Gleichenstein’s Hat

Robert Simpson

  • Beethoven Essays by Maynard Solomon
    Harvard, 375 pp, £23.50, July 1988, ISBN 0 674 06377 5

In contemplating the psychology of a dead artist, referring to the only sure thing we have to go on – his work – can be tricky: we are tempted into making the evidence conform to our theories, Freudian or other. Maynard Solomon recognises this danger, but is not altogether saved from rashness. An example is his chapter on the four dreams that Beethoven happened to describe (very briefly and sketchily) in letters. In one of these letters, addressed to Ignaz von Gleichenstein, he says: ‘The night before last I had a dream in which you seemed to me to be in a stable, where you were so wholly bewitched and captivated by a pair of magnificent horses that you were oblivious to everything around you.’ That is all. In the same letter Beethoven refers to a hat which Gleichenstein seems to have asked him to collect from a shop. Beethoven says that when he collected it, it had a rip in it, and he quite reasonably advises Gleichenstein to make the shop take it back, since it was so expensive. It would be surprising if a psychoanalyst were to refrain from the usual sexual interpretation of the pair of horses. Solomon, however, goes on to explain that the rip in the hat bespeaks ‘the feminised son, castrated in the presence of the copulating parents’. But the innocent hat was not part of the dream! To be fair, such mistakes are quite uncharacteristic of Solomon: but one might wonder what his analyst would say about this one. In another essay, Solomon devastatingly dismantles Editha and Richard Sterba’s aggressive theory about Beethoven’s alleged homosexual interest in his nephew. Throughout the book we are aware of Solomon’s high intelligence, the immense width of his reading and his often shrewd perceptions, as well as his deeply sympathetic approach to Beethoven’s day-to-day problems. As a psychoanalyst, Solomon must be expected to tackle any human subject according to the ideas he espouses, and he is considerate enough to warn ‘those who cannot abide such speculations’ against Chapters Four, Five and Six, where he discusses Beethoven’s dreams, the effect on him of the death in infancy of his elder brother (also Ludwig, born about a year earlier), and the psychological implications and consequences of his deafness. For my own part, I must confess to doubts about the validity of such deductions, drawn from what is, after all, often flimsy and circumstantial evidence.

Solomon’s conclusions can sometimes be a little too ingenious. In Chapter Three, he discusses Beethoven’s so-called ‘nobility pretence’ – i.e. his failure to explain to the authorities the difference between the Dutch ‘van’ and the German ‘von’. Did they really need educating in this? In public notices and correspondence his name was often carelessly written with ‘von’; Goethe used ‘von’ in a letter mentioning Beethoven to his wife. It was not an uncommon error and it does not prove that Beethoven deliberately pretended rank. His remark ‘My nobility is here and here’ (pointing to head and heart) suggests otherwise. At the court hearing on the guardianship of his nephew Karl, Beethoven stated that he had no proof of nobility, and that ‘van’ was a Dutch predicate which was not exclusively applied to the nobility. Solomon represents this as trying ‘to imply that he was indeed noble’ – a not altogether fair assumption which illustrates the dangers of interpreting a statement when one was not there to hear the tone of voice in which it was made, or sense the atmosphere in which it was generated. It would be astonishing indeed if Beethoven’s ‘van’ had not caused confusion in Vienna, and even more astonishing if he had meticulously corrected every mis-spelling of his name. If it was to his advantage not to do so, he could scarcely be blamed in a milieu where lack of privilege could cause an individual insuperable difficulties. He does not seem ever to have written ‘von’ in his own signature.

In the section called ‘Biography and Creativity’ Solomon points out what can be learned about the origins of a work by knowing what other music the composer knew, and for how long, what converse he had with other people, what were his views, and not only on artistic matters. Can we, however, understand a work of art without knowledge of or reference to the biography? Solomon says this is doubtless possible ‘on some fundamental level’, but

beautiful forms, sensuous materials and the psychological universals embedded in art’s subject-matter are sufficient to achieve a certain kind of unmediated response in the untutored individual, assuming his existence in abstracto. But such responses do not exemplify a higher form of appreciation. Because his aesthetic sensibility is insufficiently formed the ‘innocent’ will respond ‘naturally’ to melodramatic or highly sensuous works but not to exquisite or formally demanding works. And he will respond, for example, quite as intensely to Seneca’s Oedipus as to Sophocles’s, to Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory as to his Fifth Symphony. Such responses are to elemental feelings: to variations upon family romance myths, to simple oedipal conflicts writ large, or to works which arouse extremes of feeling – whether of altruism or sexuality – via manipulative ruses rather than aesthetic processes.

Does he really mean that without biographical knowledge the ‘innocent’ listener can’t tell the difference in quality between the Battle Symphony and No 5? Apart from the fact that these observations seem to refer to simple-minded and not very attentive first hearings of music, the integrity of the Fifth and the casual sensationalism of the Battle Symphony are obvious to all but the least sensitive or experienced listeners. No biographical gloss is needed to reveal the music’s spiritual and intellectual power, its essence, whatever its incidental origins. Solomon points out that we listen to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony differently from ‘his other symphonies because of its extra-musical associations – its title, its subtitle, its funeral march, and its quotation from The Creatures of Prometheus. Beethoven has attempted to shape our responses, to direct them along avenues selected by himself.’ True – but every composer, by the very notes he employs, attempts to direct the listener’s responses along avenues selected by himself. We must not confuse the issue: whatever words Beethoven used to describe the Eroica, whatever the function in it of the funeral march, the work must have an integrity independent of such matters. If the composer is successful in predisposing our minds by means of words, he has still to satisfy them by artistic mastery. Solomon rightly reproaches ‘highly sophisticated critics who deny the value of biographical and psychological exegeses’. The common assertion that music means only itself is, pace Stravinsky, a fallacy, since everything we produce has manifold origins and therefore meanings. Art nevertheless has its own inviolable and merciless standards, which in the end have to sweep all else away.

Solomon would not deny this, but it is a little disturbing to find him confusing different levels of attention. A great work of art will, on its own terms, continue indefinitely to offer deepening satisfaction, and a point will never be reached at which biographical information becomes indispensable. The power of Beethoven’s music is not enhanced one whit by our knowledge that he was deaf. We may be amazed – and yet, as Solomon suggests, this very affliction may have assisted his ‘escape’ into his own world. If this was one of the means by which such magnificent concentration was achieved, the concentration is no less remarkable because we think we can give one possible reason for it. It would in any case be impossible without genius, which we cannot explain.

This valuable book is rich in its perception of many things in Beethoven’s tormented life and in what it says about his way of working. There is also new and admirably documented material about the ‘immortal beloved’, now thought (convincingly) by Solomon to have been Antonie Brentano. He disposes of persistent theories about Josephine Deym with wit and unimpeachable scholarship. There are absorbing discussions of Beethoven’s views on art, religion and politics, and of his relationship to Schiller’s poetry. There is a detailed account of his misapprehension (misrepresentation?) of his date of birth, closely connected to conjectures about his psychological ‘symbiosis’ with his dead infant brother. This interesting matter we leave to the reader’s own assessment. The book ends with the first complete English translation of the desultory diary Beethoven kept between 1812 and 1818; it sometimes indicates Beethoven’s thoughts by means of quotations, one of the most revealing being ‘He who will reap tears must sow love’ (Schiller). Much of the diary concerns trivial chores and domestic worries; one should, he says, have different ear trumpets for music and speech, and also for halls of various sizes. That he still played the piano to himself in 1816 is shown by the sentence: ‘Just as some time ago [I am] again at the piano in my own improvisations, despite my hearing.’ The translation appears to be excellent, and even without its other admirable features, Solomon’s book would be worth having for this section alone.

It remains to comment on the essay with which Solomon has chosen to begin the book – ‘A Search for Order’. It is about the Ninth Symphony; and the order Solomon wishes to reveal seems to be based on various thematic connections (some obvious, some not) which he finds in the work, and various uses (premonitory and retrospective) of intervals, particularly the fourth and fifth, throughout the symphony. These are frequently given extra-musical connotations, as are scalic passages found to be common in the work. Some of these extra-musical references may not convince those with different impressions of the music – is the scalewise contrary motion at the end of the Adagio really ‘a symbol of yearning incompletion’? Whatever one’s view of such details, it must be said that Solomon’s quest for the underlying order in the Ninth Symphony takes no account of the nature of the musical current on which all these elements are carried and without which they would be lifeless. Perhaps he senses this when he says:

Such connective features in a sonata cycle are often said to strengthen the work’s ‘organic’ structure. This is an attractive suggestion. However, such procedures may in fact disrupt the organic flow of the materials and their orderly development. They may well obscure the underlying tonal and harmonic issues, and to the extent that they are ‘foreign bodies’ in a movement, they may compel Beethoven to create mixed forms to accommodate their presence. Ultimately, in seeking to accommodate such disruptive elements within essentially classical designs, Beethoven’s structural powers are put to their extreme test; he succeeds in retaining each of the cross-references both as a functional image and as part of the formal structure. The references become embedded within the form itself, lending coherence at the same time that they press beyond the merely formal to extra-musical denotation.

Leaving aside the begged question about the nature of form itself and the distinction often erroneously made between form and so-called content (if you alter one, do you not alter the other?), this still does not elucidate the momentum in Beethoven’s music. It is a plausible but rigid intellectual concept that does not clarify the ‘organic’ process by which we feel the music’s vitality. If there are many extra-musical terms, we are bound to end up either with a flabby romanticism or with a convoluted psychological construct; we have to understand the dynamic of Beethoven’s rhythm and harmony, which carries the thematic and intervallic details on its tide and powers the motion of the work. These matters are difficult, and composers have more often learned them instinctively than by rationalisation. The fact is that Beethoven’s supreme mastery of musical movement is the key to understanding him; it is this that enables him to sweep through all argument, even when the materials themselves are mere formulae. All the great Classical composers have this ability, Beethoven more than any other, and we have to come to terms with it. Sureness of movement becomes form. Music is the illumination of time.

Writing about music is almost impossible, and too important to be left to musicians. Nonmusicians must take care, however. Solomon’s ear may not always be precise enough. The dissonant fanfare at the start of the finale is not on the simultaneously-sounded tonics of D minor and B flat major; it is a six/four D minor chord with a flat sixth (B flat) in it. The chromatic C sharp in bars 10-11 of the Adagio is not behaving ‘almost as though reaching out for D major’: it rises to the major third of B flat, a common appoggiatura in Classical harmony. It would have been more revealing to note Mahler’s plangent turning of major to minor by allowing this chromatic note to persist unexpectedly, so illustrating a difference between Classical and Romantic. We do not ‘modulate’ from major to minor, as Solomon tells us on page 17; here, moreover (Finale, bar 530 and 535), we are not on the dominant of B; it is a root chord of B major (530) and then B minor (535); the dominant of that key has been reached already at 517. What edition, incidentally, supplies Solomon’s bar-numbers? They do not correspond to those in the Philharmonia miniature score.

In discussing the powerful tutti on a six/three D major chord at the recapitulation of the first movement (beginning at bar 301), he does not mention that this very chord has been heard mysteriously at the start of the development, 130 bars earlier, like a distant nebula into the heart of which we are eventually to be flung. Is this recapitulation ‘catastrophic’? Surely Beethoven rose to something far beyond the ‘despair’ noted in the sketchbook. (How thrilling it would be to survive being flung into a supernova!) Schenker’s not very brilliant suggestion (mentioned by Solomon) that this recapitulation might be read as being on the dominant of G minor is possible only because that is what the chord was when we heard it softly. Does Beethoven really offer a ‘new’ tonal ambiguity at the end of the symphony by omitting the third of the chord, having already done this very thing at the end of the Scherzo? We can best appreciate the perfection of Beethoven’s ending of the symphony by imagining the platitude of a major third on the second half of the penultimate bar. Last, a question for cosmologists. Solomon says: ‘Beethoven achieved what Schiller had thought in principle to be impossible – to map the infinite without losing hold of the centre.’ Even God would have found this difficult.