Miscellanea

The Beethoven Newsletter, Summer 1988 | Go to article overview

Miscellanea


Too much and not enough has been written about what music means, and with no other composer is this topic more appropriate than with Beethoven, who managed to merge astonishingly creative musical designs with extra-musical significance. In spite of his brilliance in this regard, most contemporary writers seem to feel more comfortable with discussions of his music in purely abstract musical terms. Essays that directly confront the meaning of a work in non-musical terms are considered old-fashioned and somewhat tainted. But how, for example, could one pretend to know - or explain - Beethoven's Fifth Symphony without trying to articulate both parts of its meaning, the musical and the extramusical, and their combination, the essence of the work which has permanently sustained its importance in Art?

While we readily concede that we too take intellectual pleasure in purely musical discussions of pieces, we inevitably take ourselves to task when we recall the scene of Beethoven playing the slow movement of the Quartet in F major, Opus 18, no. 1, for his beloved friend Karl Amenda. After he had played it for Amenda, Beethoven asked him what he thought of the Adagio: "It described for me the parting of two lovers," replied Amenda. "Good!" remarked Beethoven, "I thought of the scene in the burial vault in Romeo and Juliet."*

Some writers view this movement as a momentary aberration, but we think its poetic nature is not abnormal. Two recent books support our contention. The more fervent of these is Robin Wallace's Beethoven's Critics (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), who argues that, "despite the aesthetic prestige given Beethoven's 'absolute' instrumental music in [E.T.A.] Hoffmann's oft-quoted reviews, many other, perhaps more representative, early critics took for granted that the instrumental works each had a definite (though variously articulated) extra-musical significance, and they often went to considerable analytical lengths to ground that significance in musical specifics" (quoting Steven Whiting's favorable review in Notes 44: 707). Similarly, Michael Broyles, in his fine new book Beethoven/The Emergence and Evolution of Beethoven's Heroic Style, emphasizes that the eighteenth-century theorist Koch "explicitly considered the expressive element to be the most important dimension of a piece," and cautions that, "For the historian the importance of the expressive dimension must not be minimized because of the absence of a satisfactory analytical methodology or conversely because of the seductive availability of a structural methodology" (New York: Excelsior Music Publishing Co., 1987, p. 13).

The reluctance of some musicologists and analysts to confront the question of meaning directly is not always shared by other writers, as was vividly brought home to us recently when a friend passed on an antique and curious book, Cyril Scott's Music/Its Secret Influence Throughout the Ages (Wellingborough, North Hampshire: Aquarian Press, 1933).

Scott discusses Beethoven from two angles: he states that Beethoven's music "induced Sympathy on a scale hitherto unknown" and that "it made possible the introduction later on of the science of Psycho-analysis to a baffled and horrified public; it was, in fact, the forerunner of this therapeutical science."

To prove his first point, Scott argues that "If Beethoven's character had been otherwise it is not conceivable that he could have discharged his singular mission, which was to portray in sound every variety of human emotion. As [J.S.] Bach had been the greatest polyphonist hitherto known, Beethoven was the greatest musical psychologist. For this reason it was essential that he should be born to suffer, born with manifold difficulties against which to contend; difficulties of temperament, of external conditions, and of corporeal difficulties. In order to express the entire gamut of human emotions in the cipher of music, he had first to experience, if not all, at any rate most of them; the rest were achieved with imagination. …

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