About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beethoven vii (on the sublime)

Certain art forms may seem broken up into juxtaposed fragments and are yet still capable of developing, something like a plowed field that is simultaneously upturned and the site of possible growth. The upturning exposes the disruptions and actualities beneath the surface, and it simultaneously readies the field for new growth. Such a process can be likened to what happens in Beethoven’s late works, which unite an exposure of basic ordering forms (an upturned baring of essential conventions) with unconventional lyric upwellings and improvised-seeming imaginative eruptions. Before considering that process in more of the late works, I’d like to explain as clearly as I can the relevance of an idea I’d mentioned in one of my earliest posts, the idea of the sublime.
Recently I taught a “Senior Scholars” course to a group of about forty or so people, some of whom are retired, some nearing retirement, and some widowed; early on in the course I tried to suggest the bearing of the idea of the sublime on modernity and specifically on Conrad’s evocation of the jungle and sea among other vistas and also on Freud’s idea of sublimation (Walter Kaufmann, Stanley Cavell, and Harold Bloom among others have of course made the connection between sublimation and the sublime in Nietzsche and others).

Examples of the sublime in Romanticism are a storm at sea or the dwarfing vista of the Alps, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting “Wanderer above the Mist” – the untethered human here is dwarfed by the snowy peaks and the seemingly limitless power of external nature. However, the human imagination is not simply “dwarfed” but is stirred to witness and give form to this power; "sublime" then is the name for both a particular occurence and a particular form of imagination, which heeds the call to create “sublime” art or, in Freud’s terms, to sublimate the power of such vistas. To mention Freud is to register that those "vistas" or forces exist not only externally in nature but internally in the psyche, in the instinctual forces of erotic love and of aggression, of Eros and of Thanatos (or the death instinct). So it is that the looming and supercharged forces of both nature and human myth can be termed sublime and are subject to sublimation. For example, in 1900 (the year Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams”) Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” gives form and voice both to the primeval jungle and to the figure of Kurtz, with his nearly mythic god-like arrogance – both contain emanations of the sublime. Similarly the sublime force of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19) evokes the terror both of the encompassing sea and of the dying and dead men stranded on the raft.

Kant’s “Critique of Judgment” codified (in 1790) this idea of the sublime as a “representation of limitlessness,” existing in a region outside the normal bounds of beauty and beyond the reach of reason – a region of “chaos,” “the ugly,” and “the negative.” A storm’s threat of chaos and terror, for example, evinces an absence of the rational, a negation of order which challenges the imagination to encompass it. In its turn, the sublime work of art then “represents” such a vista of infinite power in order to draw the phenomenon into the compass of autonomous art. In a sense God-like nature meets its match in the Kantian “genius,” whose transformative representations reveal the existence of “soul” in nature. The composer of the Fifth Symphony and the Appassionata Sonata (circa 1805) embodies a version of that “genius.”

At one point in “Critique of Judgment” Kant writes that “perhaps there has never been a more sublime utterance than the inscription from the Temple of Isis” evoking the sublime as the infinite power of nature: “I am all that is, and that was, and that shall be.” It is no accident that Beethoven kept this Kantian inscription in his rooms during his “heroic” period, for the immense power of his middle-period symphonies and sonatas projects this form of encompassing sublimity. Late Beethoven, however, explores a different form of the sublime, one associated more with torn-apart Osiris than the earth-goddess Isis – a sort of sublimity of dismemberment.

Beethoven’s late works thrive in the midst of disparity and open-endedness. It is as if a bargain is being made: organizing forms become more and more objective, the ordering conventions of fugue or variation are made more and more explicit, while the driven process of “heroic” mastery and the will undergoes a sort of disappearance and death and gives way to a new musical process. Beethoven’s “objectifying” of his earlier subjective mastery is – in Hegel’s thinking – to confront death. Hegel’s ideas, developing beyond Kant, can help further to illuminate Beethoven’s late music.

What emerges amid this new “objectivity” is, in Hegel’s conception, a new comprehension of “incompleteness,” “fragmentation,” and “process” – an opening up to another way of being. These qualities well characterize Beethoven’s late aesthetic yielding newly improvisatory invention, a sort of sublimity of “dismemberment.” “The life of the spirit,” Hegel writes in his Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807), “endures and maintains itself” in the face of the death of the self, of identity; the spirit “wins its truth only when it finds itself in utter dismemberment.” Here then is the Hegelian sublime, which can help us comprehend what Beethoven is composing in the last decade of his life as he embraces objectivity and passes through the negation of his earlier aesthetic. To endure the death of the form to which the grand, heroic self had been committed yields “the magic power” which converts the “dismembered” self into sublime form: such at least are some Hegelian terms to describe Beethoven’s wonderful late productivity, and these terms help also to illuminate elements of the creative process in modernity (not least in D. H. Lawrence’s explicit evocation of Osiris in his late novella “The Man Who Died”).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Beethoven vi (on the expression of grief in late works)

I wanted to continue talking about how "subjective intensities" in late Beethoven well up in the midst of the new relationship to "objective" forms (often Baroque forms like the fugue). The two slow sequences prefacing and interrupting Beethoven’s final fugue in his opus 110 piano sonata, his thirty-first among thirty-two sonatas, are marked dolente, and this "Arioso" is full of sorrow, even as it partakes of the fluidity, the unstoppable flow of melody, characteristic of late Beethoven adagios (the beautiful and most extended example is the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony, in which – as here – even the moments of halting seem extensions of or preparations for yet more lyricism).

Two effects in particular are poignant and powerful. One is a feature of the upward arc of melody, moving up through each trembling, unstable interval often of the seventh chord, cresting and then descending in painful half steps (measures 9 and 11, for example, at the beginning of the “Arioso dolente”). And the melody’s notes often reach up toward each of those trembling intervals, only to fall back a half step to create over and over the piercing dissonance of a flatted or minor second (from A-flat to G, from F-flat to E-flat). Particularly in the return of the Arioso, the recurrent melody searches through shifting keys, and the modulations from harmony to harmony are accomplished repeatedly through these poignantly painful flatted seconds, as if Beethoven wants to expose rather than smooth out the music’s search through the keys.

That sense of the materials of the music being exposed – of its modulations and melodies being unpacked in all their vulnerability and power is reminiscent of an effect to be encountered in the late works of other artists – one thinks of Michelangelo’s late works, the Dying Slaves, in which the artist’s working the stone is exposed to view rather than smoothed over in the perfections of the earlier sculptures. And there is Yeats in his final decade making explicit the process of creation from “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” And the composer, the sculptor, and the poet each incise their materials with what is a notably steady, purposeful, even serene hand. It is as if, in their late works, these artists have finished with the well-hewn mastery of technique in their earlier great works and seek out a new relationship to their art, to its technique, one that willingly exposes the process itself. And in the Arioso passages of opus 110, Beethoven achieves this effect in order to create a beautiful and moving upwelling of grief.

The second remarkably poignant effect Beethoven creates in these parts of opus 110 involves the phrasing of melody, the creation of a certain brokenness of utterance. This is particularly the case in the second appearance of the Arioso, interrupting the two iterations of the fugue (and as I tried to show in my previous post, the use of fugal form here is itself significant in late Beethoven). In the equivalent passage to the opening melody in measures 9-11, each of the rising and falling notes is voiced essentially as a sigh or short gasp or, rather, a crying out (measures 116 and following). Each central note of the melody is sounded not at the start of the beat in a triplet but in the middle off-beat, then always moving toward a second note of the melody, in cries which yearn for what follows, but each two note phrase is immediately broken off, giving ways to instants of punctuating silence on the beat, and so the triplet breaths of melody move on in broken off-beat cries. This effect is brought to a pitch of intensity when each two note phrase repeats the same pitch, echoing rather than descending, so that each cry pierces as it echoes (in measures 125 and following). At the end of the Arioso (in measure 130), these two note phrases become even briefer echoes, tiny thirty-second note cries, nearly silenced.

The stripping down to bare utterances of pure grief which Beethoven achieves in these passages of the sonata is to be found also in another guise in his thirteenth string quartet, opus 130. The slow movement, the Cavatine, of this late Beethoven quartet, has a middle section marked “Beklemmt” or anguished. Much of what I’ve described above in the Arioso can be heard even more poignantly in this sequence, for the violin’s sounding of those sighing cries is more “speaking” and heart-breaking than what the piano can achieve. And it is especially powerful that these same exploratory effects of the flatted seconds, the off-beat echoing cries, and the rest lead within a few seconds to the assaultive opening chords of the Grosse Fugue, with its declaration of a new dimension of music. The logic of that sequence of movements seems to pose the question of what is to be done in the face of the death of earlier classical musical forms, the end of their order, their period of grace.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Beethoven - v

I want to apologize for the typos in the previous four posts. When one writes “adults like children” when one meant to write “adults act like children,” you know that proof-reading is needed.

The open-ended exploration of motifs, structure, and harmony notable in late Beethoven applies also to the exploration of rhythms; I’m thinking, for example, of opus 111’s final Arietta variations taking apart the rhythmic impulses of the theme – for example, in the second variation’s searching out the pressure points in the quickly pulsing fast sixteenth and thirty-second notes; or in the third variation’s locating the jazzy off-beats, the jetting sixty-fourth notes teasing out a hint of rhythm embedded in the original melody; or in the fourth variation’s transformation of these fast notes into hovering, trembling triplets which decompose rhythm into a sort of pure stillness. (Such explorations and disintegrations are, of course, apparent also in the wonderful Diabelli Variations, opus 120.)

Also, earlier I noted the idea that Beethoven’s late works are witnesses to catastrophe, baring conventions at the skeletal moment of their demise, rather than imbuing conventions with a masterful subjectivity, whether heroic (as in the middle-period works) or ironic. Of course, for the late works, ironic is a pertinent description because the appearance of willful mastery, for example in the first movement of the opus 132 quartet in a minor, is undercut not only by the earlier-mentioned passage beginning in measure 92, but by oddly inflated jolts of false rhythmic closure or by peculiarly inflected melodic gestures, uncanny and off-beat. Such ironic exposures and juxtapositions and such exploratory and often playful open-endedness in late Beethoven refuse any taming of the above noted “catastrophe;” they refuse any faith (in Adorno’s view, any ontological, Heideggerian faith) in the taming of the catastrophe by means of a subjectivity resuscitating the Romantic symbol or the idea of “organic” beauty.

The sense of being witness to apocalypse is especially apparent in the Grosse Fugue, opus 133, the first-written finale to the great, continually exploratory opus 130 string quartet. The ferocity of its fugal theme and of much of its subsidiary material insists simultaneously on fracture and control, violence and ordering form. A similar effect is achieved by the fugue ending the Hammerklavier sonata, opus 106. There is the constant insinuation of fragmented phrases taken up and repeated and repeated, for example, the implacable unfolding of sixths beginning in measure 97, or the especially puncturing trills repeatedly suffusing the sonata’s sound, starting for instance at measure 119. These fragmenting motifs are joltingly integrated into the unfolding fugal form. There is a sort of double violence in such passages, that violence intrinsic to the fragments themselves, which are ferocious in themselves, and the violence of their insistent repetitions, as part of the relentless working out of the ordering fugue.

Again, much of what I’m trying to describe is related to Beethoven’s prefiguring of an idea of modern form – what Benjamin and, then, Adorno called “allegory” (in Kafka and earlier, for Benjamin, in the seventeenth-century German tragic drama). This form represents the break with Romantic organicism (in which form is invested with the sense of passionate inevitability, with subjective will). That “break” establishes a move toward abstraction and the conflict that embodies between objective technique and eruptive expression. In the dynamic operating in abstract form (whether in Picasso’s Cubism or in Beethoven’s Great Fugue), there are fracture points, the cracks and fissures built into the objective form (indeed, into fate itself), which are sites of the abrupt breakthrough of subjectivity. The double violence I mentioned operating in this break or conflict is at work in modernist form: First, there is the inevitable violence of the eruptions from the primal well of feeling, a violence which no form can suppress completely. Second, there is the violence which results from the imposition itself of objective, controlling form. (I’m reminded of Freud’s late notions [1] of the destructiveness associated with Thanatos – the death instinct arising from the depths of the psyche – and [2] of the second destructiveness wrought by the conscience – by the super-ego – in strictly suppressing rather than sublimating the destructive impulse. Forgive this last comment; I just finished teaching a peculiar but intriguing course on Freud and Conrad, born in 1856 and 1857 respectively, each so different from the other and yet both darkly tragic-minded in many respects).

I’ll offer further commentary on Beethoven in my next post, on the objective forms (I almost wanted to write “juxtapositions”) and the subjective intensities which coexist strangely in his late works, and I’ll start with the Cavatina movement in the opus 130 string quartet and the return of the Arioso’s Adagio ma non troppo in the last, fugal movement of the opus 110 piano sonata.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beethoven's "Sound World" - iv

In Mann’s great novel Doctor Faustus about a German composer in (and of) the time of the Nazis, Professor Kretschmar’s lesson about Beethoven for the composer echoes Adorno’s discussions with Mann in L.A. in 1943. In my novel Hungry Generations, I tried to imagine what the conversations between the two might have been like then, in the midst of encounters with Schoenberg and other European expatriates (Beethoven, as well, appears in the fantasies of the novel’s main character, a young composer struggling to adjust to studio work in Hollywood).

In the upwelling of late music in the final movement of his opus 111 piano sonata, Beethoven – in Kretschmar’s and Adorno’s view – is casting into question the basic ground of the Arietta’s classical, “C major” conventions, making them ambiguous so that they seem to hover in the realm of the provisional, existing among many open-ended possibilities. The effect of the ambiguity and open-endedness in Beethoven’s last piano sonata is to lay bare the basic rules of classical music itself, with the result that its essential rules are exposed as one more artificial construct in the long history of musical artifice. The music destabilizes our sense of these rules by exposing them as artifice. The fertile outpouring of the Arietta’s variations (like the Diabelli Variations) achieves this baring and destabilization with extraordinary “late-style” detachment as he employs and juxtaposes the colliding forms of music past, present, and future – classical sonata or minuet, baroque “concertante” or fugue, brief nocturnal fragments: all are stripped to their essence and made to coexist, to collapse into one another. It is as if, having seen and absorbed it all, Beethoven achieves a sublime serenity before the violence of endless baring and collapse; such is the special beauty of the late works’ imperturbability.

As I mentioned in my last post, it was my recently reading of Michael Spitzer’s Music and Philosophy that has moved me again to explore these ideas (I first attempted to engage Adorno’s ideas about Beethoven – and Schoenberg – in my 1994 study of modern fiction and music, Fullness of Dissonance). Here I hope to offer some new commentary on and extrapolations of certain “Adornoian” insights Spitzer develops. (His book alternatively engages Adorno’s thinking quite brilliantly, analyzes the features of Beethoven’s late music, and argues systematically with other musicologists; what I’m responding to is obviously a very limited selection of those materials.)
In his late period, Beethoven increasingly employed abrupt shifts in harmony which undercut the sense of dramatic momentum characteristic of “heroic” middle-period Beethoven, the plummeting force say of the development section of the Appassionata sonata, opus 57. By the point of his opus 95 sonata for violin and piano, no. 10, or the opus 97 Archduke Trio, the moments of sudden, unexpected modulation to new keys seem to release the music from the willful drive toward climax, so that an air of improvisation, of released and aleatory imagination, prevails. A similar effect is achieved by what Spitzer terms moments of “caesura,” of cuts or fractures in the unfolding development of themes, so that the music opens to an upwelling of unexpected melody, inexplicable in terms of formal conventions of development. His crucial example is from the opening movement of the opus 132 string quartet, at measure 92, and he shows the link of the passage to a similar unexpected upwelling in the climax of the last movement. Of course, throughout the late quartets, there are instances of such unexpected, improvisatory seeming inventions (for example, the opus 130 quartet, hypnotically brimful).
In each of these effects – abruptnesses and caesuras disrupting the “order” of the music – the construction of the music is no longer absorbed into the sense of implacable dramatic mastery so characteristic of Beethoven’s earlier “heroic” style. In a sense, the musical material and its juncture points – the rules governing their construction – are exposed as arbitrary; they are no longer imbued with the sort of subjectivity which makes the middle period music seem inevitable and organic. I’ve been using several of the various terms employed to describe the effect of this late-style music: open-endedness and aleatory “floating,” a trembling and irresolution, the “quivering” Benjamin comments on, Spitzer’s “flickering” and his commentary on Adorno’s use of “schein” (meaning both bare image and the shining through of the transcendent).
The “uncanny” is another such term, and it is used by Adorno and Walter Benjamin (and among others, by Derrida in his gloss on Benjamin); this term emphasizes the sense of catastrophe, of the demise of forms, engaged so imperturbably in Beethoven’s late work, and it draws attention to his rather ghostly resurrection of seemingly dead forms, of Baroque and pre-Baroque conventions like canon, fugue, passacaglia, etc. – all of which forms become part of the improvisatory array of possibilities surveyed in and absorbed into Beethoven’s late sonatas, quartets, bagatelles, and other works. These forms can be seen, then, as “uncanny,” as ghostly archaic interpolations – as “petrified” objects, “expressionless.”
Those last phrases are from Walter Benjamin’s brief early essay on “semblance,” on beauty in modernity; objective or “expressionless…the beautiful semblance [is purged of] the false, the mendacious, the aberrant….It is this that completes the work by shattering it into fragments.” For Benjamin, allegory is the form which acknowledges the shattered fate of “the life quivering in art” and in existence. As in Kafka, allegory is the form which steps back from the Romantic hope for imaginative mastery, from smoothly integrated surfaces, and from the ontological solace of the organic symbol. Beethoven’s late music quivers or trembles, uncanny in its juxtapositions, its retrievals of the past, its fragmentations, and its explorations of possibility, ambiguously open-ended and distanced from the “heroic” and from false solace.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Beethoven's "Sound World" iii

In the twentieth century, Beethoven has been the subject of a flood of commentary by musicologists, biographers, philosophers, composers, novelists and poets, reviewers and listeners, etc. In the 1950s, I read Donald Francis Tovey’s critically astute and highly informative essays, along with J. W. N. Sullivan’s stormy, impressionistic portrait – followed then in the 60s by Charles Rosen’s books on “the classical style” and finally Maynard Solomon’s biography. Since then, there have been multiple studies, some of them “pathographies,” some of them “new historicist,” and some of them responsive to Theodor Adorno’s analyses of Beethoven from the vantage point of “critical theory.”

In the late 70s, I was strongly influenced by Adorno’s “Introduction to the Sociology of Music,” “Philosophy of New Music,” his studies of Mahler and Wagner, “Minima Moralia,” and “Prisms.” Later, in the 80s and 90s, in the context of a ‘theory group’ in Cleveland, I read his “Dialectic of the Enlightenment,” “Aesthetic Theory,” and “Negative Dialectics.” In the midst of these readings, I wrote, revised, and published my study of modern fiction and the aesthetics of music, Fullness of Dissonance (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994). By the end of the 90s, I had explored much of the panoply of current theories, which in part served to distance me from the movingly agonized logic of Adorno’s tragic vision and thought. Nevertheless, as I here address some features of Beethoven’s music, I realize that my thinking yet resonates with the Frankfurt School’s emphasis – in its thinking about art and discourse generally – on fragmentation and fracture as a means of achieving meaning and on abstraction as a defense against the falsification of meaning. In any case, let me try to suggest how some of this thinking is illuminating when discussing Beethoven and particularly his late works.

I’ll begin with Beethoven’s last piano sonata, opus 111, which I began to try playing when I was sixteen, inspired as I was by an LPs of Egon Petri’s and Arthur Schnabel’s performances; as I mentioned in an earlier post, I took a few lessons a year later from Petri in Oakland in 1961, and playing some of the sonata for him, I was deeply grateful for his revelatory commentary and then his playing of much of the sonata. Even when I was sixteen, I was drawn to the special quality of the Arietta, the second movement with which the sonata ends, to its strange trembling quality, its exploratory sense of open-endedness, of always delaying full resolution of harmony, of always proposing newly varied facets of melody and motifs, and of postponing full disclosure or rounding-off of any gesture.
The theme of the slow movement Arietta exists in the most basic tonic key of C major – for the piano, of course, the “white keys” scale. Yet the theme continually shifts to related keys – to the dominant G, and a destabilizing dominant G tone constantly pulses in the base as the melody hovers around or rather in and out of the tonic C. The theme continually shifts to other related keys, to the subdominant F or to C’s somber “shadow key” of A minor. While the ineffably simple gestures of the theme unfolds, the constantly recurring G and the continual shifts among keys create an ambiguity about where as a listener one can orient oneself. As the Arietta’s variations produce their world of abundant, continually exfoliating forms, the hovering or trembling we hear and feel in the music projects an ambiguous irresolution of effect. The ending of the movement witnesses this serene and fluent trembling, which the listener does not forget even with the soft striking of the final C chord.
That trembling or ambiguity which so moves the listener to opus 111 is linked to the ideas I mentioned before – fragmentation, fracture, and abstraction. Beethoven’s variations continually locate fractured bits of theme as material to explore. As the music strips its C major theme down to its abstract essence, it draws from its primal gestures unstable possibilities in harmony and form, which continually waver between convention and an ambiguous open-endedness. In a sense, Beethoven creates musical beauty by renewing basic conventions with such ambiguity, and the question arises then whether those essential classical conventions can ever be the same, whether the sonata’s evanescent beauty actually lays bare the death of those conventions, even as it endures or transcends them by means of the music’s trembling ambiguity.
The notion that ambiguity is at the core of Beethoven’s late works resonates, at least for me, for my responses constantly explore the questions of what harmony will come next, what melodic leitmotif, or what rhythmic fragment will next lead me into a new experience or music. Beethoven’s greatness results (differently but powerfully even in his “heroic” period) from the momentum of exploration, whether passionate or cerebral; always, it is the exploration and generation of brilliant, beautiful form which leads him on.
Of course, these issues about the embrace of ambiguity and open-endedness in the face of the “death” of classical form point to the “post-classical” or modern quality of Beethoven’s last sonata and of his “late period” generally. This idea is central to Adorno’s thinking about late Beethoven and also to Thomas Mann’s adaptation of Adorno’s thinking in his novel Doctor Faustus. Needless to say, it was an important moment for me when in the sixties I read Mann’s attempt to vivify opus 111 in his Doctor Faustus – with Kretschmar‘s lecture/performance of the piano sonata for Leverkühn and his friends. In reading that early chapter, I could not help hearing Petri’s voice speaking Kretschmar’s sentences. But more important is the complex of ideas and insights which offer a revealing way of perceiving what happens in Beethoven’s music. In my next post, I hope to suggest some of those insights (and note their emergence not simply from my own listening but, more significantly, in Adorno’s thinking, in Mann’s imagination, and in the work of later commentators like Michael Spitzer in his stimulating and helpful academic study, “Music and Philosophy;” reading Spitzer's account of what he terms the Arietta's "flickering" helped to revivify the memories I try to recount above).