Wednesday, December 16, 2009
HAPPY BEETHOVEN'S BIRTHDAYS
The bad news is that the master decided to replace the heartbreakingly gorgeous last movement of his ninth symphony with some bombastic choral agit-prop. Granted -- this being late Beethoven -- there are extraordinary events in there, but like Chaplin's speech at the end of The Great Dictator, or the psychiatrist's lecture at the end of Psycho, one must ask, "Was this the right decision?"
"Beethoven's Ninth? Oh yeah -- Da da da da Da da da da..." And you starts to sing the Ode to Joy, with whatever words you learned around campfires or in church. Back in 1893, George Bernard Shaw ridiculed a listener who knew only the Ninth's last movement, and came to hear it only for that. He writes about him sitting there "bothered and exhausted, wondering how soon the choir will begin to sing those verses which are the only part of the program of which he can make head or tail, and hardly able to believe that the conductor can be serious in keeping the band noodling on for forty-five mortal minutes before the singers get to business."
This is a problem. For the Ninth is a work which aspires to tell the largest of all stories, one with a beginning and a middle, and hopefully an end -- an end which is the most questionable section, especially out of context. It was questionable to Beethoven, who, even after it was conceived, was writing default sketches for an instrumental movement of entirely different character, and who, some years after it was finished, remarked to friends that the choral finale was a mistake. And it has been questionable down through the years, to musicians of Beethoven's generation and beyond,
The fourth movement is, in my opinion, so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller's Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it. (Ludwig Spohr)
and to the singers of today who struggle with its bizarre and outrageous demands.
The work is a musical icon, always a special occasion to hear and to perform. Still, the question exists: Should the last movement of the Ninth BE the last movement of the Ninth -- or was Beethoven caught up in some extra-musical utopian thought which, combined with his total deafness, personal isolation and urgent need for community, has left us with a flawed and freakish masterpiece? You will be able to decide for yourself this week. To help you with this, in fact, momentous decision, let me sketch out the big story of all the movements, and the personal and historical background out of which they grew.
By 1824, Beethoven had been deaf for two decades, and stone deaf for the last five or six years. There is a moving story of his "conducting" the premiere of the symphony (the chorus and orchestra having been instructed to ignore him and follow the concertmaster), beating time and turning the pages of his score even after the work was over. A soloist had to turn him around to face his cheering audience. Beethoven was a passionate man, whose years of isolating deafness had kept him from personal intimacy. His reaching out had become idiosyncratic, sometimes destructive, leaving him with "theoretical" relationships, with only the visionary goals of brotherhood and civilization.
The Ninth has become a model of such Enlightenment culture in which all conflicts are dissolved in brotherhood, love, and reconciliation, goals so archetypal that Adrian Leverkuhn, Thomas Mann's dying, devil-afflicted composer, announced that these goals, precisely, were not to be. "The good and noble, what we call human...What human beings have fought for and stormed citadels, what the ecstatics exultantly announced -- that is not to be. It will be taken back. I will take it back." Take back what? he is asked. "The Ninth Symphony."
Lacking a happy story of his own, Beethoven was forced into the wider world of cosmos and myth, beginning with Chaos, the formless void of primordial matter, and obeying heavenly laws, evolving into the octave of humanity. To express that coming-round, his lifelong love of Schiller's "Ode to Joy" came into play, and his creation grew into a projection of the end of history, of universal life become elysian civilization. "Where are we going, then?" asked the poet Novalis: "Always homeward." The Ninth was Beethoven's map leading to the home he always wanted but never achieved. His was not a simple, cheerful optimism, some flabby notion that things would come out all right in the end, but rather a tragic optimism, like Gramsci's "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will", an optimism of "volition inspired by imagination." (Schweitzer). Maybe that's why it's so hard to sing.
Deaf, isolated, some would say mad, "late period" Beethoven explores a world completely removed from ordinary thought and experience. His technique over the years had evolved beyond the bounds of anything known, before or since, both utilizing and disrupting all elements of classical design. He threw everything he had into the Ninth, "harmonic and rhythmic motion slowed to the edge of motionlessness, clouded harmonic progressions, passages in indeterminate keys, nebulous and nocturnal effects, multivalent tonal trajectories, enormously extended time spans, highly idiosyncratic fugue styles, and a supremely ornamented variation style that implies the infinite possibilities latent in even the simplest musical materials." (Solomon, Beethoven Essays).
All this, you will hear, beginning at the beginning...
...the very beginning, before there is a world. We hear the tremelo of the universal frame, the vastness of cosmic Chaos, gestating. E, A, open strings, open fifths, outlining, but not defining, a riddle of what's to come. Beethoven here begins the utmost three movement exploration of the fundamental components of music: interval/harmony, rhythm, and melody. In the beginning was the open fifth, uncommitted to major or minor emotion, beyond them, primeval, inhuman. At the thirteenth measure, the dark theme emerges from darkness, a falling, dotted D minor, uncomfortable enough with itself to squirm out of key, then falling back, abandoned, committed. This is a theme which brings up memories of Beethoven's earlier struggles with "Fate", but here evoking a fate beyond personification, beyond defiance, a truly universal destiny affecting the human world, but not part of it. We are present at the creation, and we find it nothing benevolent, but rather crushing and dissipating, an inhuman beginning to the story that will end (at least tonight) with the brotherhood of Man. The scale, the range, the proportions are gigantic, the potential cataclysmic. In case we, in our current familiarity with the piece, are tempted to try to cuddle up against it, we are brutally dismissed by the grinding despair of the funeral march which marks the very end. "Beware," it says, "this could go anywhere."
Rhythm here, a demonic dance of obsessive, rhythm-dominated thrust. In case you doubt the plot, note that this movement is the only second movement scherzo in all the symphonies, thriving still on the trans-personal energy of the first, with its impersonal power. The strings do fortissimo D octaves. Silence. Then A octaves. Silence. Then the tympani, in surprising solo, whacks out a F -- thus defining, yes, again, D minor. The orchestra takes off in a molto vivace uprising of blind energy, four hundred measures of hang on to your hat.
And then something very strange happens. Formally, a scherzo requires a contrasting trio before returning to its original intent. That happens, yes. But not very strange. What IS strange is that the trio is a human one, the sound, perhaps, of a peasants at a dance, an invasion of universe, of scale, a hint of benevolence, a time-leap into Mahlerian sensibility and pastiche. And if you listen carefully, you will hear in the trio theme the outline of what will become the Ode to Joy, a wonderful, gratuitous kindness after all the flinging. But it is not time yet for humanity. Rhythm (for all its beating of drums) cannot be its essential mode: the scherzo returns, chaotic and hostile as ever. The trio gives one last little try in the winds, but is beaten down by the full orchestra crashing emphatically on an open D chord, neither major nor minor. Case closed -- but open.
Melody, the human mode. I am not the only kvetcher who thinks the symphony culminates, and should have ended with the Adagio/Andante, that it is the work's true finale.. Such would not have been alien to Beethoven's late sensibility: of the last three late piano sonatas, two (op. 109 and 111) end with astounding slow movements. Thomas Mann has his stuttering pianist, Wendell Kretschmar give a lecture/performance (in Dr. Faustus) concerning why Beethoven had not written a normal, fast, last movement to Op.111, but had ended with a slow one.
A new approach? A return after this parting -- impossible! It had happened that the sonata had come, in the second, enormous movement, to an end, an end without any return. And when he said "the sonata," he meant not only this one in C minor, but the sonata in general, as a species, as traditional art form; it itself was here at an end, brought to its end, it had fulfilled its destiny, reached its goal, beyond which there was no going....
Schiller himself had written, "To arrive at a solution even in the political problem, the road of aesthetics must be pursued, because it is through beauty that we arrive at freedom." Beauty. The beauty of the third movement. No one has ever contended the last choral movement was beautiful.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Beethoven didn't agree. "This is too tender," he remarked of the third movement. His contemporary, the poet Auguste Platen, had written
He whose eyes have gazed upon beauty,
Is already delivered over to death.
and it seemed that Beethoven agreed. He needed to escape the imagined trap of passivity, of a beauty too sublime for action. The world, his world, needed changing, and neither Sirens nor lotus blossoms would suffice. And so we leave this gorgeous, inward, mystical contemplation, this rich, flowering serenity, these slow, deeply human, personal, miracles, timeless, beyond decay...
-- to be blasted away by the most gargantuan Fart in music, the chord which begins what Wagner called a Schreckenfanfare (terrifying!), blowing off not only the sublimity of the previous movement, but all that came before it. The basses and celli start literally talking --but they have no words -- we don't understand what they say. Then -- are we hearing right? -- the symphony starts over again from the beginning: tremelo, E-A, A-E, E-A, only to be cut off, dismissed by the basses. Next, the scherzo gives it a try, again to be dissed, and finally, the slow movement, to be more gently tossed. What is it the basses want? After a pause, they tell us.
The Ode to Joy tune, for all the various sketches which preceded it, has about the attractiveness of a beer hall song. But if one wonders, with Spohr, that a genius such as Beethoven could come up with something like it, one's cynicism is dissolved as the master begins spinning out an increasingly complex set of songful variations, growing his sound through strings and winds, and finally punctuating it with brass when, lo, the Schreckenfanfare returns, and a solo bass -- the first voice ever heard in a symphony -- translates for us what the basses were trying earlier to say: "O friends, not these sounds. Let us rather strike up something more pleasant and joyful."
What is he talking about -- "these sounds"? A little ambiguous. For it is not merely the first three movements that are being dismissed, but the very Ode to Joy theme, which has just received such gorgeous orchestral treatment. It must be non-vocal symphonic music itself Beethoven means, thus calling for the end of yet another genre, as insufficient to attain his demands on the future.
The first response of the human voice is "Freude!" -- joy -- , and the chorus basses begin to sing the words to the first Schiller verse. All begins at a natural, human scale, but with each successive development, the music separates itself further and further from normal song, and begins engaging other, less definable levels of experience. The text takes a surreal leap from the pleasures of the worm to the seraphic joy of angels, and we are translated into a new world, in a new, surprising key. We are directed to be as heros, joyfully racing through the heavens to victory, and the orchestra breaks into an enormous fugue with the rhythmic drive of the discarded scherzo, ending in a four part choral version of the Joy theme, its definitive statement from the billion-voiced throat of humanity. All together, now. The prisoners are free, the slaves are slaves no more.
But now things get really strange. We are exhorted to the world's largest group hug. Why? Because a loving father must be there up above the starry canopy. Not IS there, mind you, but by deduction or intuition, MUST be. On your knees! Don't you sense the Creator? Look up there. He must be there -- above the stars. The music goes anti-gravitational.
So we look and listen. And what do we hear? The most bizarre double fugue in the history of music with lines quite unsingable, making little individual sense, but -- as if proving something about community -- evoking an undeniable, powerful, visionary gestalt. The energy gathers itself, and the work literally sprints to the finish line, prestissimo, and is over.
Is that it? Is that the legitimate successor to the unearthly, yet human heights of the slow movement? Thrilling, yes, but do you want to live there? Where is the vision of God? Not a suspicion that he must be out there, but some even secondary or tertiary vibration, as in Mahler? We've survived the cold vastness, the kinetic shoving, the opiate beauty of the first three movements. And now?
Beethoven wanted to express some exalted idea of human brotherhood in a new life sprung from the cosmic view of the three preceding movements. But I, for one, have always felt disappointed, even tricked. For all the phenomenal musical events in the last movement, theologically, it feels more like some non-denominational Sunday sermon by a hot preacher. OK, OK, this is music, not theology. But is the music of the last moment the fulfillment of the path set up by the first three? Or did Beethoven opt to use his unmatched skill and energy, in the service of an urgent, but non-musical exhortation?
He had more to say after the Ninth. Was he so convinced of the need for human voice, or its success in the symphony that, like Schoenberg, he introduced vocal song into the late quartets? No. Five staggering, metaphysical quartets were content with strings alone, one of them (0p. 132) ending with the very theme sketched for the instrumental finale to the Ninth.
There is no QED here. Tovey insists that, like it or not, we MUST listen to the Ninth as if the chorale finale were correct. Still, one wonders.