Week 41 – Bob’s Beethoven Blog

Posted on August, 14th 2021

Beethoven: A Commentary on a Master

Guest Presenter ​Foley Schuler 

I have asked our friend Foley Schuler, the afternoon host on Blue Lake Radio, to share with us his thoughts on the elements of anguish, pain, and despair as heard in Beethoven’s music.  Here is his generous essay. – Bob Swan

Beethoven at the Abyss:
Some Meditations in a Minor Key by Foley Schuler 

“Music is the refuge of souls ulcerated by happiness.” ―E.M. Cioran
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” ―William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Beethoven first mentions a “buzzing” in his ears in his letters as early as 1796, when he was about 26 years old. It was the first indication of the hearing difficulties that would leave him totally deaf by the time he was in his mid 40s. One wonders about these first inklings–did he perhaps think it merely his imagination, or convince himself that it was something that would go away? (And later, what was the last sound he heard?) I once saw a photo of all of the various ear trumpets Beethoven used during that slow descent into silence–long, curved and coiled atrocities, laid out in display on a large piece of cloth–a dispiriting and surreal sight to say the least, and one I have never forgotten. By his mid 40s, with 10 years left to live (he would die in 1827 at the age of 56), he was no longer able to converse unless he passed written notes back and forth to his colleagues, visitors and friends. He was also, of course, all the while writing some of his greatest music.

To find oneself engulfed in total deafness is of course the greatest tragedy that can possibly befall someone who lives their life for–and by–music. Yet Beethoven persevered. What could possibly be added to this well-worn cliche? His struggle in the face of deafness is central to Beethoven’s legacy–as well as to the mythic image of composer-as-hero that Beethoven projected onto history, and that would, indeed, become one of the defining motifs of Western civilization. This year, as we celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, he has returned to us in all his glory, profundity and power–and yet does so, as always, clad in the armor of that myth, which, while speaking a truth all its own, fights us at every turn in our attempt to know the man.

For me, however, it is not his heroism, but his humanity, that most deeply appeals. More than any other composer, Beethoven braved the abyss. He not only peered over its edge, but submerged himself–lived there. Indeed, that final decade represented a profound journey inward–right up to that edge and beyond. It is there that we encounter King Lear raging on the heath, where we meet Goya painting his “Black Paintings” and William Blake furiously scribbling his Marriage of Heaven and Hell–and it is there that I find the Beethoven I cherish. (Suddenly now, it strikes me that Beethoven, Goya and Blake–the three great visionaries in their respective arts of the Romantic Age–would die within around a year, in some cases mere months, of one another…a cosmic conjunction to explore, no doubt, another time.)

This is the Beethoven who would write, in the now-legendary letter to his brothers Carl and Johann on October 6, 1802–in a tortured cry of despair over his increasing deafness, known, with reference to the Vienna suburb where he was convalescing, as the Heiligenstadt Testament:

“What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life–only Art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce, and so I endured this wretched existence–truly wretched, an excitable body which a sudden change can throw from the best into the worst state…”

It is the deaf Beethoven, left alone in his silence, after the bombast (however artfully expressed) has died down, after the fist shaken at the heavens has fallen to the side, and then opened to accept one’s head buried in it–it is that Beethoven, who, bolstered by Art (with a capital A), embraces the Abyss (also, capital A), for whom I feel the deepest affection and kinship. I picture us furiously passing notes back and forth, perhaps sitting amongst the ruins of the piano he pounded to pieces trying to hear it–the same one whose legs he sawed off, so as to set it on the floor and feel the sounds he couldn’t hear. (As for that image, I could have sworn that when starting out as a writer, I encountered an old engraving in a book, depicting Beethoven and that shattered piano, though I cannot now seem to find it, or any reference to it, anywhere. Did I imagine it? That engraving even inspired an early poem of mine–also now lost, or at least deeply buried. The Italians have that wonderful saying, “If it’s not true, it should be.”) Let this missive be my side of the conversation, thoughts that, as you might gather, are not in E-flat–key of hunting horns and heroic exploits–but perhaps D Minor, which Nigel Tufnel, of the fictitious rock band Spinal Tap, in the famed film mockumentary about the group, declares to be “the saddest of all keys.”

That abyss had always been there, of course, growing in him, opening wider as his hearing deteriorated. One can hear it in the twin blasts (or perhaps the silence in between, or immediately following) that open the Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”–like great lightning flashes illuminating its contours. That “slender Grecian maiden between two Nordic giants” (as Schumann would refer to the Fourth) fleetingly felt its caress. In Fate’s insistent knocking on the door that so famously opens the Fifth Symphony (indeed, the most familiar four notes now in all of music, and yet still startling), we can certainly hear it trying to get in–or escape. The bucolic walk through the Austrian countryside of his Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” slowed the pace a bit so as to smell the roses, but was still part of that same march to the abyss, not to mention the beguiling Allegretto of the Symphony No. 7–that mesmerizing dirge amid this “apotheosis of the dance”–a turning point in the path perhaps. The mighty Ninth was the last hurrah (and what a hurrah it is) before the leap–not to mention the work that, speaking of abysses, started the superstition that no major composer would write beyond a ninth symphony, a legend furthered by the examples of Schubert and Bruckner, to the point that Mahler would go out of his way to title what would have been his Ninth something other than a symphony, calling it instead “Das Lied von Der Erde”–and sure enough, his “Symphony No. 9” that followed would the last one he completed.

This descent into silence was marked by the ascent in Beethoven’s work of the form the composer would make all his own–a form he would take with him on that journey (or, perhaps more accurately, that would take him on it). I am, of course, speaking of the string quartet. The string quartet was nothing new to Beethoven at this point. His works for quartet span the entire of his musical maturity (his first, the Op. 18, in fact, coincide closely with the onset of his deafness in his 20s). Indeed, together, they form one of the most succinct ways of charting his development as a composer. He had inherited the form from its progenitor, Papa Haydn, who had been his teacher in Vienna–though before long he would infuse it with a rigor and invention that would, ultimately, reinvent the quartet for the ages, and in ways that Haydn and Mozart could scarcely could have imagined. Furthermore, he would, in addition to the composer-as- hero archetype he gave us, also create the template (seen more widely in the 20th Century, most prominently with Shostakovich) of the quartet as vehicle for the composer’s deepest, innermost expression–counterposed with the symphony as the composer’s public face.

In the year following his last great public statement–the epochal Ninth Symphony–Beethoven would return with renewed vigor to the intimate form he had explored so brilliantly and invest it with an all-new intensity, autonomy and profundity, and, with the formal innovation and profound depth, both intellectual and emotional, that characterizes Late Period Beethoven, he would continue this exploration right up to the end. Comprising his String Quartets Nos. 12-16 along with the Grosse Fuge, these six works, collectively known as the Late Quartets, are very much of their time–those times being revolutionary–and at the same time ahead of them (they still seems modern, and even ahead our own time). They would be his last major compositions–his final statement–or, if you prefer, his last will and testament.

With these works, the “conversation between four intelligent individuals” upon which we are privileged to eavesdrop (as Goethe had famously described the string quartet) was turned profoundly inward by this composer who could no longer hear a conversation–which is to say, the conversation was now with himself. Elias Canetti’s memorable phrase “Dialogue with the Cruel Partner”–the name he gave to an essay on the diary as conversation with oneself–seems appropriate here, and this dramatization of the various parts of one’s inner self closely resembles what the pioneering Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, nearly 100 years later, would term active imagination. Beethoven, in his final symphony, with its glorious choral apotheosis, had ascended into the heavens. In the Late Quartets he descended into himself. In both cases, he transcended himself–and, though Beethoven wrote no formal requiem, with the act of sonic individuation brought by these extraordinary works for string quartet, he was, in effect, writing one now–for himself. “A requiem out to be quiet music,” Beethoven once remarked. “Memories of the dead require no hubbub.” This one, however, had it all–everything from heartfelt introspection to profound fury, from deepest melancholy to music that over brims with the fullness of life.

For many out there, it would be the Ninth Symphony, I imagine, they would select as that single work of Beethoven’s to take with them for companionship on the proverbial desert island–and understandably. For me, however, I think it would be–if I might cheat and include a group of works–these Late Quartets, If further forced, though, to narrow it down from there, I might well choose the remarkable work known as the Grosse Fuge, of “Great Fugue.”

Originally written to be the final movement Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130, the Grosse Fuge presents–rather, confronts–the listener with an immense double fugue of staggering depth and volcanic intensity. Though reflecting Beethoven’s immersion during this period in the fugues of Bach, the Great Fugue is, in reality, unlike anything else that had been heard up to that time–and really ever since. It stands alone outside of time, outside of Beethoven’s output, outside the string quartet, perhaps even outside of music itself. It would prove too overwhelming for audiences of Beethoven’s time, and was universally condemned by the critics of the day– though later assessment would deem it utterly essential, with Stravinsky describing it as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”

Beethoven’s publisher, fearing the liability posed by the Great Fugue for the quartet’s commercial success, charged Karl Holz–violinist with Schuppanzigh String Quartet, which debuted the Grosse Fuge, and was a confidant of Beethoven in his last years–with the unenviable task of convincing Beethoven to substitute a more conventional alternative ending. Shockingly, Beethoven, with very little resistance or hesitation, agreed to do so–and to assign the Grosse Fuge its own separate opus number, Op. 133. Why the notoriously stubborn composer was so readily persuaded to make the change remains of the many enigmas of this most enigmatic work. It would seem unlikely that concern for the audience’s delicate sensibilities drove the decision. Disregard for the conventional tastes of the time is part and parcel of innovation, and, in this case, also a reminder that the appeal, intrigue and power of the string quartet lay in the fact that the first audience for the music is always the players themselves.

Some have suggested that money had something to do with it. Finances were Beethoven’s Achilles’ heel; He was nearly always in dire straits, and his publisher had offered to pay extra for the new ending. Another driving force, of course, was likely the music itself. I would surmise that he already saw the Great Fugue for what it was–another entire world unto itself–and was willing to follow where it may lead. Thus it was entirely natural to have it breaking off from this other mass and floating further out into the unknown…to drift in the abyss and toward (and clearing the way for) what was to come.

In this case, that meant the awe-inspiring String Quartet in C# Minor, Op. 131. This deeply compelling work, in its way also unclassifiable, bursts the traditionally four movement form at the seams with its seven continuous movements, each in a different key, played without pause in what Beethoven would deem his own personal favorite, and indeed, the most perfect of all his compositions. Upon hearing it Schubert remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?” Schumann said that this quartet, along Op. 127, possessed a “grandeur…which no words can express. They seem to me to stand on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination.” Schubert, who served as a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral, only to die the following year, arranged to have the Op. 131 performed at his bedside as he himself was dying, wanting it to be the last music he ever heard. (And if I allow myself this digression, it is because I too have a special love of the work, and admit an ulterior motive in further linking it to the Grosse Fuge–namely that the gods governing such things may look the other way and grant me another desert island work, and that I might take the Op. 131 with me as well.)

Opus numbers and other distinctions aside, these Late Quartets are really one great work, with the Great Fugue at its mysterious heart. Countless analyses have attempted to delve into the structure of the Grosse Fuge, with conflicting results, further revealing the paradoxes at its elusive core. I will leave some sort of note-by-note dissection–the sort so thoroughly resisted by the work–to other hands, more interested in such futile endeavors. Instead, I hope, humbly, that these words may inspire and entice you, with all the struggles you are facing, to join in this journey of a lifetime. One needs to see it as well as hear it–which is precisely why I’ve included a video of its performance here–if only that one may properly experience the element of titanic human struggle involved. Mahler would later say that a symphony “should contain the entire universe,” but here, already, Beethoven has crammed an entire universe into a single 15 minute movement for string quartet. These writhings on the part of the performers–are they death throes, or birth pangs? Or both? Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet calls it “Armageddon…the chaos out of which life itself evolved.”

This would seem what poet T.S. Eliot was getting at in the famous opening of The Four Quartets–his own late-career masterpiece, and believed by many to be a literary response to Beethoven’s Late Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo Thus, in your mind.

In Beethoven’s end, was, indeed, his beginning–as it is for all of us. This year, as we celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth–amid a global pandemic, civil unrest, and a bitterly contested presidential election (and, as if that weren’t enough, at the time of this writing, NASA has just announced that an asteroid is heading our way)–we look to this colossal figure, who also lived in and survived tumultuous times, and not only defined them but helped transform them into the modern world we now share.

And in his despair was his joy. It is precisely the depths at which Beethoven so often lived, and for so long, that made possible the profound uplift of his Ninth Symphony–and if the “Ode to Joy” can resound throughout the ages, it is only because he fully lived his despair. One thinks here of the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s reason for declining Freud’s offer of analysis: “I don’t want to get rid of my demons, lest my angels leave with them.”

I picture Beethoven, in that moment when he had just finished “conducting” (conducting, that is, without having been able to hear a thing) the premier of his Ninth Symphony–that moment just before a member of the orchestra (one imagines, the concertmaster) took Beethoven by the shoulders and turned him around to face the thunderous applause he could not hear. I think of him in that moment, as he turned, between facing the orchestra (that world) and facing…the world, between facing history and facing eternity–and in that turning became a giant with the contours of a man, a man driven inward and outward…one who could endure the myth we have made of him. I think of the music he heard in that moment, his last quartets still stretching like a vast sea before him, and I myself struggle to hear the silence he heard then–what in earlier ages might have been referred to as the “music of the spheres”–the deep silence that is the sound of infinite possibility.

Here are some links that Foley also wanted to share with you.

The Alban Berg Quartet performs Beethoven’s String Quartet the Grosse Fugue in Bb Major Opus 133

Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, read by Irish actor Ciarán Hinds, with pianist David Quigley performing the Adagio Sostenuto from Sonata in C# Minor, op.27, “Moonlight”:

Actor Alec Guiness reads Four Quartets by T.S. Eliott: