Beethoven’s ‘Languages’

A new book helps us think about what Beethoven's music, and music in general, can mean.

Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from one that ran in the January 23, 2015, issue of National Review.

So much has been written about Beethoven that we might approach Jan Swafford’s new biography of him with a what’s-left-to-say skepticism. That would be a mistake. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph offers an unusual richness of detail concerning both Beethoven’s life and his works.

A writer of music when he is not writing books, Swafford analyzes Beethoven’s major compositions with an X-ray ear for thematic, motivic, rhythmic, and key-signature relationships. Many score excerpts support these discussions, and musically trained readers will appreciate Swafford’s sundry insights.

Perhaps for the benefit of untrained readers, who will be skimming these passages anyway, Swafford largely eschews analysis of harmonic function. This decision occasionally impoverishes his discussion. The concept of a pivot chord, for example, would have enriched his remarks about the beginning of the “Waldstein” piano sonata; consideration of the harmonically ambiguous choral cadence at the end of the Missa solemnis (is that an incomplete vi6 chord or an incomplete I?) would have complemented his mention of the cadence’s irresolute soprano line. Swafford should consider revising his book into two volumes, one offering in-depth musical analysis and the other mainly telling Beethoven’s story.

Telling Beethoven’s story, Swafford offers a mass of fact and anecdote rather than a small and judicious selection, which is why his book is so long. His voice is often intimate, as if channeling Beethoven’s interior monologue. In places this gets a little speculative, albeit plausibly so, and a little melodramatic: Beethoven “would find a cure [for his deafness]. He must find a cure.” (He did not.) But on the upside — and for me the net was very positive — the accumulation of detail and novelistic style conjure up a most vivid Beethoven.

In personality, Beethoven was not the ur-Romantic a later generation made of him. This image is due largely to his friend and admirer Bettina Brentano, who, writing to Goethe to arrange their meeting, put into Beethoven’s mouth such florid absurdities as “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind.”

Brentano is known to have fabricated elements of her published correspondences; Swafford notes this but thinks that, “in his heart, Beethoven was as extravagantly idealistic as the man [Brentano] painted, but ordinarily he articulated it only in music.” In music, though, Beethoven wasn’t talking about Beethoven. Brentano’s letter ends with her reading Beethoven’s supposed musings back to him and his replying, “Did I say that? Well, then I had a raptus!” “Raptus” was Beethoven’s word for his creative trances, and Swafford takes its appearance here as evidence of Brentano’s veracity; but could not Beethoven have been diplomatically distancing himself from her invention? In any case, this “Bacchus” stuff has “a tone . . . that [Beethoven] never, as far as history would know, quite wrote or spoke with on any other occasion.” To my ear, it sounds nothing like him.

Of Beethoven’s tempestuous pride there can be no doubt, but he could also remark: “Everything I do apart from music is badly done and stupid.” Swafford calls him a solipsist, and of his intermittent self-absorption, too, there can be no doubt. But it takes a genuine understanding of others to do this:

When [the Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann] had lost a child, Beethoven invited her over, sat down at the piano, and said, “Now we will converse in music.” For more than an hour he improvised for her. “He said everything to me,” Ertmann later told Felix Mendelssohn, “and finally gave me consolation.”

Swafford discusses at length the intellectual and cultural atmosphere of Bonn in the late 18th century, when Beethoven was growing up there, and from this discussion emerges one of his main theses: that Beethoven was a “radical evolutionary, not a revolutionary.” Beethoven was a lifelong believer in the Enlightenment, or rather in its German iteration, the Aufklärung, which differed from the French version mainly by its patience with liberalizing despotism. Much too much has been made of Beethoven’s refusal to yield a path to the empress of Austria and a group of dukes, as if that summed up his whole attitude to political authority. (He was showing off for Goethe, with whom he was walking, and he had a point besides: Why should the right of way be hereditary?) Here is a more amiable sort of protest, in a note to his friend the Baron von Zmeskall: “Will the very high born personage, the Zmeskality of H[err] von Zmeskall, graciously condescend to decide where he can be spoken to tomorrow — we are damnably devoted to you.”

Beethoven’s music, too, was evolution, not revolution. In The Birth of the Modern, Paul Johnson presents Beethoven as “the supreme musical innovator,” but there is no single supreme. Schoenberg, Debussy, Wagner, Berlioz, and Haydn were as innovative as Beethoven, and the first four broke more readily than he with musical tradition. In analysis of composition after composition, Swafford shows that Beethoven expanded and reshaped existing forms rather than discarded them. He obsessed over mastering counterpoint — widely dismissed in his day as “the old style” — and turned away from Haydn (and toward Albrechtsberger) as his counterpoint teacher because Haydn corrected his exercises too laxly. Like Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven tried to give a new kind of expressive power to fugal forms by incorporating them into classical structures. Even the novelty of introducing a choir and vocal soloists into a symphony can be considered a rethinking of the cantata, as Lewis Lockwood observes in his own book on Beethoven.

Beethoven’s way of consoling the Baroness von Ertmann raises a question about his music, and about music generally; for of course Beethoven did not say anything as he played. Why then did she use that verb? How did he console her? How does music mean?

Sometimes it offers an analogical symbol for some abstract concept. This happens in a lot of church music, including Beethoven’s, for example as the choir in the Missa solemnis sings higher and higher on “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). And sometimes composers try to symbolize concrete things and events. Examples abound in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, whose movements bear such headings as “Scene by the brook” and “Thunder. Storm.”

But the Sixth as a whole appears under the inscription “More expression of feeling than tone painting.” Beethoven is giving us an emotional soundtrack, so to speak, for a scene by a brook more than he is trying to portray a scene by a brook, and that is mainly what he does: offer musical analogues of emotional correlates of things and events. Swafford appropriately puts quotes around “narratives” when he finds the “feelings and ‘narratives’ in [Beethoven’s] instrumental music” to be “more transparent than in Mozart and Brahms,” and there could be quotes around “language,” too, when Swafford calls music “an emotional language beyond words.” Beethoven sometimes composed with a particular story in mind, but rarely did he say what it was, and in truth it doesn’t matter, for in truth instrumental music doesn’t tell stories.

When music has a sung text, on the other hand, it can acquire a story or a concept as a sort of official meaning. With Beethoven the texts tend to have moral and intellectual weight, as if he had entered into a partnership with philosophy, but the emotional analogue remains. And of course all these ways of meaning can be combined. Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio, once seemed to me in live performance to be a series of revelations of deeper layers of meaning, so that what began as a cheesy comedy gave way to a psychodrama about freedom and tyranny and love, which in turn gave way to an ecstatic sermon as if from Beethoven himself, the characters onstage his mere mouthpieces. It was unbelievably moving.

The Missa solemnis, which Beethoven judged to be his greatest composition, has an explicit textual meaning, and so does what Swafford calls its “sister work,” the Ninth Symphony. “There were two streams in Beethoven’s music, the secular-humanist and the sacred,” Swafford writes. Both of them flow through each of these works, which together constitute the mature expression of Beethoven’s ideals and beliefs.

We have not yet considered that second stream. What was sacred to Beethoven? As Swafford puts it, he came to believe in a God who “was present and all-seeing, who listened to prayers.” Nominally Catholic, Beethoven had little use for priests or churches, and “by the mid-1810s, [he] was reading Eastern religious texts, . . . most having to do with Hinduism.” Following Maynard Solomon, Swafford identifies mankind, God, and nature as Beethoven’s trinity. The middle term seems to have elevated the outer two rather than been diminished by them, and Swafford plausibly categorizes the Sixth Symphony, Beethoven’s most substantial reflection on nature, as a sacred work. We might also mention “Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur” (“The Glory of God in Nature”), Beethoven’s blazing, simple setting for voice and piano of a poem by Christian Gellert. “Who supports the uncountable stars of heaven?” Gellert had asked. “Who guides the sun from its canopy?”

In the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven’s humanism is primary, but the choral finale proclaims that “over the starry canopy a loving Father must dwell.” (Again the stars. Beethoven was also much impressed by Kant’s remark about their awesomeness.)

As for the Missa solemnis, Swafford calls it an expression of “Beethoven’s personal faith as an individual reaching toward God, not an assertion of the credos and dogmas of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church.” But its text is an assertion of those things, and many Catholics no doubt appreciate it partly for that reason. Swafford might more carefully have distinguished the ways in which music conveys meaning.

He discusses with great fluency the Missa’s symbolic representations of abstract and concrete things, its way of “subsum[ing] the doctrines and the physical rite of the church, the very gestures of the priest and the preluding of the organist.” “The preluding of the organist” refers to one of the most striking timbres in Beethoven’s music, a passage “with divided violas and cellos” — and bassoons but no violins — “the texture made ethereal by low flutes”: orchestral mimicry of an organ. Beethoven had been a church organist in his youth, and his “organ” now plays at just the time when Austrian organists sometimes improvised during the Elevation of the Host.

Swafford does not mention the overwhelmingly sad, almost funereal quality — despite the major key — of this passage as it descends into the lower registers of the orchestra. This deathliness is appropriate to the idea of the Eucharist, and it might make the listener reflect on his own inevitable demise. The Credo movement clearly emphasizes the experience of the “individual reaching toward God.” The words summarizing the life of Jesus are set in a declamatory, sometimes monophonic style, with comparatively little development of any musical motif. But when the text expresses the believer’s expectation of a “life to come,” Beethoven sets the relevant words to an astonishing double fugue. Swafford will conclude that the Missa solemnis is “a statement of faith and also of doubt,” but in this fugue, certainly, no doubt is to be heard.

Where does Swafford hear it, then? In the Mass’s Agnus Dei, a movement that appears under the inscription “Prayer for inner and outer peace.” The words “Dona nobis pacem” usher in a gentle fugato, but

that is interrupted by something wrenchingly alien: throbbing drums, flurries of strings like gusts of wind presaging a storm. Suddenly out of nowhere there are bugle calls. The soloists take up a cry marked “anxiously”: “Lamb of God! Have mercy on us!” The drums and bugles return, fortissimo, under which the soprano’s cry for mercy can hardly be heard. . . . Armies have disrupted the rite, destroyed the peace. It is war.

Eventually something like peace returns, but insecurely: As if threatening from afar, the timpani sound quiet notes belonging to a harmonically distant key, and then the choir and orchestra abruptly terminate the Mass. “God has not answered humanity’s prayers, its demands, its terrified pleas for peace.”

My take is different: I think the Missa solemnis ends with an expression less of doubt than of responsibility. When one of Beethoven’s pupils, having completed a piano arrangement of Fidelio, wrote “Finished with the help of God” at the bottom of the score, Beethoven added in reply: “O man, help yourself.” In isolation, the comment might sound faithless, but considered in the light of Beethoven’s evident if anti-dogmatic faith it provides an insight into the enigma of the Agnus Dei (as also into the meaning of the Ninth Symphony, with which Swafford connects this anecdote). Having conveyed in the Missa’s first four movements the inner peace of faith, Beethoven now affirms his Enlightenment belief that the realization of outer peace is our own duty — a duty owed to God and mankind both, and one that no church is competent to discharge.

The Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, then, are not “question and answer,” as Swafford puts it, but answers to different questions. More, the questions and answers frame each other, if we may indulge an Escherian metaphor. The Ninth exhorts us to create a joyful society in which “all men become brothers” but does not say anything about mankind’s relation to the “loving Father” above the stars; the Missa solemnis does not tell us what constitutes a good society but does speak to the fear of nothingness that might undermine our resolve to create one, or to do anything else.

When I listen to these works, I am struck by the goodness and power and unity of the “statement” that Beethoven made to posterity. As at that performance of Fidelio, I feel as if he were present, “saying” everything in the “language[s]” beyond words that he “spoke” with unsurpassed articulacy. Jan Swafford has heightened my sensitivity to some of his characteristic “utterances,” and for that I will remain grateful.

— Jason Lee Steorts is the managing editor of National Review.


The Latest