Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination

Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination

by Maynard Solomon

ISBN: 9780520243392

Publisher University of California Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Specific Groups

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Sample Chapter


A Sea Change

It is well recognized that during his last years, especially from 1817 on, Beethoven's music underwent a transformation that redefined his legacy and in a series of powerful masterstrokes forever enlarged the sphere of human experience accessible to the creative imagination. Some may disagree about the precise dates of the inception of the late style, differ over the extent to which it emerged from immanent or external sources, and struggle to describe its characteristics in a coherent and meaningful way, but few have disagreed about the existence of the phase itself, let alone its seismic character or its chief examples-the late sonatas and string quartets, the "Diabelli" Variations and bagatelles, the Ninth Symphony and Missa solemnis. And many Beethovenians have called attention to adumbrations of particular aspects of the late style in keynote works written between about 1810 and 1816, seeing in the solo and string sonatas, chamber music, song cycle, and symphonies of those years signs of transition towards an emerging set of paradigms.

Students of Beethoven have wondered whether and how the phenomenon of the late style may be linked to the changing circumstances of his life. Many conceivable connections have been proposed and elucidated, often with fruitful results, for it is clear that no single perspective can exhaust the style's sources. Prominent among biographical factors are his state of mind, his descent into almost total deafness by 1818, and his increasing vulnerability to the aging process. Psychologically, of course, this was an era of enormous stress for Beethoven, and his inner conflicts have been thought to be somehow connected to the emergence of the late works. Attention is inevitably drawn to the failure of his marriage project by his early forties, followed by his renunciation of the possibility of domestic happiness, and his increasing tendency to isolate himself from the world. Here, one cannot overlook that the onset of the late style roughly coincided with the harrowing legal struggle over the guardianship of his nephew Karl. Historical and cultural factors also play their part: the close of a dramatic period in European history, climaxed by the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the consolidation of coercive regimes in the chief continental monarchies, exemplified by the autocratic Habsburg state under Emperor Franz II and Prince Metternich.

There is a conspicuous fusion of retrospective and modernist tendencies in Beethoven's late style, but the relative absence of contemporary musical influences confirms the weight of Beethoven's originality, his expanded rhetorical vocabulary, his formulation of unprecedented ways of representing states of being that flourish beyond the boundaries of ordinary experience, and his transformations of Classical structural models, preparing the way for their eventual dissolution. The exhaustion of the vaunted "heroic style" and its descent into self-parody in Wellington's Victory and other propagandist pihces d'occasion written in connection with the victory over Napoleon and the subsequent convening of the Congress of Vienna made it imperative that Beethoven locate a hitherto unimagined musical problimatique. It was a time of many endings-historical, philosophical, biographical, stylistic-a period of flux in which old habits of mind needed to be reconsidered and the most deeply held beliefs subjected to scrutiny.

Without minimizing the importance of diverse efforts at reconstructing the multiple contexts within which the last works came into being, this book will focus on what appears to be a striking metamorphosis in Beethoven's system of beliefs, proposing that a thoroughgoing transformation was well under way by the years around 1810, gaining momentum as the decade proceeded, and that this eventually amounted to a sweeping realignment of his understanding of nature, divinity, and human purpose, constituting a sea change in Beethoven's system of beliefs. Signs of this realignment may be found in Beethoven's letters and conversation books, but they are especially distinct in his Tagebuch, the intimate diary he kept between 1812 and 1818, to which he confided his inmost feelings and desires. My aim is to encourage the inquiry into the connections-at least, the analogies-between Beethoven's thought and his later works.


In the wake of personal disappointments and as the consciousness of his own mortality cast a lengthening shadow, Beethoven was acutely aware that he would not have sufficient time to complete his creative endeavors. He thought he deserved a period of grace precisely for that purpose, writing: "before my departure for the Elysian fields I must leave behind me what the Eternal Spirit has infused into my soul and bids me complete. Why, I feel as if I had hardly composed more than a few notes." But he had little hope of divine intervention on his behalf; he agreed with Homer's calculation that "To men are allotted but a few days" (no. 170; Odyssey), and though he yearned for Pliny's "fame and praise and eternal life" (no. 114), and hoped against hope that he might live on, "even if by artificial means [Hilfsmitteln,] if only they can be found!" (no. 40), he knew that he was in a race against time.

Thus, Beethoven had to decide how he was to spend his remaining time on earth, whether to try to fill the dwindling days with simple pleasures or to pursue his dedication to great artistic challenges, or even to raise the stakes in his creative exertions. Predictably, but not without scorching conflicts, he opted for art against life, and this answer is written large and repeatedly throughout his Tagebuch, beginning with its very first entry in 1812: "You must not be a human being, not for yourself, but only for others; for you there is no longer any happiness except within yourself, in your art" (no. 1). Another entry sounds the same theme: "Live only in your art, for you are so limited by your senses. This is nevertheless the only existence for you" (no. 88). He renounced ordinary conceptions of personal gratification; he abandoned the dream of "a shiftless life, which I often pictured to myself" (no. 3). Sacrifice became the order of the day: "Everything that is called life should be sacrificed to the sublime and be a sanctuary of art" (no. 40); "Sacrifice once and for all the trivialities of social life to your art" (no. 169). These ideas of self-abnegation for the sake of music became an abiding belief; in 1824 he wrote, "Only in my divine art do I find the support which enables me to sacrifice the best part of my life to the heavenly Muses."

Beethoven's choices were designed to enhance his creativity and to provide favorable conditions within which it could flourish. He set in motion a process of stripping down to essentials, eliminating whatever he perceived to be superfluous and trivial, even renouncing the possibility of love and marriage and setting limits on his affectionate and social interactions. Knowing that the time remaining to him was sufficient for the working out of only a relative handful of his ideas, he steeled himself for the task ahead: to "develop everything that has to remain locked within you" (no. 41). This sacrificial stance was more than an abstract reflection of a moralizing creed; his later years were marked by an increasing withdrawal into inwardness, into a state very like the extended ritual silence of Brahman novices that he remarked upon in the Tagebuch (no. 94c). He considered retreating still further, into the quasi-monastic solitude of rural life, removed from the hurly-burly of the city. Perhaps he was hoping somehow to accomplish the impossible-to slow things down by constructing universes where events might move at a slower rate, thus to expand the time available to him.

Contemplating the encroachments of time and mortality, Beethoven set his priorities, determined which compositions he would write, and eventually laid out an ambitious program. By 1817-18 at the latest, when he was writing the closing entries of his Tagebuch, he had settled on a series of compositions, works that constituted the components of a vast creative effort. (Indeed, with the exception of the late quartets, the great works of the last decade were all actually begun in 1817-18.) In his last sonatas he chose to work out possible reconfigurations of musical form and to sound unplumbed depths of expressivity; he explored the possibility of describing a devotional journey in his "Diabelli" Variations-a Divine Comedy or Pilgrim's Progress in tones; he wrote a song cycle in the form of a Romantic circle-a wreath, a Liederkreis-so tightly woven that its constituent elements cannot be separated out; he composed a colossal symphony that presumed to dissolve boundaries between language and music, thus perhaps to restore the union of the arts rumored to have existed in ancient ritual drama; in that symphony and in a prodigious and learned Mass he aimed also to dissolve boundaries between religions and to locate some of the common denominators of every faith. He had many more works in mind than he had time for. In a process of compositional triage, he abandoned or postponed ideas for setting Goethe's Faust and Claudine von Villa Bella; Grillparzer's Melusine; an oratorio for the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde to a libretto by Karl Bernard; and another oratorio, on Saul, to a text by Christoph Kuffner, that was intended to utilize music of the ancient Hebrews and the old modes. Also thrown overboard were a hybrid choral-symphonic Adagio Cantique, a Tenth Symphony, the Requiem he had promised his patron Wolfmayer, an orchestral overture on the letters B-A-C-H, a string quintet, a piano concerto, and doubtless a large number of other works. In view of his endless ambitious and even grandiose projects, he obviously had time for only a very small number of potboilers, written mostly in the aftermath of strenuous accomplishment.

He had set his creativity in opposition to his needs for consolation and pleasure, his longings to become a husband and a father, and his yearnings for a simple life, however trivial such an existence might have seemed in comparison to his art. It is fortunate, then, that Beethoven's art did not become his adversary, for one might think it inevitable that he would eventually lash out against a sacrificial imperative that insisted on his exclusive devotion to his artistic mission, as though he were an instrument of some unforgiving moral precept. And, perhaps, such a revolt did occur when he moved to seize control of his nephew Karl from the boy's mother, for it was an act through which he imagined that he had at last established the family that had been forbidden him, thereby fulfilling what he termed his "longing for domesticity" (no. 3). The torturing struggle to win the guardianship of his nephew revealed Beethoven's inability to sustain a renunciatory position. The desire for kinship overwhelmed both his defenses and his better judgment, even threatened to undermine his dedication to art. But in the end the creative and familial constellations reinforced one another, for Beethoven understood his action to become the boy's sole guardian as another form of self-denial, a burden undertaken by him as an acolyte of divinity: "Regard K[arl] as your own child," he wrote, "disregard all idle talk, all pettiness for the sake of this holy cause.... Your present condition is hard for you, but the one above, O He is, without Him is nothing. In any event the sign has been accepted" (nos. 80-81).


Beethoven searched world literature, mythology, art, philosophy, and religion for creeds that would justify so extreme a set of restrictions on ordinary human activity, to confirm the rightness of his choices. His readings in Homer, Schiller, Kant, and Herder, in the ancient classical writers and the modern Romantics, and in Brahman and Masonic texts provided a mosaic of ideas that gave voice to his own sentiments, offering guidance, wisdom, and the solace necessary for one who has accepted a stoical solution to the unyielding existential questions. Determined to leave his mark upon the world, he accepted the exhortation of the Bhagavad-Gita:

Let not thy life be spent in inaction. Depend upon application, perform thy duty, abandon all thought of the consequence, and make the event equal, whether it terminate in good or evil; for such an equality is called Yog, attention to what is spiritual. (no. 64b)

Blind Homer, as always, remained an inspiring mentor to the deaf composer:

Let me not sink into the dust unresisting and inglorious, But first accomplish great things, of which future generations too shall hear! (no. 49; Iliad 22.303-5)

Herder warned of the dangers attendant on such great endeavors, prescribing courage: "Risk everything, then! What God has granted to you, nobody can rob you of. Indeed, he granted it to you, to you, brave man" (no. 56; "Das Leben der Menschen"). The Masonic-Catholic dramatist Zacharias Werner enjoined him to seek "The great good of self-completion in creating! / You are the mirror image of the Eternal" (no. 60d; Die Svhne des Thals).

Also copied into his Tagebuch are extracts from Sir William Jones's vedic "Hymn to Narayena," with its appeal to the supreme deity to raise the poet's soul to heights of ecstasy:

Oh! Guide my fancy right, Oh! raise from cumbrous ground My soul in rapture drown'd, That fearless it may soar on wings of fire. (no. 62)

Thus, Beethoven chose art over life precisely because, for him, art provided plentiful compensations here and hereafter that were unavailable by other means. Music, though its creation required great sacrifices, was not itself a sacrificial burden. Rather, it offered innumerable strategies of prolongation to fend off forebodings of a darkening horizon. Through music Beethoven could locate and limn realms of permanence, constantly renewable, impervious to forces of decay and disintegration. Through music he could create impregnable, unified structures; describe endless forms of transcendence over hostile energies; inscribe narratives of return, refinding, and rebeginning; forge a channel between himself and a forbearing deity; invoke the healing powers of music. He could guarantee felicitous outcomes, overcome extreme odds, declare himself-and us-victors in every deadly game. In his music Beethoven could create ecstasies so powerful that they momentarily eradicated fear-or at least made it endurable.


Excerpted from "Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination" by Maynard Solomon. Copyright © 2004 by Maynard Solomon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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