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A life in music, and far beyond

Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination; Maynard Solomon; University of California Press: 328 pp., $29.95 Beethoven's Ninth: A Political History; Esteban Buch; Translated from the French by Richard Miller; University of Chicago Press: 328 pp., $27.50

October 05, 2003|Robert Winter | Robert Winter holds the presidential chair in music and interactive arts at UCLA. Two of his new interactive DVD titles, "Dvorak in America" (with Joseph Horowitz) and "Performing the Bartok Quartets" (with the Emerson Quartet), will appear in early 2004.

"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." So Maynard Solomon (inventing a few words along the way) characterizes Beethoven's creative quest in the prologue to his magisterial collection of 12 essays exploring new facets of Beethoven's late style.

No one in Beethoven's lifetime (it goes without saying) would have referred to the works from roughly 1815 until his death in 1827 as "late"; Beethoven's style evolved continuously throughout his career, and who knew where it would take him? Wilhelm von Lenz, in "Beethoven et ses trois styles" of 1852, first put the concept of early, middle and late Beethoven squarely into play. Indeed, the very notion of a "late style" -- subsequently applied indiscriminately by scholars to artists from Leonardo to Willem de Kooning -- seems indissolubly linked with Beethoven. The reasons for the linkage -- including those adduced by Lenz -- are not hard to find. Traditionally, Beethoven scholars have promulgated the notion of a six-year gap (1812-18) between the latter works of the so-called Heroic Decade (especially Symphonies No. 7 and 8) and the clarion call to the late style in the B-flat Piano Sonata, Op. 106 (the "Hammerklavier.") Over this period, Beethoven maintained a diary whose irregular entries suggest his struggles. Moreover, the late works, especially the Ninth Symphony and the late quartets, seem to inhabit new and ineffable realms of human consciousness. And finally, could anything other than divine intervention have synchronized the dawn of the late style with the onset of Beethoven's clinical deafness? From 1818 he was forced to rely on his friends writing down commentary in so-called conversation books, not to mention the need to compose aided only by an interior ear. Hence the image, burned in the romantic imagination, of the lonely existential traveler whose struggles outstrip the comprehension of mere mortals.

Much of Solomon's extraordinary career, including his landmark biography of 1977 and a 1988 collection of essays, has been devoted to humanizing Beethoven. Unlike the vast majority of artist biographers, he has always been deeply invested in the relationship between life and art -- a preoccupation all the more striking in his case because he makes no claims to being a trained musician. Paradoxically, the result is not a more fallible, less deified Beethoven but an even more impressive and moving figure whose courage and resolve redeem a raft of human frailties. Not surprisingly, Solomon is far less interested in the external markers of Beethoven's late style than in his intellectual and spiritual journey. In the course of this journey, the line between the Heroic Decade and the late style is both blurred and clarified.

In "Late Beethoven," Solomon has undertaken a study no one before him either dared or bothered to do. His preparation included a close inspection of Beethoven's Tagebuch (the aforementioned diary), letters, annotations in books in Beethoven's library and thousands of pages of his conversation books. This led him down a trail full of discoveries: Beethoven's deep affinity for Freemasonry; a reevaluation of the much maligned theme of the "Diabelli" Variations, a monumental set of variations for piano, as the ideal subject rather than a rescued banality; a survey, in the essay titled "Some Romantic Images," of Beethoven's portrayals of talking trees, breezes, starry skies, the romantic solitary, the distant beloved. Solomon connects Beethoven's evolution to the seminal Romantic thinkers of his time -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, the poet Novalis, Johann Gottfried Herder, Blake and Wordsworth -- and along the way uncovers links to artists and writers from Aristotle to Auden.

Solomon quotes Beethoven's doleful remark that "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." The same could be said of Solomon, whose work on Beethoven has been matched by a penetrating biography of Mozart and will soon be followed by a thoroughgoing reappraisal of Schubert.

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