered to be a trivial waltz theme by Anton Diabelli, Solomon revises and overturns that conventional assumption by relating the tune instead to Wordsworth’s concern with the “humble and rustic,” and the romantic “valorization of folk art”; which in turn leads us to “the familiar [which] opens on the quotidian, the sphere of the quotidian itself opens, not only on the humble, the popular, the rustic, and every manifestation of the ordinary, but on larger issues of identity as well.” From there, Solomon proceeds to an elegant account of the huge work as a journey, the many skillfully executed metamorphoses in it implying a narrator who “looks back to the theme, which is the link to the home that he left in favor of an arduous pursuit of every conceivable metaphor for a desired goal–toward God, Paradise, reason, wisdom, order, peace, achievement, perfection, healing, and love.” And then, in a masterful turn of phrase, Solomon notes how Beethoven foils our expectations of arrival and chooses instead “to close with a wordless song, a spectral dance in tempo di minuetto, moderato, marked grazioso e dolce.”

I wish there were more opportunity here to show how every chapter in Solomon’s book is full of subtle, deeply satisfying accounts of what actually went into Beethoven’s late-style works, but of course there isn’t. Still, I can conclude here by suggesting the compelling nature of Solomon’s achievement, which seems to me to provide a kind of humanistic inquiry on the highest level without ever scanting the technical demands of Beethoven’s formidably complex music. How many musicologists today can, for instance, excavate the Romantic movement as thoroughly as Solomon does and then take from it its principal motifs and images as they are transformed by Beethoven according to the rigors of, say, a symphony, sonata, fugue or bagatelle?

What distinguishes so much of Solomon’s work is his fearless way of connecting human concerns of the utmost importance with the exigencies of music: Thus a moving chapter on the use of music for healing purposes derives its power from reported actual performances by Beethoven and Schubert (his exact contemporary) of specific piano works, in whose sonic universe the composer placed a kind of therapeutic spell. Or, even more brilliant than that, there is a superb excursion on Beethoven’s endings during his last period (for example, for transcendental works such as the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Ninth Symphony), which are shown to be far from the conclusive and triumphant cadences that we have all taken them for, but rather seen by Beethoven as alternatives among others for closing statements to these monuments in sound. Far from being airy speculations, Solomon’s analyses rely on the archeological discipline of archival research, which he turns into evidence for what he unwaveringly regards as Beethoven’s endless, unrelenting artistic vitality and creativity. “Ultimately, the coercive and subversive implications of [such works as] the Ninth Symphony may be inseparable, perhaps because Beethoven’s futuristic impulse–to create things that had never before existed–warred with his yearning to belong to tradition.”

My one nagging reservation about what Solomon does so well as an inventive critic and generously sympathetic cultural interpreter is that it isn’t clear how his findings might be related to actual performances of Beethoven’s music today. You can take Solomon’s marvelously enlightening insights out of Beethoven’s writing and his scores, but he does not quite provide us with a way of putting them back into musical realizations of the works themselves. Perhaps there is no direct indication of how that might be done, although, if the reader is a musician, he or she is filled with a sense of possible interpretive routes to take. Performance necessarily involves choices made and action taken. Solomon’s reticence on this point somewhat undermines the attractive power of his overall insights, with their richness of allusion and the sense they convey of untapped possibility and as-yet-unthought alternatives buried inside the music, there to be discovered and deciphered with great intellectual pleasure. Perhaps that’s enough of an achievement for one critic writing at the top of his form, but I must say that I feel tantalizingly close to an understanding of what I might do as a musician with Solomon there to guide me, along with the legions of performing artists who have so much to learn from his analyses. If only now he would.

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