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.]

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.

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