Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Rilke's Beethoven

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Rilke's Beethoven

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

RAINER MARIA RILKE (1875-1926), widely esteemed as the greatest German poet of the twentieth-century, is revered by devotees as possibly the greatest poet of that century in any language. For many, his genius in the ranks of European poets is as imposing as that of Beethoven in the realm of music. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Beethoven enjoyed a tremendous vogue in America as well as in Europe that culminated in 1927 in celebrations across both continents commemorating the centenary of his death.1 Almost all of Rilkes major works, including The Notebooks of Make Laurids Brigge (1910), spanned the decades of Beethoven's greatest posthumous fame. Rilke is one of those who best understood the composer, and a passage in Make contains some of the most deeply wise and compelling observations ever made about Beethoven's music.2 Few Rilke scholars have dealt with the passage in any detail, and it is virtually unknown to Beethoven scholarship and to many in the wider public who value Beethoven's genius. Rilkes interest in art and in artists like Cézanne and Rodin is better known and has received more scholarly attention than his abiding passion for music and musicians, particularly the music of Beethoven. But, as Rudiger Görner has observed, "Bach, Beethoven and Nietzsche influenced him as much as Rodin, Cézanne, Klee, and Picasso."3

Music strongly moved Rilke from childhood on. A century ago, writing letters could still be a passion and an art.4 Even in his youth Rilke was a prolific letter writer, and his letters written in maturity tell us much about how he responded to music and to Beethoven. His observations on music also appear in his poems, diaries, prose works, and elsewhere. His writings, even when the subject is ostensibly not about music, are in rheir language often musical. His passion for Beethoven was life-long. His deep engagement with the composer had obviously preceded diary entries he wrote in March 1 900 in response to attending a performance of the Missa solemnis. 5

The events recounted in Make take place in Denmark. The name "Malte Laurids Brigge" is Danish but is phonetically close to "Rainer Maria Rilke." Rilkes high regard for the Danish people and their culture is reflected both in the title and in the events described in the book. Make is in prose, but a prose that often approaches poetry. Though the work is sometimes referred to as a novel, it is largely autobiographical, though it should be regarded as a symbolic rather than a literal autobiography. As Rilke himself observed, "He and I are separate, of course, yet he took a lot into his life that was mine, some of it almost completely."6

Make began to germinate in Rilkes mind during his initial visit to Paris in 1902-03. Only in 1904 did the actual conception for the book come to him. Early that year, ensconced in a villa outside Rome, he began putting together the fragments he had accumulated. Completed by late 1909, Malte was published the following year.7 The incident that sparked Rilkes perfêrvid disquisition on Beethoven appears to belong to the first weeks of his Paris stay in the summer of 1902.8 There Rilke, still inexpert in French, had trouble making friends and initially experienced intense loneliness. His celebration ofthat other solitary, Beethoven, follows a section in Malte where he alludes to his acute fear of being alone.

The Beethoven passage begins with a moment of transcendence that came upon Rilke as he noticed two plaster-cast facemasks on the outside wall of a shop that he passed on his daily walk. One mask was of a beautiful young woman found drowned in the Seine. Her body had been taken to the Paris morgue, then open to the public and indeed one of the sights of Paris.9 People went there to identify the body of a friend, a family member, or a lover, or simply to look around. Impressed by the extraordinary beauty of the unknown young woman, someone made a mask of her face. …

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