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.