In Deepest Beethoven

In Deepest Beethoven

"What We Talk about When We Talk about Culture" by Matthew Greenfield, in Raritan (Fall 1999), Rutgers Univ., 31 Mine St., New Brunswick, N.J. 08903.

Read Time:
2m 16sec

"The Sublime Beethoven" by Dmitri Tymoczko, in Boston Review (Dec. 1999–Jan. 2000), E53-407, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) moved music far beyond the beautiful, into "the sphere of the Sublime," declared composer Richard Wagner on the 100th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. But what precisely makes his music sublime? asks Tymoczko, a doctoral student in music composition at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Is it that we are simply overwhelmed by Beethoven’s musicianship, the way that we are dazzled by Michael Jordan’s athleticism? Or is it the music’s passionate emotional content, the way it seems to access our darkest or most powerful feelings? . . . Is it the way Beethoven crosses boundaries, daring to do things--repeating a single melodic figure a dozen or more times, or writing 20-minute sonata movements-that, we imagined, no right-minded composer would ever think of doing? Or is it more a matter of content: the way the audacity seems to be spiritually motivated...?"

As "a catch-all term for Beethoven’s ferocity," sublimity can refer to all of the above, Tymoczko says. However, Wagner and, a half-century before him, music critic E. T. A. Hoffmann had in mind something much more specific when they described Beethoven’s music as sublime: namely, both certain musical features (e.g., the extreme length and insistent dissonances of the compositions) and "the spiritual effect that the music is supposed to produce in listeners." But the Wagner-Hoffmann view, Tymoczko contends, is little more than a watered-down version of an aesthetic principle propounded in the previous century by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Favoring "a kind of artistic self-abnegation," says Tymoczko, Kant suggested "that the arts might present the sublime negatively, by expressing their own inadequacy. . . . By portraying human limitations, and [implying] that there is something beyond them, these works inspire a kind of religious awe."

In Beethoven’s works, Tymoczko finds "a number of curious passages where [his] music seems to question itself, as if challenging the demands placed upon it." The composer was prone, especially in his later works, to write music that was difficult, if not impossible, to play. But in the Tempest Sonata, op. 1, no. 2, he wrote music "in conflict with itself," dramatically emphasizing, at one point, the inability of his fiveoctave piano to reach the B-flat required, and producing "a jarringly beautiful sequence of dissonant seventh chords." At such brief, paradoxical moments, Tymoczko believes, Beethoven seems to reveal "something like a Kantian sense of art’s ultimate inadequacy"--and his music reaches the truly sublime.



More From This Issue