Voice of God

Tim Souster

  • Beethoven and the Voice of God by Wilfrid Mellers
    Faber, 453 pp, £20.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 571 11718 X

I first became aware of Professor Mellers when he lectured at Worcester College, Oxford in about 1962. The Beatles hadn’t got into the charts by then, so the theme of his lecture was probably Apollo, Dionysus and the Second Viennese School. It was very stimulating. I was particularly struck by the tiny flowered pattern on the tops of his (what I later came to recognise as) boxer shorts, which flashed into view when he gesticulated with particular energy. Whether these were manifestations of the Dionysiac or the Apollonian I was then too young to judge. In retrospect I realise of course that they were neither, but rather a corporeal parallel to the hidden decorations of Gothic cathedrals, destined only for the eyes of God.

These observations are not entirely facetious, as they serve to indicate some typical features of Professor Mellers’s approach in writing about music: the constant reference to mythological, religious, mystical and psychological archetypes, often in the form of pairs of antitheses, the easy familiarity with the Almighty and the playful juxtaposition of the mundane with the sublime. (This last characteristic he rightly singles out, particularly in his perspicacious analysis of the Diabelli Variations, as fundamental to Beethoven’s own personality and music.)

Despite the rather Cecil B. deMille title, Beethoven and the Voice of God is basically a collation of Professor Mellers’s analysis classes given over a period of thirty years as a university teacher. The works covered are 14 of the 32 piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, the Diabelli Variations and the Bagatelles. There are appendices on Beethoven’s piano and on Fidelio. Surveying the book’s overall lay-out one is first struck by the plethora of superscriptions, assigned to each of its sections or sub-sections. The sonatas clock in under the headings ‘Young Prometheus’, ‘Comedy and Catastrophe’, ‘Malestrom and Cornucopia’, ‘Eros, Dionysus and Romanticism’, ‘The Tyger and the Forge’, ‘Scapegoat and Fool’ and ‘The Water and the Fire’. The study of the Missa Solemnis is headed ‘The Strong Thief’, with subsidiary references to ‘The Invisible Church’, ‘The Joyous Wrath of God’, ‘Christ-Osiris and the Hanged Man’ and ‘Persephone Restored’.

On proceeding to Professor Mellers’s first chapter (excellently setting Beethoven in his social and cultural context) we have to hack our way through no less than eight quotations from sources as diverse as Meister Eckhardt and Samuel Beckett. What is the function of all this cultural scaffolding? Does the writer doubt the validity of his own insights? Does he feel that Beethoven gains from this metaphysical propping-up? Professor Mellers answers this right at the start:

Since music is made by human beings, any musical judgment, however technical, is also psychological: it is not merely improbable, but totally impossible, that musical events could be separable from human experience – thoughts, feelings, actions – conceptualised in other than musical terms. Verbal comment and comparison is entirely valid so long as it stems from a careful delineation of the musical facts; and such subjective elements as enter into one’s commentary on music are neither more nor less damaging than those that occur in reference to any human activity. I cannot prove that my account of a problematical work like Beethoven’s Op.101 is unequivocally right. I can however demonstrate that it is a possible, even probable, deduction from a given sequence of musical events; and I could point to other accounts which would be demonstrably wrong in that they did not take account of those musical facts.

One could hardly disagree with these general principles, but when we come to the analysis of Op.101 we find no extraordinary theories being propounded. Professor Mellers simply states, quite rightly, that the work is Schumannesque, romantic in the E.T.A. Hoffman sense, and ‘the closest he ever came to writing “neurotic” music’. This is all fine, but hardly a revelation. The bulk of the writing on this sonata takes the form of blow-by-blow programme-note style description, rather than analysis, and this I find the principal disappointment of the book. Professor Mellers is quite clear in his preface that Beethoven and the Voice of God originated as oral comment on the music presented at the piano: the written script, he says, is ‘fully intelligible only if read with a score at one’s elbow’. However, once one has book and score in the required position, one expects more real analysis of the works, a dismantling of the concrete detail of the musical material: its phrase-lengths, articulation patterns, register distribution, duration schemes, in addition to its harmonic structure. These schemes should then be related to each other and to the work as a whole. Personally I can’t see why writers on music don’t take this ‘integral analysis’ approach further and try to show how we perceive the music (subjectivity patterns) and how the music relates to its past and present environment (social patterns) and relate these patterns back to the musical ones. Professor Mellers is well placed to carry out this more systematic kind of analysis, but in the present book we too often have to content ourselves with comments such as this: ‘Certainly the second movement at first rejects dreamful song with vigorously corporeal movements ... The march’s physicality is not, however, unequivocal; though it brings Beethoven down to earth from his dream-like song, it does not exclude intimations of immortality.’ I have deliberately limited my criticisms to the description of the music itself. Professor Mellers’s pan-cultural effusions are well-known, and, anyway, you can always skip them. It is in the less flamboyant writing that one can more easily isolate the fundamental – sometimes comic – sloppiness of Professor Mellers’s style. ‘After the double bar the music’s airiness becomes overt.’ Once again the mot juste just evades him.

Mellers-baiting is an all too common and not very edifying spectacle, however. His accounts of the Diabelli Variations and (superscriptions excluded) the Missa Solemnis are splendid. But after the great writing on Beethoven’s music by, say, Tovey and Rosen, one expects more from a book with such a portentous title. Professor Mellers is a great live act, but the sheet music of his song and dance is less convincing. As a ‘live’ professor he irresistibly reminds one of Wendell Kretschmar, the lecturer on Beethoven in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. But whereas the Moses-like Kretschmar was a stutterer whose ‘frightful impediment did in the end only affect us as a stimulating and compelling expression of the zeal he felt’, Mellers’s garrulousness can only be described as Aaron-like. It is perhaps unfair to compare a fictional character with a living writer, but a comparison of two texts on the same passage from Beethoven’s Sonata, Op.111 shows what the present-day writer on Beethoven is up against. First Mellers on bars 112ff. of the Arietta movement:

the right hand’s trills climb chromatically until, after the change of key signature, they resolve into the Arietta’s upward arpeggios and downward appoggiaturas ... They are stratospherically high, while the bass line descends, ringing songfully to the depths. It is as though the endless trills were released by that moment outside Time at the end of the last variation; the vast distance between treble and bass seems to separate soul from body.

And now Kretschmar, by Adorno, out of Mann:

The characteristic of the movement of course is the wide gap between bass and treble, between the right and left hand, and a moment comes, an utterly extreme situation, when the poor little motif seems to hover alone and forsaken above a giddy yawning abyss – a procedure of awe-inspiring unearthliness, to which then succeeds a distressful making-of-itself small, a start of fear as it were, that such a thing could happen.

This is a hard act to follow, even in floral boxer shorts. An area which Professor Mellers could have covered, given his wide knowledge of contemporary music, is the forward-looking nature of Beethoven’s work. The vocal writing in the Missa Solemnis and the piano-writing in the late sonatas (for example, in the passage just described) seem to look forward to new resources of expression. ‘Unplayability’ was a common criticism of Beethoven’s late music. In this remarkable passage, transscribed by Bettina Brentano, Beethoven is reputed to have said: ‘Music is the electric soil in which the spirit thinks, lives and invents ... All that is electrical stimulates the mind to flowing, surging, musical creation. I am electrical by nature.’ On a Cambridge wall in the 1970s some smart-arse scrawled ‘God uses Vox amplification.’ What Beethoven, the voice of God, would have done with a good PA Professor Mellers is surely well placed to consider. But he restricts his comments about Beethoven’s musical heirs to the following: ‘The Arietta of Opus 111, the slow movement of Opus 132, the Benedictus of the Missa Solemnis are, in their escape from temporal progression, the beginnings of that process whereby music, through the sequence of late Wagner, Debussy, Stravinsky, free atonal Schoenberg, Webern, Messiaen, Ives, Varèse, Stockhausen, Cage, at least envisaged the possibility of a society freed from the bondage of our linear thinking, quantificated knowledge and progressive science.’ That Debussy felt this way about ‘progressive science’ is news to me, but how his (and others’) music specifically relates to that of Beethoven and what echoes of Beethoven Professor Mellers perceives in the music of today would have made interesting reading. But this is not the book Professor Mellers set out to write. I feel the book he did write should have been called ‘A Companion to Beethoven’s Piano Works and Missa Solemnis’: certainly it functions pretty well as such. When it comes to overt airiness, you can keep your Aaron.