This dominant impression of unleashed power leads some listeners to feel that certain works contain a sort of insufferable “pounding,” what Adorno identifies in Beethoven’s weakest works as a “Germanic, brutal, triumphal” emptiness. However, for his greatest works, what we hope to find are insights to convey and explain their wonderful impression of empowered creativity in the face of the collapse of the aristocratic frame and rationale which supported the great classical works of Mozart and Haydn. Especially in his middle period, Beethoven explored and experimented with the most basic building blocks of classical form, disassembling, playing with, subverting, and reassembling them with new, unprecedented power.
For both player and listener, what is the source of the sense of empowerment in his music? Scott Burnham presents the two approaches noted above in answering this question in his 1995 book Beethoven Hero.; as he does so, he explores the “musical values,” “institutional values,” and “cultural values” which shape our reception of Beethoven’s music. His main focus is on how listeners have understood the impact of the Third Symphony, the Eroica, and particularly the first movement. [Incidentally, I hope this blog entry is not too technical (for some not technical enough) or too abstruse, but it’s worth a try to engage Burnham’s argument.]
Typically, twentieth-century readings of that movement have centered on a formal analysis of “those aspects of Beethoven’s style which are particularly characteristic of his middle period” – i.e., the period also of the Appassionata and the Fifth Symphony, etc. (7-8):
“Those aspects…include the alternation of active downbeat-oriented sections with reactive upbeat-oriented sections, the liberation of thematic development to the extent that it may even take place during the initial exposition of the theme, and the polysemic formal significance of the opening section, understood as combining features of introduction, exposition, and development….Beethoven’s [main] theme remains, in a sense unconsummated: its urge to slide immediately away from E flat through chromatic alternation…never allows it to behave as a truly melodic theme…- in fact, it will have to wait until the coda before it is granted that sort of themehood….The fact that this theme must so submit in order to become more like a theme is unprecedented in musical discourse. This process establishes a new way in which music can be about a theme.”
In view of this extraordinary new approach to thematic development (the moment-to-moment momentum of its unfolding), as well, “it was this dimension of Beethoven’s style that was felt to be revolutionary and deeply engaging by his first critics; programmatic interpretations allowed them to address this specific aspect” by employing the (for them) contemporary Romantic idea of a “singularly obsessed hero fighting against a recalcitrant external world” (5). Romantic nineteenth-century as well as formalist twentieth-century understandings of Beethoven’s breakthrough respond, then, from different points of view to the power of the Third.
And yet, “the conjunction of Beethoven’s music with the ethical and mythical implications of the hero and his journey holds the entire reception history of this symphony in its sway….Even readings of mainstream formalism…share some features with the readings from which they claim to have distanced themselves….The overmastering coherence heard in works like the Eroica Symphony has both inspired the use of heroic metaphor and encouraged the coronation of such coherence as the ruling musical value of the formalist agenda” (27).
This core insight, which Burnham richly develops, operates also as he explores various theories and features of the Third as well as the Fifth Symphony and the Appassionata sonata, his commentary – say – on the role of the coda, or on Beethoven’s “radical revitalization of musical language, in which every peripheral detail becomes galvanized with significance, as part of a unitary and unmediated effusion” – in which “everything becomes melody” (quoting Wagner on Beethoven - 31); or, for another example, commentary on how “Beethoven treats harmonies like monoliths instead of playing cards, [so that] harmonic change assumes epic importance” (36). Finally, he writes, “Beethoven’s tonal form has become the destiny of music” (155).
Most delving among Burnham’s insights, though, is the response he develops to the idea of “presence and engagement in the Heroic style.” Early in his study, he is concerned with a sort of double consciousness we develop as we listen, a simultaneous experience of “enacting” the momentum of the creative, heroic journey and of self-consciously reflecting on it: being aware of it as an unfolding form.
First, remember that the Eroica Symphony’s main theme is continually curtailed (early on by the famous C sharp in bar 7) and is never fully realized until the coda of the first movement. “Hearing the coda as recapitulating the entire process of the movement brings into play a reflective dimension that goes beyond the enactment of narrative….[The music] can be said to effect the distancing narration of the genre of the epic, [so that] the acts of telling and enacting are merged” (23). [The tension between the epic form and the tragic drama is a concern of many twentieth century thinkers, including for example Raymond Williams and, as we saw in earlier posts, Adorno and Benjamin.] Burnham then links this idea of simultaneous narration and enactment to Hegel’s idea of self-consciousness: “this paradox of distance and identification is a secret of human consciousness” and “an expression of the conditions of selfhood.” By the end of his study, Burnham connects this idea to Goethe’s vision of the human, to “Goethezeit,” which integrate “ironic self-consciousness” and “the ethos of the self as hero” – together yielding both objectivity and subjectivity, simultaneously (146).
Many of the themes which these blog entries about Beethoven, Adorno, Hegel, the varieties of irony, etc., have tried to explore are, of course, at issue here, and they underlie Burnham’s delving account of Beethoven’s middle period music.
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