Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Bringing Bakhtin to Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony and the Limits of Formalism

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Bringing Bakhtin to Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony and the Limits of Formalism

Article excerpt

FOR MUCH OF THIS CENTURY, CRITICAL WORK ON BEETHOVEN'S NINTH SYMPHONY has been concerned with the question: what is the form of the fourth movement?1 As practically every scholar has noted, there are a number of references to traditional forms in the last movement: the dominant-tonic cadence that suggests the end of a recitative, the introduction of a second theme in a different key area that is characteristic of sonata-allegro design, the repetition of a thematic group with different (solo) instrumentation that signals double exposition, the operatic finale, the soloistic cadenza, etc. But for these critics, the problem of nailing down the overarching form of the fourth movement was that many of them disagreed as to what constituted a formal articulation. More embarrassingly, they even disagreed on the significance of those articulations. They could recognize, easily enough, the dominant-tonic cadence at the end of the cello interruptions, but should they account for it as the end of recitative and the beginning of an aria, or is it more loosely the cadential conclusion of a rambling introduction and hence the signal of the beginning of some other genre or form? To illustrate the wide critical discrepancy, consider the varying interpretations of the formal significance of the "Seid umschlungen" theme: is it the beginning of a new section (Schenker), the second part of a recapitulation (Sanders), an episode between rondo themes (Williams), the beginning of a second Abgesange (Baensch), or the beginning of the finale (Tovey)?

It is understandable then, that recent studies of the Ninth have repudiated, in varying degrees, the myopic formalism of twentieth-century criticism, particularly with regard to the fourth movement of the Ninth. Indeed, the impossibility of reading the Ninth with mere formalist tools could be said to constitute the one assumption most contemporary readings have in common. Dissatisfied with pat methodological explanations of such a problematic work, such scholars as Richard Taruskin, James Webster, Nicholas Cook and Phillip Friedheim have launched extensive attacks on the limits of previous interpretations of the Ninth.2 In Webster's study, for example, he lays out eight different formal interpretations in a table that reveals all the points of divergences in those readings. His table marks out not only the contradictions of those readings, but their often mutually exclusive nature. It seems natural for scholars to haggle over fine points, but Webster's table shows us that so many mutually exclusive readings do not so much indicate the infinite richness of a single text so much as bespeak the poverty of those critical methods used to explain that text. In his own answer to the problem of the form of the last movement, Webster identifies eleven sections - each of them incomplete - and argues that its structure is through-composed. By arguing that the fourth movement is through-composed, Webster circumvents the question of form, insisting more emphatically than other recent critics: "'the' form of the finale does not exist."3

Although Phillip Friedheim divides the Ninth - not surprisingly - into different sections than Webster, he recognizes with Webster that the fourth movement has a peculiarly transformative logic which erstwhile obsessions with formal structure had missed. He argues that the Ninth moves from traditional structural patterns and arrives, by the end of the fourth movement, at a "state of rhapsodic compositional freedom."4 For Friedheim, "the entire Symphony moves to the point where it will finally free itself from all formal restrictions."5 Both Friedheim and Webster offer their own readings of the fourth movement to show that a recognition of the various references to form is not necessarily incorrect, but insufficient. As their readings show, to recognize the articulations of structural devices is not the same as getting at the logic which impels the movement.

In their own discussions of the Ninth, Taruskin and Cook do not make up for the limits of their discipline by posing alternative readings as Webster and Friedheim do. …

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