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.]

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Beethoven xiii - Adorno on Beethoven's Appassionata

A source of power in the Appassionata sonata’s first movement is that it keeps unfolding wave upon wave of creative transformation with relentless iterations and variations of its core motifs, so that the sections of the first movement begin to meld together. Each eruption of development becomes part of the creative flux: the differences between motifs are elided (the foreboding and ferocious first theme, for example, finds insistent echoes in the jaunty, striving third theme), and the differences between sections are all subsumed within the unfolding process: the initial statement of themes quickly and inexorably yields their massive development, and the restatement disintegrates into an enormous redevelopment in the coda. Here is a link to Barenboim’s great performance of the movement in 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPR3pkcNbKI.
In Adorno’s Hegel-inflected formulation in Beethoven: Philosophy of Music, the movement maintains a defiant “diversity [which] evens out into unity but keeps diverging from it while the form remains an abstract sheath over the diversity,” a “sheath” comprised of the unity of sonata form. The continually unfolding sequences and motifs become examples of a tragic, subversive “subjectivity veering into wretchedness” (51) with the “individual moments estranged” (13) from the enveloping and enabling bourgeois conventions of sonata form with its false promise of freed and empowered expressiveness. The tragic power of the first movement of the Appassionata is that it transforms what is false and perfunctory into “a terrible beauty” (to use Yeats’ term), so that the eruptive music of the Appassionata sonata unfolds “a total becoming” within the dominating form which it inhabits (46).

Adorno’s earlier statements bear repeating here: “If Beethoven is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is esthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer. His work explodes the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society” (43). And: “By its power, his successful work of art posits the real success of what was in reality a failure,” for “that bourgeois society is exploded by its own immanent dynamic – this is imprinted in Beethoven’s music,” whose creative process both reproduces and puts to shame (“explodes”) the “esthetic untruth” of bourgeois expressiveness and freedom, which are revealed as a deluded and null in comparison to the power of the music (46).

These formulations locate a paradox in Beethoven’s sonata suggestively reminiscent of a paradox in Dostoyevsky’s novels: in them, a protracted act of confession is expected and exacted from the protagonists, and yet their subversive voicing of the convention of confession is performed in such a way as to cast into question the very nature and substance of the confession. It is an index of their modernity or proto-modernity that the society-sanctioned forms are simultaneously fulfilled and subversively transformed. After Beethoven (or for that matter, after Dostoyevsky), one next step in the history of the arts is modern and postmodern travesty and pastiche.

Adorno offers many specific insights particularly into the Appassionata’s middle, development section in the “dialectical” first movement of the sonata (60). In this section, the sonata hugely expands the development and finally synthesis of the sonata’s two major thematic motifs not only in this middle section but in the coda as well (51-2). These “improvisatory” sections pit the resources of “fantasy” against the rigidity and restraint of sonata form, and they seem “haplessly to desire the suffering” of the confrontation, with its “extra-human” harmonies, their sforzando “minor seconds,” and the hammered chords and demonically driven arpeggios. These effects all place the listener, as it were, in mid-stream, in the midst of extreme turbulence, and instill a continual awareness of the “incompleteness of what has just been formed” – i.e., the open-ended power and shattering freedom of the creative process unfolding before us.

A significant crux for Adorno is the sonata form’s requirement that the original main theme be brought back by the “recapitulation” section after the shattering development. This reprise of the main theme is exposed, he writes, as an act of “crushing repression,” as “a trait of esthetic untruth” implicating bourgeois society’s imposition of and insistence on “the conjuring of static sameness amid total becoming” (44, 46). In the Appassionata, Beethoven refuses that complacent sameness by infusing the recapitulation with instability, continually generating newly energized details and accompanying the reprise with a low-pitched pulse of repeated notes, a constant agitation, quickly leading to the newly massive development of the coda. The sonata in this way exposes “the reprise as a problem,” subverting and upending “the moment of untruth in bourgeois ideology” (16) – and so for “Beethoven, then, the traditional forms are reconstructed out of freedom” (61).

The symphonic equivalent of the Appassionata is the first movement of the Third Symphony, the Eroica, composed just a few years before. For Adorno, the orchestral work’s earlier genesis and its more public “writ-large” gestures of “symphonic mastery” rather streamline the effects of the work. Nevertheless, a tension is once again set up between the “closed symphonic” (sonata) form and the “open” improvisatory organic episodes of “epic” development. There are the harmonic collisions in the Eroica from the opening bars on and the many other intentional irregularities, particularly – once again – in the development and coda sections. The many developments Adorno notes all conspire to reveal the turbulent and even tragic “incompatibility” of those rival, “irreconcilable” conceptions – of the “open” and the “closed,” the improvisatory and the conventional, the “epic” and the “symphonic” (105-6). In Adorno’s Marxist-Hegelian view particularly of hearing such a work in isolation in media remote from the concert hall, the collision of forms in the Eroica confirms “the truth of the unreconciled condition of the individual in bourgeois society” (120) – in part because one exists self-consciously both within and outside the inhabited society [a version of this Hegelian formulation -  stressing the music's ironic Goethean wisdom of simultaneously enacting 'within' and narrating 'outside' - can be found, too, in Scott Burnham’s Beethoven Hero (146)].

In my next post, I’ll attempt to explore Adorno’s rather more detailed and remarkably responsive formulations about late Beethoven and his self-consciousness about convention and innovation.

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