Art and Scientific Thought: Historical Studies Towards a Modern Revision of Their Antagonism

By Martin Johnson | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
An Approach to Beethoven's Final Music for String Quartet

I

During the last three years of Beethoven's troubled life he ceased to compose for orchestra or piano the works by which he is generally known, and returned to the writing of string quartets. For fourteen years previously he had not attempted this intensely expressive form of composition, and his final development of it shows a Beethoven so altered that he seems almost to have passed into a new sphere of existence. Five quartets are the entire legacy from this remarkable phase; in some respects they are as isolated from his earlier work as from that of other composers, and they may well demand for their appreciation a special approach, though not necessarily a more learned approach. In fact, when listeners or players are inclined to dismiss these late quartets as unintelligible, it is often through the very difficulty of fitting them into the judgments already applied to his sonatas and symphonies. It may even have been obsession with the earlier works of Beethoven that drove a bewildered critic to label the final quartets 'dark with excessive light'. Certainly they are difficult enough to play, and, like all of the most permanent, they are not likely to yield lasting satisfaction to the listener until repeatedly heard; but the excellence of modern gramophone records has removed this bar to appreciation, and has allowed us to discover that nothing in the whole range of music more generously repays frequent rehearing. To accept the legend that these works are unintelligible is at least to disregard their extraordinary diversity; for no one who has ever taken the trouble to recognise 'sincere' music (whether light music or profound, gay or severe, classical or modern) need fail to find somewhere in them his own particular delight. Perhaps their secret is that under this diversity the only unity is of the vision to which their composer had attained, a vision with which we all are acquainted, but in fleeting moments only, and which we need to fix as permanent basis for the endurability of stormy existence. Recall that those

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