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).