In approaching Beethoven’s late works, Theodor Adorno in his Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music (pages 90-111) earlier explores “the renunciation of symphonic mastery" even in the Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral (1808-9) or in the Archduke Trio, opus 97 (begun in 1810) and in the last Violin-Piano Sonata, opus 96 (1812). This loosening of the grip of sonata structure – of conflict and resolution – occurs in works which are contemporaneous with the great sonata-form works Beethoven composed in his late thirties and early forties (for example, the Fifth Symphony, finished in 1807 and revised in 1809, and the Seventh Symphony from 1811-12). In contrast to the Appassionata’s first-movement struggle against the recapitulation, the Archduke Trio contains an “unobtrusive recapitulation.” Characteristic of this alternative version of the sonata form is a sort of “smiling play” which is “reticent and not triumphal” – in the Pastoral Symphony, for example, we hear a sort of “dillydallying as utopia,” “setting time free.” In such moments “of stand-still: here the memory of the human survives, that all reification is not quite serious, that the spell [of domination] can be suspended and we can be called back to the human.”
The spell of domination, as I tried to show in my previous post, is located by Adorno in the mechanistic “autocracy of the recapitulation” but also in the occasional moments of “ostentation…intended to present something magnificent [but] remaining simply empty” (75-79). Adorno is by no means referring to the cohesive intensity of the Appassionata, with its moments of violence as it drives sonata form into extremity. Rather he is identifying an opposed tendency when Beethoven’s music “takes on something brutal, Germanic, triumphalist” – not merely in Wellington’s Victory but even in the Piano Sonata, opus 31 #1, which is almost a parody illustrating “the entanglement of lucidity with pomp.”
Beethoven’s late works “show how it is possible for art to divest itself of the ‘self-deception’ of totality,” of such dominance (80). These great works were written in his late forties and his fifties – from 1817 to 1827, during the last ten years of his life. This achievement is the focus of the final seventy pages of Adorno’s book (pages 123-193). The first four pages reproduce “Beethoven’s Late Style” from Adorno’s Moments Musicaux, (pages 123-126), and the opening sentences are not infrequently quoted: “The maturity of the late works of important artists is not like the ripeness of fruit. As a rule, these works are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured…They lack all that harmony which the classicist aesthetic is accustomed to demand from the work of art.” The reprinted essay’s few pages offer a brilliantly compressed account of Beethoven’s own late aesthetic, accounting for the insertion of conventional formulas and phrases into the late sonatas and quartets – the decorative trills, cadences, the improvisatory embellishing fiorituras, abrupt breaks, sudden crescendos and diminuendos, the octave unisons of empty phrases, then passages of baroque polyphony, etc. As we listen to these effects in the last sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, and the late quartets, the question Adorno poses is why these “conventions are made visible in their unconcealed, untransformed bareness.”
“Conventions are split off” in “fissures, rifts, and fragments,” in response to the fact that the purposeful subjectivity of unfolding Appassionata-like sonata structures “breaks away” or has broken down. All the often antique conventional effects – “as splinters, derelict and abandoned – finally themselves become expression…no longer of the isolated ego but of the mythical nature of the creative and its fall.” In this way, conventions and antique phrases become “expression in the naked depiction of themselves” – become emancipated: “To liberate these phrases from the illusion of subjective control, the emancipated phrase speaks for itself.”
Beethoven’s late works, Adorno writes, “still remain a process, but not as a development” like the middle-period sonata forms; the “process” of the late sonatas and quartets “is an ignition between extremes.” Extremes are forced together within the moment, where “the empty phrase is set in place as a monument to what has been – a monument in which subjectivity is petrified,” the now dying subjectivity of Beethoven’s past. The sudden “caesurae, however, the abrupt stops” are, however, moments of breaking free, for “the work falls silent as it is deserted, turning its hollowness outwards. Only then is the next fragment added, ordered to its place by escaping subjectivity,” the failing “light in which the fragmented landscape grows.” In his late creation of fragmented and juxtaposed phrases, Beethoven “as a dissociative force tears them apart in time, perhaps in order to preserve them for the eternal. In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes” (126).
In the pages that follow the above essay, Adorno’s notes (for those are what much of his book is comprised of) offer many, often fragmentary insights into the five late piano sonatas (opuses 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111), the Bagatelles for piano opus 126, and the late quartets (particularly opus 132 in A minor receives more sustained treatment). The Ninth symphony, finished in 1825, is criticized as a reversion to the middle period – a late work not in his late style. There are some brilliant comments on the late style’s sudden “harsh contrasts” between fugal effects and chord-like “simplicity,” its “splitting itself into monody and polyphony,” and the purity and depth of its commitment to such fragmentation of effect – clear for example in the wondrous shifts of effect in the great last piano sonata, opus 111 – classical music’s last great piano sonata, marking, as Adorno explained to Thomas Mann, the death of sonata form itself. This is Adorno’s key focus, then: “To be purely the matter itself, to be ‘classical’ without adjuncts, classicity bursts into fragments. This is one of the decisive tenets of my interpretation.” Here is a link to Stephen Kovacevich’s brilliant performance of op. 111; the slow Arietta begins at 8:35: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E_amCDr77Q&feature=related
Rather than detailing additional specific insights into the music (there will be another time and place for that part of my effort), I’ll conclude by mentioning two of Adorno’s more startling formulations. One is in response to Walter Benjamin’s conception of “the name,” of Adam’s task of naming in Genesis, as a form of prayer. Adorno sees Beethoven’s music as a similar process with a similar relationship to language (161-4). “Music saves the name as pure sound, but at the cost of separating it from things.” In enacting that separation, it conveys ultimately an awareness of death, of the self-awareness of the disappearance or “insignificance” of subjective individual experience. Music’s “gaze” may be on the human, but the art of music is “imageless:” like prayer, it is an “image of the imageless.” Later (on 176) Adorno likens imageless music’s “destruction of the particular,” of the relationship with the life of “things,” to the Talmudic prayer about the “grass angels:” “all perishes in the sacred fire.” And yet Adorno’s speculations paradoxically convey the power of prayer, aesthetic and secular as may be the hope embodied by Beethoven’s “demythologizing” late music (193). It is as if Adorno here seeks an art form that can withstand the terrible fire which consumed the period he survived of the Holocaust.
In the light of those speculations in extremis, the other extraordinary formulation I would mention speaks for itself (154): “In Beethoven, the spirit remains master of itself in experiences which are otherwise inevitably purchased with madness. These experiences, however, are not those of subjectivity but of language…Beethoven looks the bare language of music in the eye.”