Sunday afternoon was Beethoven time – torpor, majesty. Tired after cooking the lunch, but sweetly imploring, my father relished his captive audience. Mother and older brother had somehow slipped out of the sitting room, which left me and my sister, both musical, both too young to be free. My father stood by the coffin-like gramophone, a bulky inheritance from ailing Uncle Jimmy. The stylus grazed the vinyl. What would it be? One of the earlier string quartets? The violin concerto, with Menuhin? The likeliest choice was one of the 32 piano sonatas, from a cherished collection of different recordings: the names of the pianists, presented always as surnames and seemingly disclosed only in that sitting room, shimmered like distant towns, invented places: Arrau, Gilels, Richter, Barenboim, Brendel.
I couldn’t or wouldn’t listen. I disliked Beethoven’s bombast: the melodramatic dynamic contrasts that seemed like huge arguments followed by wheedling tears; the endless endings of the symphonies, as the brassy orchestra wumps from tonic to dominant to tonic, over and over again. The beer-cellar heroism in major keys – the aspect of Beethoven that sometimes offended even Adorno as ‘ham-acting’, ‘a mere “boom boom”’. Even the beauties of the famous slow movements – the Pathétique or Appassionata, say – seemed stiflingly ‘noble’ on a dull Northern English Sunday afternoon. The string quartets with their polite rustle.
I wanted a different music. For simple escape and vandalising joy, there was the rock music my brother was sharing with me. For contemplation and difficult beauty, there was the stuff I knew and cherished as a cathedral chorister, a largely English polyphonic tradition from the 16th and 17th centuries, alongside which later Viennese classicism appeared a bland retreat. When you hear William Byrd and Thomas Tallis for the first time, you don’t know where things are going; there are weird harmonies and tonal shifts, curious crooked cadences that loom suddenly from unlit verges. And such dissonances! In the cathedral, we loved to squeeze out those acute semitone clashes, which we called ‘scrunches’. In Byrd, in Tallis and often in Bach, of course, dissonance is felt as a shudder that goes vertically through the body of the music, like someone pressing down on a wound. When you’ve sung Purcell’s unfinished fragment from the early 1680s, ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’, a two-and-a-half minute howl in C minor, relentlessly unfurling its dissonance and grinding chromaticism, you’ve heard everything that’s important in music, and can skip straight to the 20th century. Or so it seemed to me. My sister was studying the Renaissance composer Gesualdo, a kind of lunatic of chromaticism. By contrast, the Viennese symphonic tradition of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven came well wadded with unimportant social and syntactical ‘filler’ – like the difference between a Donne poem and some big realist novel of the 19th century. In classical Austria, tonality was a wander through familiar connecting rooms; dissonance, when it appeared at all, existed not to open wounds but to close them.
Of course, I’d constructed a straw man stuffed full of my ignorance, prejudice and adolescent bullishness. It took me some time to listen properly to Beethoven, to get past the heroic glower of his portrait, the worldwide canonicity. (Surely it didn’t help that our entire generation, like those before us, had to trudge through Für Elise and what we could manage of the Pathétique on the piano. I used to go to sleep to the broken sounds of those pieces, as my brother, five years older, toiled downstairs at his ‘homework’.) It wasn’t till my early twenties that I started listening to the piano sonatas as they demand to be heard: evenly, carefully. Later, I worked through a few on the piano, cold-fingered after years of keyboard hibernation. The Beethoven who emerged turned out to be closer in spirit and practice to Tallis and Byrd than I had imagined. This was a Beethoven not of overwhelming symphonic force but of delicate counterpoint and relentless chromatic logic, a composer who explores the subtlest harmonic developments, who delights in exploring fugues, dissonance, form. I was struck above all by Beethoven’s contradictions – he was a conventional master of the unexpected, an explosive student of tradition. The strictest complexity is placed alongside the fiercest simplicity: a flaying double fugue will suddenly give way to a clear and lovely melody, flowing like water.
I’ve always liked Glenn Gould’s characterisation, which he offered before a performance of the piano sonata known as the ‘Tempest’ (Op. 31 No. 2) – that inside Beethoven was a museum curator and a mad inventor, and that what makes his work so fascinating is that this struggle is not repressed or smoothed over, but writhes on the surface of the music. Biographically speaking, it would be tempting to divide Beethoven into two analogous selves, with the curator as the official, and the inventor as the private Beethoven. Official Beethoven, scholastically canonised and properly celebrated in 2020, the 250th anniversary of his birth, takes the inheritance of Mozart and Haydn and fashions a tempestuous but noble Romantic-Enlightenment symphonic language, culminating in the Ninth Symphony (1824), which makes seething use of Schiller’s lofty 18th-century universalism. Private Beethoven, the inventor, is no less heroic, but is less accessible: withdrawn into his deafness, he becomes more and more difficult and experimental as a composer, turning away from audiences around 1815, and producing near the end of his life the spiky famous ‘late style’ of the last piano sonatas (Opp. 109, 110 and 111) and the last string quartets (Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132 and 135).
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But the polarities won’t hold; there are too many Beethovens. For instance, there is indeed a kind of public Enlightenment composer, and his pronouncements are ubiquitous. ‘Never, never will you find me dishonourable,’ he wrote to the Bigot family in 1807. ‘Since childhood I have learned to love virtue and everything beautiful and good.’ A little book called Beethoven: The Man and the Artist, as Revealed in His Own Words, first compiled in 1905, is full of such exempla: ‘Let your conduct always be amiable,’ he wrote to his nephew Karl in 1825. ‘Through art and science the best and noblest of men are bound together and your future vocation will not exclude you.’ ‘I would rather forget what I owe to myself than what I owe to others,’ he told Nanette Streicher in 1817. And so on.
These formulations have a kind of pro forma patina that encourages us to scratch at them. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, lobbing his home-made bomb, snarled at this kind of sublimity, as merely ‘everything beautiful and lofty’. This sacerdotal bore from a Goethe novel can’t have been the real Beethoven. The real man can’t have been the public effigy who nobly dedicated his Eroica symphony to the revolutionary Napoleon and then, just as nobly, revoked the dedication when reactionary Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor in 1804. The real man, we feel, is more likely to have been the one who, on his deathbed, bluntly said about the same leader: ‘With the shithead I was mistaken.’ This Beethoven quarrelled incessantly with his siblings, bullied Karl to attempted suicide in 1826, restlessly occupied more than sixty apartments during his 35 years of work in Vienna because he so often argued with his servants and neighbours, and used coded messages to arrange trysts with prostitutes (‘The time I prefer most of all is at about half past three or four o’clock in the afternoon’).
Yet Beethoven’s Kantian loftiness seems to have been sincere; the Ninth Symphony continues to trouble certain auditors just because it makes such wholeheartedly naive use of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, a poem Beethoven had admired as a young man, before he left Bonn, his birthplace, for Vienna, and fragments of which he placed in various works throughout his career. On the other hand, if it is easy to comprehend the radical, secular Beethoven, committed only to the religion of his music and the brotherhood of humanity, a child of German Aufklärung and the inevitable foe of the increasingly despotic Napoleon, what then to make of his lateish work the Missa Solemnis (1823), which fairly sobs with Christian devotion? Likewise, Beethoven did turn away from his audience: he stopped performing in 1815, as his hearing further deteriorated. His work became more difficult, harder to read. But he remained an engaged and worldly businessman, who managed to sell the score of the Missa Solemnis to three different publishers at once (the triple-dating only came to light when two of the publishers met at a trade fair in Leipzig). Moreover, if his symphonies are the big public appeals, they are no less radical in their way than the more private claims of the sonatas and quartets. And though most people can hear a ‘late style’, it’s hard, like Ivan Ilyich’s illness, to determine exactly when it begins. Beethoven was everything at once – impatient, brave, long-suffering, petty, short-tempered, honest, generous to his friends, cruel to his family, ductile and intractable, worldly and deeply innocent. Many of his friends, perhaps especially those who found him impossible, noted this extraordinary innocence, a trusting, childlike simplicity.
Maynard Solomon’s biography, which appeared in 1977, is the great founding work of Beethoven scholarship in English; its combination of psychoanalytic adventuring and subtle musical analysis is unmatched. It proudly unfurls the banner of what Scott Burnham, in his study from 1995, would call ‘Beethoven Hero’. Solomon separates the life into the familiar Jamesian triptych of early, middle (‘heroic’) and late periods. Though the emotional chaos of Beethoven’s life is hospitably entertained, and comprehended with a Freudian alertness to the wiliness of repression, the emphasis is nevertheless on the majesty of Beethoven’s struggle and the ordering power of transcendence. His compositions are seen Romantically, as the public expressions of intensely personal experiences. For Solomon, the Third Symphony (the Eroica), an early major work of the middle period, owes its ‘unique’ character (along with its ‘heroic successors’), to its ‘incorporation into musical form of death, destructiveness, anxiety, and aggression, as terrors to be transcended within the work of art itself’.
Laura Tunbridge, in her new biographical study, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces, has found an elegant way to give Beethovenian heroism and struggle its due, while slyly plucking at the reverse of Solomon’s martial banner. She organises her narrative around nine compositions and their performances, from early to late, including the Eroica (completed in 1803, first performed in 1804); Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (1814); the intensely demanding and exhilarating piano sonata No. 29, the Hammerklavier (completed in 1818, but only performed privately in Beethoven’s lifetime); the Missa Solemnis; and a late string quartet (Op. 130, first performed in 1826, a year before his death). Tunbridge has an eye for stories and details (the meeting of publishers at the Leipzig trade fair comes from her book). She approaches each composition not as a solitary achievement, but as a kind of composite made of sprinkled genius and strips of toughened old legend; her job is the gentle deconstruction not of the work itself but of the mythology, a task she often achieves by focusing on the material conditions of each piece’s public performance. In the course of her book, we learn a good deal about the state of musical proficiency in early 19th-century Vienna (patchy), instruments (improving, especially the pianos), music critics (a fairly new phenomenon) and princely patronage (on which Beethoven depended for the whole of his career).
Each chapter delivers its little shock of correction. She opens with the first performance, in 1800, of Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, an early work not much known today but immediately popular, and ‘played again and again around Vienna for the rest of his life’. The Septet is agreeable and shapely. The cadences cohere. Everything is in Ordnung; it gives little hint of what was to come. It was premiered alongside a Mozart symphony and an excerpt from Haydn’s Creation, fitting ancestry for a piece that, in a blind test, you might guess to be by a weak acolyte of Beethoven’s, as if from his atelier. In 1818, the year he finished the monumentally difficult Hammerklavier piano sonata, Beethoven wrote that ‘in those days, I did not know how to compose. Now I do.’ But tremors of the upheaval to come were felt very early, if not at the premiere of the Septet. Haydn, who taught Beethoven for a while, apparently listened to his pupil’s Three Piano Trios (Op. 1) in 1794. ‘Papa’ liked the first two, but told Beethoven, who took great offence, that the public wouldn’t understand the third, and that it shouldn’t have been published. The public’s share of incomprehension was on display on 7 April 1805, at the first general performance of the Eroica, at the Theater an der Wien. One critic reported that the audience immediately broke into camps: Beethoven’s devoted supporters and friends, who thought the symphony a masterwork, and everyone else, who resisted it on grounds of length and complexity. If Beethoven ‘were to continue along this path, it would be to the detriment of himself and the public’.
Tunbridge usefully chips away at the traditional ‘heroism’. She tells the familiar story of the Eroica’s dedication and its revocation, in which Beethoven is supposed to have torn his manuscript in two while exclaiming: ‘Now he [Napoleon] will trample on all the rights of man and only indulge his ambition. He will exalt himself above all others and become a tyrant!’ But, she adds, the original manuscript is missing, so we can’t verify this pleasing parable. There is no evidence of a link between the Third Symphony and Napoleon until 1838, well after Beethoven’s death. The real hero was hiding in plain sight. As Tunbridge nicely puts it, once the tormenting drama of the composer’s deafness became generally known, ‘Beethoven became his music’s hero.’ After his death, a kind of long suicide note was found among his papers. Known as the Heiligenstadt Testament (he wrote it while convalescing in a quiet village of that name), it was written in October 1802 and addressed to his two brothers. Beethoven poignantly laments that he has been afflicted with an infirmity ‘in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others’, and mentions the humiliation of standing next to someone who hears a distant flute or a shepherd singing, while ‘I heard nothing.’ What had started as a buzzing and humming in his left ear had become a serious impediment in both. He has been forced, he writes, to ‘become a philosopher in my 28th year’. And so he takes his somewhat theatrical farewell: ‘With joy I hasten to meet death … Come when thou wilt, I shall meet thee bravely.’ In the Romantic tradition, the heroism of Beethoven’s stoical struggle got bound up with the heroism of the almost contemporaneous Eroica; Maynard Solomon goes so far as to call the Heiligenstadt Testament ‘the literary prototype of the Eroica Symphony, a portrait of the artist as hero, stricken by deafness, struggling against fate … a reaffirmation of Beethoven’s adherence to virtue and to the categorical imperative’.
The Third Symphony, if not necessarily heroic in this way, is nonetheless an astonishingly bold project, still very exciting. It was almost twice as long as the usual offering from Haydn or Mozart. Beethoven runs a kind of musical decathlon throughout, demonstrating his multifarious facility. Ideas and themes jigsaw through the movements, and are restlessly put through different formal paces – variations, mini-fugues, fragmented repetition, massive dissonant chords. Sonata form, that essayistic inheritance of exposition, development and recapitulation, is stretched into mad new volumes of expression. The dynamics surge wildly, pouncing fortes followed by lulling pianos; serene, sweet-natured melodies (there’s a lovely one in the final movement) appear suddenly in the midst of loud business, now emerging as soft mutinies, peaceful coups. And then, back to loud business: the final movement sounds almost Wagnerian in places. What’s the Beethovenian difference? Compare it to Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, in the same key of E flat major and sometimes considered an influence on this work, and one is struck not just by the plenitude, scale and wit of Beethoven’s inventions, but by an absolute rhythmic novelty.
Rhythmically, Mozart is stable, constant and thus sociable, even essayistic. Beethoven turns rhythm into plot, into argument, into speech (an effect aided of course by the dynamic variation). The music is infected with a near painful metrical tension. There are sudden moments of silence, or bits of syncopation followed by driving repetitions. A brassy tutti is suddenly punctured by a balletic pizzicato, the cellos and double basses dancing on slippered tiptoe. In particular, Beethoven insists on marking his score with offbeat sforzandi, stabbing dynamic emphases which have the effect of forcing the players to break rhythmic step, pushing them out of the metre (a familiar technique in jazz and rock drumming, where alternating sticks misplace the accent at different moments in an apparently steady roll). Haydn liked to take very small motifs and work the life out of them; but Beethoven’s development of such cellular motifs is as often as rhythmic as it is melodic: the celebrated ‘short-short-short-long’ phrase that opens the Fifth Symphony, for instance, is soon being tossed between the instruments like Morse code between warships (it is in fact the code for ‘V’, which became useful propaganda – ‘V’ for Victory – for the Allies in the Second World War).
Our tendency to hear Beethovenian rhythm and dynamics as argument, as speech, may explain, in part, why we have such a need to make his dramatic music so personally dramatic. When comedians turn to Beethoven they make the mad animation of his work the funny thing: Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray using the opening of the Fifth Symphony to mime a marital argument, Rowan Atkinson grinning then suddenly weeping a beat later as he plays the Moonlight sonata absurdly fast on an invisible keyboard. The comic premise is akin to imagining that dogs think like humans: that a soul is imprisoned inside the score, that this very particular musical language is really our spoken language. The tendency began in Beethoven’s life, and continued to grow throughout the 19th century. Usefully for cultural history, there is an origin story that is for once not mythical. It began in 1810, when E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote a review of the Fifth Symphony that is considered one of the most influential essays in the history of music criticism. In it, he claimed Beethoven for Romanticism, and music as the highest form of Romanticism. According to Hoffmann, listening to Haydn was like walking happily through green fields and forests. Mozart intimates dread, but keeps it at bay with gentle voices of love and melancholy. Beethoven is different. Beethoven, Hoffmann writes, is full of shadow, nightfall, pain. ‘Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of Romanticism.’
Mark Evan Bonds describes this modern tendency to hear music as ‘sonic autobiography’ as the ‘Beethoven Syndrome’. Extending the project of an earlier work, Music as Thought (2006), Bonds shows in his acute new book how novel this emphasis was, and how swiftly it was established. Until Beethoven’s time, music was essentially considered a rhetorical construct, an art of persuasion that spoke ‘the language of the heart’, only not the composer’s. Music represented ‘specific emotions intended to elicit corresponding responses in the minds of listeners. In this sense, composers’ personal feelings were irrelevant to the job to be done.’ Yet in the first three decades of the 19th century, with the help of Hoffmann and Romanticism, music came to be thought of as a ‘pressing out’ (Ausdruck) of the composer’s soul. Of course, Beethoven’s deafness was crucial. A.B. Marx, reviewing Beethoven’s late piano sonata Op. 110 in 1824, three years before Beethoven’s death, described him as living ‘isolated and lonely’ among ‘the hundreds of thousands of the Imperial city’. He had ‘turned back into his interiority’, Marx said. The most wrenching melodies suggest ‘a deeply wounded, abandoned heart’. By the middle of the 19th century, Beethoven was seen as the obvious turning point in the development of ‘music as thought’. The German composer Peter Cornelius (known to choristers everywhere as the composer of ‘The Three Kings’) asserted that everyone can feel the difference between Haydn and Mozart on the one hand, and Beethoven on the other. ‘Some call it depth, humour, subjectivity … We for our part seek an explanation for the unusual in Beethoven by imagining his entire, full and solemn life as if it were the labour pains of birth, labour pains of specific thoughts expressed through the language of tones.’
Beethoven’s life was full, but there was nothing very solemn about it. Again, a gulf opens between the official and the private Beethoven. Officially, Beethoven’s unmarried solitude – to take an example – is nothing less than the tax paid to the ‘isolated and lonely’ devotion of his art. Beethoven himself may have believed this. He wrote to a friend in 1801 that marriage was out of the question: ‘For to me there is no greater pleasure than to practise and exercise my art.’ But that didn’t stop him from serial infatuations, often with much younger women, like the nineteen-year-old Therese Malfatti, or his piano student Countess Giulietta Giucciardi, who was only sixteen. On the other hand, the women who turned him down – beginning with the singer Magdalena Willmann, who is said to have rejected his proposal in the mid 1790s because he was ‘ugly and half-crazy’ – were shrewdly prescient. Beethoven, after all, had a brutish respect for the singularity of his own genius (‘It will please one day’). For long periods of his life, he was single-mindedly productive. The last phase of his work, from 1817 to his death in 1827, the decade that includes all the late piano sonatas and string quartets, along with the Diabelli Variations, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, can probably only be equalled by Shakespeare’s 1606 (Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra). He carried notebooks with him on his walks in Vienna and the countryside, stopping in the middle of a city street to record an idea. Bonds tells us that these notebooks contain sketches for as many as fifty symphonies.
One woman said that his ‘entire deportment showed no signs of exterior polish; on the contrary he was unmannerly in both demeanour and behaviour’. The playwright Franz Grillparzer said that he ‘dressed in a most negligent, indeed even slovenly way’; the composer Cherubini called him ‘an unlicked bear’. Unlicked and unlickable, perhaps. Little surprise then that as Beethoven aged into ragged bachelorhood, he spent the unmusical balance of his time in cafés or taverns, drinking and smoking with a slightly grim group of male cronies and sycophants who communicated with the great deaf bear by writing notes to him in ‘conversation books’ he brought along for the purpose. As his hearing deteriorated, his behaviour became more eccentric. He developed a maniacal possessiveness around his nephew Karl, whose guardian he became in 1816, denouncing Karl’s widowed mother as a prostitute and accusing her of murdering her husband (Beethoven’s brother had in fact died of tuberculosis in 1815). On the street, his loud laugh and ringing voice – the composer’s unscored sforzandi, as it were – made Karl embarrassed to walk with him. His beard grew long, the Viennese thought him ‘crazy’ (so he told a friend), and at some point in 1821 or 1822 he was arrested by the police because he was wandering around like a vagrant, peering into windows. The police were unmoved by the novel argument that he was the composer Beethoven. Tunbridge tells us that ‘it was only when the local music director vouched for him that he was released.’
So Beethoven became – perhaps always was – what Jenny Offill calls in her novel Dept of Speculation (2014) an ‘art monster’. But this was partly because music was also becoming an art monster. As the form went from persuasive rhetoric to subjective outpouring, it also underwent a change in status. When music was still persuasion, Bonds writes in The Beethoven Syndrome, ‘the burden of comprehensibility lay with composers, not listeners.’ It was up to the composer to be lucid, graceful, pleasing. But with Beethoven the burden falls on the listener; Bonds notes that the phrase ‘to understand music’ (Musik verstehen) doesn’t appear in general discourse till about 1800. Beethoven is the composer who first makes music difficult. He represents a watershed in music as Flaubert does in the history of the novel, the moment at which the form becomes self-conscious, measures its new distance from the relative innocence of its tradition and announces to its audience: ‘Catch up if you can.’ If we don’t get it, it’s our fault. Hoffmann happily insulted the general audience: ‘Beethoven’s mighty genius intimidates the musical rabble.’
Between September 1814 and June 1815, the heads of Europe congregated in Metternich’s imperial city to repair the wreckage left by Napoleon. During the Congress of Vienna, the concert halls and drawing rooms were filled with music and entertainment. Beethoven was the city’s musical ambassador. He presented a polonaise for piano to the empress of Russia, and gave concerts of his Seventh Symphony and his triumphalist potboiler, Wellington’s Victory. In 1815, he was awarded honorary citizenship of Vienna. Tunbridge tells us that it was ‘his most successful year’ – he gave more concerts and made more money than at any other moment in his career. Yet less than two years later, in 1817, he started writing the Hammerklavier piano sonata, Op. 106, the most extraordinary work of his life, and certainly the most difficult. He said of it – as Joyce said about the professors and Ulysses – that it will ‘keep the pianists busy when it is played fifty years hence’, but Tunbridge reminds us that it took most of the 19th century to gain canonical standing, and remains forbiddingly complex today. It is not just a radically private work. It is a kind of invisible city, drawn on a Platonic map: it was never publicly performed in Beethoven’s lifetime; its beauteous, insanely meshed lines were composed by someone who could not hear them; and at one point in the slow movement it reaches for unplayably high notes, keys that didn’t exist on the latest Broadwood piano that had been shipped to Beethoven from London in 1817. It is an ideal work.
The Hammerklavier does for the piano sonata what the Eroica had done for the symphony. The scale is massive. The Adagio, in Emil Gilels’s recording for Deutsche Grammophon, runs to twenty minutes (longer than some of Mozart’s symphonies), and has the strange suspended quality of so much of Beethoven’s late work: the notes seem magnetically separated from one another and always on the verge of silence. The music is constantly forming and dissolving itself. Just as you are sure that an ending has been announced, a provisional opening is made to something new. The final movement begins with a series of light, open F octaves, from the bottom of the keyboard to the top, as if the piano were being warmed up (not unlike the way in which the first movement of the Ninth Symphony seems to emerge from layered fourths and fifths suggestive of the orchestra tuning up). These octaves are followed by several tentative chords that progress downwards by thirds. The pianist seems to be prodding at something, something alive and possibly dangerous, and this prodding at chords is really a search for life signs of tonality, an attempt to find out what key will anchor the movement. The prodding is interrupted, then repeated. Then suddenly it is time to go, and so begins a fabulously kinetic fugue, which will exhaust the rest of the long movement.
Charles Rosen pointed out that the guiding progression of this sonata is the interval of the third, but you could as easily say that its guiding progression is the semitone. The fugue of the last movement is dangerously chromatic, each line a long snake of semitones. And see what Beethoven does with trills in this sonata (a feature of all the late piano sonatas, in fact). Traditionally, the trill was a sweet quibble premised on its resolution; it brings pleasure because the pleasure of completion is so lightly delayed. When four parts of a fugue are each trilling against one another, the quibble becomes more argumentative, and resolution less certain. Bach uses semitone trills like this in the Prelude and Fugue in F major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, a work that Beethoven had been studying for much of his life. Bach keeps his trills in check. But Beethoven’s semitone trills, madly bouncing between left and right hand, are violent, annihilating, electric. The effect is breathtakingly dissonant – the music sounds decades ahead of itself – and very dramatic, because these crazed and very loud semitone assertions, buzzing like enraged hornets, might end up stinging the sonata to death: they threaten to obliterate the music, and certainly they put it into doubt.
The drama of Beethoven’s difficulty is inseparable from the drama of that ‘late style’ that Adorno cherished and which he analysed so well. Casting his eye over the last piano sonatas and string quartets, Adorno describes a music in the process of becoming alienated from itself. In the slow movements of the string quartets, harmony stands still, stretches and expands. (These long chords languish like the slow movements in Mahler; and in fact Leonard Bernstein did a recording of Opp. 131 and 135 with the Vienna Philharmonic that did indeed succeed in turning these hanging movements into Mahler.) Beethoven’s crescendi and diminuendi, Adorno said, seem to be almost independent of the musical necessity, a pure wild surplus like musical Tourette’s. Syncopation is everywhere (the Hammerklavier really swings, and one variation in Op. 111 sounds like ragtime). It is as if, Adorno says, the middle of the music has disappeared, and a kind of polarisation now reigns. The music has been broken open, and now has holes, fissures. Roundedness, balance, the agreeable is no longer of interest to Beethoven; he is approaching the logic of Schoenberg’s statement: ‘My music is not lovely.’
Even the purists can’t quite stay pure. Adorno’s language is typically strict and dialectical, but he struggles with the ghost of his own Romanticism. Even he is compelled to throw attributes at the deity. Shadowing his commentary is the sense that Beethoven has got beyond art, that he is ‘casting off the illusion of art’, as Adorno puts it, because he is now so ‘late’. ‘Touched by death, the masterly hand sets free the matter it previously formed.’ But the overdetermined notion of deathly lateness is worth resisting. I’m struck by continuities as much as differences. Certainly, the slow movements of the late works are gigantically slow, and seem almost to falter. But the same perceived experimentalism can be felt in the slow movements of many earlier piano sonatas, where the music seems to come almost to a silenced halt, and the composer appears to be on the search for the grounding of a tonality. The mysterious, dragging chromaticism of the Largo of Op. 10 No. 3 (1798), an early work, sounds like Ravel in places, and makes a short movement seem cavernous. The last bars of the first movement of the sonata known as ‘Les Adieux’, from 1810, and the opening bars of its second movement, show Beethoven at the piano, doing what he was famous for in Viennese performances: improvising. This was then thought of as the art of fantasia, and Beethoven, like a jazz pianist, was a wizard inventor. In 1803 someone witnessed him at the piano doing a free fantasia of the finale of the Eroica for two hours. Because of their close connection to fantasia, many of the piano sonatas, not just the late ones, threaten to fall into the anarchic freedoms of improvisation. Haydn felt this was true of too much of Beethoven’s work: ‘It always seems to me that he writes fantasies,’ he complained.
Then there are the great exceptions, the embarrassments to lateness, the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, both first performed in 1824, naive appeals to political and religious sincerity that are also naive musical appeals to the audience. (Adorno is perplexed by the Missa Solemnis and can do nothing much with it.) If Beethoven was looking ahead to death in his lateness, he was also joyfully looking back at the vitality of his oeuvre. The gorgeous, serene lullaby of the Ninth’s slow movement is as sweet and earnest as anything he ever wrote. There are moments in the last movement, as the quartet of soloists exhorts the audience to brotherhood, that take the listener directly back to Fidelio, an opera which, in turn, reuses a simple, rising melody – sometimes known as Beethoven’s ‘humanity melody’ – that he first employed in an early cantata in 1790.
Isn’t ‘simplicity’ a better word than ‘naivety’? My choice of the latter points to my own unhealthy modernity, much as Schiller suggested in his essay ‘On Naive and Sentimental Poetry’, which he wrote in the mid-1790s, about a decade after the ‘Ode to Joy’. For Schiller, the Greeks had a healthy, direct connection to the natural world, a simplicity that we sickly moderns can only elegise. We fail to see the object as itself, and instead wallow in our impressions of it. We sentimentalise when we should seize; we have become difficult, in effect. Schiller exempts Shakespeare from this modern sickness, and no one sounds more sickly than Flaubert when, in his letters, he laments that prose has become so hard to write, while those earlier beasts of instinct, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Molière, turned out pages and pages of easy brilliance, as if pissing in a bush. Yes, Beethoven became difficult. He became ‘late’. But the wonder is that he was a sentimental poet who functioned like a simple one until the end of his life. He breaks Schiller’s binarism in two; he is always complex and simple, late and early. The lovely, serene, clear melodies course from one end of Beethoven’s life to the other, from the delicious D major Menuetto of Op. 10 No. 3 to the ethereal F major melody of the second movement of the ‘Tempest’ sonata of 1802 (a theme that Adorno described as the sound of hope itself), to the variations that begin in D major in the Ninth Symphony Adagio. And here is Beethoven at it again in the ‘late’ piano sonata, Op. 109, from 1820 – the soft theme that begins and ends the last movement is a delicate, clear E major chorale, enclosing a set of rigorous variations. Late style? He was just getting going.
Listen to James Wood talk about Beethoven on the LRB Podcast