Beethoven’s Language of Consolation

Antonie Brentano (née Birkenstock) is a controversial figure in Beethoven studies. Born in Vienna and wife to the Frankfurt-based businessman Franz Brentano, she was for a long time considered the leading candidate for the recipient of the mysterious “immortal beloved” (unsterbliche Geliebte) letter of 1812. She has now, after extensive and controversial research, assumed more-or-less equal status with the other leading candidates, her sister-in-law Bettina Brentano and the countess Josephine Dehm. Whatever the nature of their relationship, however, it is clear that she and Beethoven shared a deep and meaningful connection. In 1811, she wrote to Bettina,

 “Beethoven has become for me one of the dearest of human beings…His whole nature is simple, noble, good-natured, and his tender-heartedness would grace the most delicate woman. It speaks in his favor that few know him, and even fewer understand him. He visits me often, almost daily, and then he plays spontaneously because he has an urgent need to alleviate suffering, and he feels that he is able to do so with his heavenly sounds…That there is such power in music I hadn’t yet known until Beethoven informed me of it.”

This statement is remarkable in several respects: Firstly because it describes Beethoven as “good-natured” and “tender-hearted” (two qualities rarely ascribed to Beethoven by his contemporaries), and secondly because it describes in him not just a desire to evoke and assuage emotion (a desire common to most composers), but an “urgent need to alleviate suffering.” Bettina was frequently ill and depressed during her sojourns in Vienna—her husband was obsessively involved in business, and she hated living in Frankfurt—and often became so despondent that she confined herself to her room. Beethoven, according to an account recorded by Otto Jahn, visited her often during these periods and, “[coming] in, seated himself without any further ado at the piano in her antechamber and improvised; when he had ‘said everything and given solace’ to the sufferer in his own language, he left as he had come, without taking notice of anybody else.”

The poignancy of this account is striking, and reveals, along with the apparent sincerity of Beethoven’s “need to alleviate suffering,” an important facet of the composer and his approach to his art. Beethoven is described not simply a playing for Brentano, but rather as saying things to her “in his own language,” as though music rather than words formed the bedrock of his conscious thought. The significance of this, though less apparent to generations raised on the cliché of music as a “universal language,” is difficult to overstate. Beethoven was the first major composer for whom abstract instrumental music, in his own mind as well as those of his contemporaries, began to take on the qualities of articulate thought and language. Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Haydn, no matter the beauty and profundity of their instrumental music, never thought of it as assimilating to a kind of higher “language” of reason and expression. Music and language could work in partnership with one another, often to marvelous effect, but they were not coterminous modes of thought. For Beethoven, however, the man who habitually referred to himself as a tondichter (tone poet)rather than as a composer, this notion represented, at least in certain currents of his work, a kind of endzweck (ultimate aim or purpose)both for himself and for music in general. Where words fail to reach the exalted sphere of poetry, a poetry that can exhort, exalt, inspire, or in this case alleviate suffering, music can bridge the gap.

Perhaps the most moving account of Beethoven using this “language” of consolation was recorded in 1831 by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1804, Beethoven’s former pupil Dorothea von Ertmann lost her three-year-old son and, in the shock of her grief, found herself unable to weep or mourn his passing. Beethoven was unsure initially how to respond, but, at the urging of Dorothea’s husband, he invited her over to his home and, seating himself at the piano, said to her, “We will now speak to each other in music.” He then proceeded to improvise for more than an hour until, according to another account by Dorothea’s niece, “she began to sob and…her grief found both expression and relief.” “He gave me everything,” she told Mendelssohn, “and in the end even brought me comfort.” As he would later do with Antonie Brentano, Beethoven finished playing and, after giving Dorothea a brief clasp of the hand, left the room without another word. Everything meaningful between them had already been said.

History and literature abound with examples like this of music being using for its consoling or curative effects, from Homer and Plato to Shakespeare and George Herbert. With Beethoven, however, we find a new and prophetic conception of music not just as a balm for melancholia, but as a means of articulating and assuaging unfathomable emotion. Both Antonie and Dorothea were suffering not just from crippling depression, but from a sense of emotional isolation—that is, an inability to bring forth and process, either with themselves or others, feelings that were too deep to be understood. Antonie, unable to express her frustration and unhappiness to her husband and their friends, withdrew to her room and turned those feelings inward. Dorothea, overwhelmed the shock and grief of losing her son, closed herself off from all channels of emotional release. For both of these women Beethoven’s music not only gave voice to their deepest griefs, but seemed to “speak” to them in a language that broke the veil of their isolation, bringing them into communion with a presence or soul that brought out and assuaged their deepest anguish and helped to bring them, in the literal sense of the phrase, back to life.

This is a crucial point, I think, in understanding the peculiarly healing qualities of Beethoven’s music as they have been felt by listeners for almost 250 years. For me, as for countless music-lovers throughout history, Beethoven offers a kind of consolation quite unlike that offered by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, et al. Where Bach offers a kind of spiritualized, Godlike consolation, directing all grief toward hope in the divine, and where Mozart offers a soothing respite from the troubles of the world, Beethoven seems to speak personally to the core of what makes us human, reaching to the deepest places within ourselves to which no one, not even our closest lovers and friends, has access. His music seems to give voice to ideas and emotions beyond the reach of normal thought (this is why late Beethoven is so often described as “profound”), and then, having brought these ineffable feelings to the surface, to offer us a template for articulating, processing, and even transcending them. This is not, of course, a new idea—it is probably as old as Beethoven studies themselves—and what I seek to offer here is not a fresh scholarly examination of its hows and whys. Rather, I wish simply to offer some reflections on the consoling qualities of Beethoven’s musical language as I understand them, and to explore how his particular, poeticizing language of courage and transcendence can help pierce the solitude of our darkest moments and help us carry on.

I. Beethoven and the “Language” of Musical Narrative

To begin, however, we must examine more closely this notion of music as a kind of language. When we speak of Beethoven’s musical language, or indeed of musical language in general, we are making an imperfect analogy between the syntactic/semantic structures of spoken language and those of music. I won’t delve here into the vast body of scholarly literature on the subject, but suffice it to say that the analogy, though very attractive on the surface, turns out not to hold. There is no question that music and language share comparable structures of grammar and syntax—the relationship between a diminished seventh chord and its possible resolutions is just as clear and codified as that between a subject and a verb—but their structures of semantics, the means by which they construct recognizable meaning, are fundamentally different. For one thing, music is not subject to direct translation, the one-to-one transposition of one way of expressing something to another. Music just is, and we can no more translate its formal and expressive elements into the medium of language than we can translate Paradise Lost into a Venetian fresco. For another, the semantics of language are based upon a fixed, clearly delimited vocabulary: In the phrase, “the man jumped off the blue boat,” every speaker of English has a common, if not exactly identical notion of what each word means. Music, however, does not work like this. The particulate elements of a musical phrase—the rhythms, harmonies, and intervallic movements—do not correspond to fixed structures of signification, and the means by which we construe “meaning” from them are not logical or translatable. This does not mean that we cannot broadly agree on the meaning or expressive character of a piece—few listeners would contest that the Cavatina of Beethoven’s Op. 130 quartet is an expression of almost unbearable sadness—but a precise parsing of its constituent parts, as we might do with the phrase, “the man jumped off the blue boat,” is impossible.

The common element that we identify between musical and linguistic semantics, then, is essentially one of narrative. Every sensible phrase in every human language constructs an implicit narrative of agency and causality: There are subjects in the universe which act upon objects and in so doing affect indirect objects. This principle underpins every known human epistemology, and is the basic paradigm upon which logical and rational thought are based. In western music, we experience a similar tendency in the implicit narratives of harmonic and developmental progression: A piece of music (and I should clarify that I’m speaking here of abstract instrumental music) begins with the exposition of a particular theme or idea, subjects this theme to a transformative process of development, and then in logically determined fashion returns to and recapitulates the opening material. In this respect, we can say that a piece of music “narrativizes” an experience of movement through time much as a sentence narrativizes the functions of the observable universe: We feel its progression through abstract space/time as we experience our own movement through the world, beginning with almost limitless potential, passing through an unpredictable process of development, and finally arriving at (we hope) some kind of resolution. This narrative of journeying from beginning to end, of continuous and irreversible “becoming,” is inextricably tied up with our own sense of teleology, and can offer us a consoling sense of consummation and fulfillment even, perhaps especially when our own life journeys seem disjointed and unlikely to come to fruition.

Beethoven was certainly not the first composer to take account of the expressive possibilities of this narrative, but from early in his career he seems to have intuited its patterns of expectation as a means of exploring the deepest passions of human life. To get an idea of how this works, we can take as an example the first movement of the String Quartet Op. 59 no. 3 in C Major. The narrative and developmental outline of this movement appear at first to be relatively straightforward—a chaotic, harmonically uncertain exposition gives way to an expansive C Major Sonata—but Beethoven makes a number of telling and characteristic alterations. The music begins with an evocation of almost total harmonic chaos, echoing the shockingly chromatic opening of Mozart’s “Dissonant” String Quartet K. 465. We lurch into life on a diminished seventh chord, and then slide uneasily into neighboring, equally dissonant harmonies through half and whole steps. Occasionally one of the instruments makes a trilling, quasi-cadential gesture, groping towards some kind of recognizable melody, but these attempts come to nothing and the music trails off on yet another diminished seventh chord.

Then suddenly, as if with a blink and a shake of the head, the music rights itself through an up-beat bounce into Allegro Vivace, and the first violin begins a searching, harmonically ambiguous melody that sounds major-ish but can’t seem to make up its mind. After a repeat of this passage in bars 36-40, the music at last finds its feet and, following a crescendo on an open cadence, explodes into rollicking C Major.

The shadows of the opening seem to be well and truly banished, and the music romps along with a brio and gaiety rarely heard in Beethoven’s chamber works. A funny thing, though, happens when we reach the exposition repeat in bars 107-110. Instead of transitioning into a direct repeat of the long-sought C Major melody, the music returns to the searching violin passage of bars 31-40. We soon realize that Beethoven has not begun the Sonata Form with the melody itself, but from the searching violin passage that leads up to it. From this unexpected twist in the anticipated Sonata structure, we do return to the C Major material of the exposition proper, but the chaos-to-order narrative implied by the opening’s homage to Mozart been subtly undermined. Where in Mozart’s quartet the music effortlessly transitions, as if with a simple change of perspective, from gnarly dissonance to cloudless C Major, here Beethoven foregrounds the tortuous, often labored process that must be gone through for music (or, we might say, a human consciousness) to work itself out of chaos and into clarity.

As if to reinforce this point, Beethoven plays a similar trick with the movement’s recapitulation. At what would seem to be the terminal point of the development beginning in bar 150, when the music has arrived at the remote key of D Flat Major, Beethoven, instead of launching into a recapitulation of the C Major theme, returns again to a variation of the violin melody of bars 31-40. From this unanticipated repetition, accompanied this time by diminished chords in the second violin, viola, and cello, we work our way back to the melody and a C Major conclusion, but we are left again with the impression that it is not so much the melody itself that is the “theme” of the piece, but rather the journey that must be gone through to get there. The music, after having so arduously worked its way into a sense of clarity and intention and gotten lost again in ambiguity, must work again to pull itself out.

The narrative and expressive elements in play here, even if difficult to justify in technical terms, are easy enough to identify. Beethoven is deliberately manipulating the narrative of the musical dialectic (the natural progression of tones through different chordal configurations toward resolution) to mirror a particular kind of movement within human consciousness: When we find ourselves caught in the grip of anxiety, uncertainty, or despair, it is rarely enough that we simply change our perspective or force ourselves to “look on the bright side.” Rather, we are often forced to consciously think or will ourselves into a more positive state of mind. This narrative is decidedly more complex than that evoked by a normal minor-to-major transition, and Beethoven’s handling of it represents a path-breaking fusion of the language of music with the language of thought. Abstract instrumental music, simply through the way it evolves according to the syntax of musical development, is able to evoke in the mind of the listener a clearly defined narrative that she can analogize to her own life. She is not simply listening to the music as it unfolds before her, but rather feeling the music as it limns the contours of her own thought. When the music works its way out of chaos and into resolution, therefore, she experiences a kind of vicarious relief, a sense that she has undergone the same journey of overcomingas the music.

I would identify this dovetailing of musical and rational syntax as the base ingredient of Beethoven’s language of consolation. All of his works that, in my estimation, offer the greatest solace have at their foundation some version of this abstract yet instantly recognizable narrative—darkness and discord are resolved, through a deliberate process of development, into triumph or transcendence. This is not to say that Beethoven always adheres to this narrative without altering it—one of the great joys of getting to know Beethoven is learning to hear his subtle subversions of listener expectations—but if we wish to understand the peculiarly consoling effects of his music, we need to recognize that it is this syntax of technical and narrative progression that underlies, in one way or another, all of his efforts to both articulate feelings of suffering  and explore the ways we as human beings can overcome them.

II. Music becomes Words becomes Music

We have, then, a solid basis for understanding how Beethoven’s musical language plays upon our sense of narrative to create meaning and consolation. The innate syntactic patterns of music assimilate to those of thought, and we are able to experience their progressive, end-directed “stories” as positive analogues of our own experience. If we know Beethoven, however, we note that it is not simply toward the abstract structures of language that his music tends in search of consolation, but sometimes towards the actual words themselves. At many moments in his late works, when the music has run up against a moment of profound sorrow or uncertainty, it seems to strain toward a literal syntax of poetic utterance—as though words are trying to burst out of the music. This is what Richard Wagner referred to when he declared Beethoven to be the prophet of his gesamptkunstwerk, a fusion of all the arts into one, and what Beethoven himself attempted to do (with mixed results) in the Ninth Symphony. What is interesting, however, is that we know not only that Beethoven was dissatisfied the choral finale of the Ninth—he told composer Carl Czerny that he had decided to replace it with a purely instrumental one—but that virtually all other appearances of this “vocal impulse” lead to a kind of repudiation of it, musical abstraction wiping out linguistic specificity. Beethoven may seem to be groping toward a kind of poetic, all-comprehending “statement” to console himself and the listener, but in each instance his efforts come up short and pure music (later generations would call it absolute music) is brought in to fill the breach. As a first example of this, we can turn to the third movement of the Piano Sonata Op. 110 in A Flat Major. The beginning of this movement, which emerges out of the second movement’s variations on two German folk songs, is a desolate arioso in B Flat Minor.  A songful opening gives way in three bars to a piu adagio (even slower) passage marked recitativo. This is an unusual indication to give in a piano sonata, to be sure, but what follows is all but unprecedented. After a rolling, lyrical passage that does seem to evoke dramatic recitative, time seems to stand still as, over a sustained chord in the left hand, the right hand plays a solitary A Natural, a note totally foreign to the key of B Flat Minor. It then, over an anguished two-bar crescendo and decrescendo, proceeds to repeat this note twenty-seven times, rising and falling like a supplicating cry.

There is no melody to speak of here, at least not in any terms that musicians of the early 19th century would have understood. The music is driven forward by nothing but a solitary note, a note struck again and again as if the voice of bar four has reached the end of what he can say even as he desperately strains to express something beyond it. Somehow this A natural manages to instigate a key-change in bar five, causing the left hand to switch to a dominant E Major chord, but even then the right hand’s progress is stymied and finally, in a plaintive, sighing cantabile, it leads the music back to the B Flat Minor of the movement’s opening.

What are we to make of this? What can Beethoven possibly have meant by such a blatantly rhetorical, even unmusical gesture? There is, of course, no objective response (notwithstanding the legions of critics and commentators who have attempted to find one), but I believe that something of an answer is furnished by Beethoven in the remainder of the movement. The adagio which follows the return to B Flat Minor in bar 7 is one of deep sorrow—Beethoven marks it klagender gesang, or mournful song—and in bars 25-27 the music seems to die away on a three-octave, pianissimo repetition of A Flat:

From this emotional nadir, this apparent dying and abandonment of hope, comes something unexpected. The treble A Flat of bars 25-27 returns, this time unaccompanied, and begins tracing a stepwise pianissimo theme in A Flat Major. In bar 32 a second voice enters a third above, beginning on E Flat rather than an A Flat, and we realize that Beethoven has devised an upward-tending fugue –the structure of the opening line even resembles ascending stairs—to lift us out of the depths and bring us, as he inscribed over the manuscript, “back to life.” This fugue builds in strength and confidence over the following pages, and even though we experience a shattering relapse into B Flat Minor despair in bars 113-135, the fugue returns again (this time in inverted form) to bring the music to rest in A Flat.

Where words appeared to so agonizingly fail the composer in bars 4-7, music—and it is important to emphasize here that, for Beethoven, fugal counterpoint represented music in its purest, most sacred form—steps in to fill the void. The inexpressible despair adumbrated in the A Natural recitative has been at once articulated and reconciled (first by the despairing arioso that follows it, and then by the life-giving fugue), and pure poetry, a poetry beyond all words, bring us to a consoling resolution.

We witness something similar in the fourth movement of the string quartet Op. 132. Here Beethoven brings us abruptly back to Earth from the sublimities of the third movement Heiliger Dankgesang with a jovial march in A Major, and seems to challenge both himself and the listener to imagine where, after such profound emotion, the music can possibly go. In bar 25, however, this march breaks off and, over sustained tremolos in the second violin, viola, and cello, the first violin launches into an unmistakable passage of recitative.

Music again, after touching upon such exalted planes of human feeling, seems to grope its way toward a direct statement to make sense both of where it has been and how it can move forward. However, instead of reaching what we might call “the limits of what can be said” by coming to ground on a single note like the Opus 110, this passage seems to race clear of language by becoming faster and faster until the recitativo becomes literally unsingable. From there, and after a pregnant pause on a smorzando (dying away) E natural, Beethoven launches into one of the most beautiful, most thoroughly musical movements he ever composed, an Allegro Appassionato that sweeps its listeners up in what T.S. Eliot called “a kind of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety.”

This movement, which seems to enfold everything that came before, from purest joy to darkest despair, into a transcendent song without words, reaches a level of poeticism that, with the greatest respect to Mr. Eliot, defies description. Its expressive character is utterly overwhelming, and yet words, be they the implied words of the recitative or the adjectives normally used to describe a piece of music, seem laughably inadequate to contain it. It is as though pure song, a song that encompasses and transcends all the possibilities of thought and language, breaks through the ambiguity of the recitative and, with a truly miraculous key change in its final bars, carries us to a joyous conclusion.

As a final example of this, here is what Beethoven does with the most famous music-becomes-words-becomes-music moment in his entire oeuvre (with the exception of the Ninth Symphony): The “Muss es sein? Es muss sein” opening of the fourth movement of the String Quartet Op. 135. The beginning of this movement emerges out of one of the long-breathed, spiritual adagios that mark Beethoven’s late music, and we are again faced with the question of where, after such profundity and emotion, the music can possibly go. The movement begins with a hushed three-note motif in the viola and cello marked in the manuscript with the words, “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?). An uneasy melodic noodling in the violins and viola seems to try to divert the music from this terrifying question, but it returns in bar 3 and, after one more attempted diversion all four voices break out in a forte response on the phrase, “Es muss sein!” (“It must be!”).

Again and again this question returns over the following five measures, and again and again this intractable response returns, building to a shattering fortissimo in bar nine and then fading away on a held pianissimo in bar 12.

Music has again become words for Beethoven, literal words this time, and these words have again led him to a time-stopping impasse on a fermata. Language, even here in its starkest, most elemental form (just try to fathom all of the semantic possibilities inherent in the phrase “Must it be?”) is found inapt to the expressive demands of a question that troubled Beethoven all his life,  and it is again up to music to furnish a response.

Beethoven’s response here, in his last completed work, is perhaps his most remarkable of all. Taking the question and answer motif of bars 1-12, he launches into an upbeat F Major allegro that, in spite of being set in duple meter, continually foregrounds the three-note figures evoking both Muss es sein? and Es muss sein. Question and answer seem to become caught up in a kind of comic shrug, the composer cheekily turning the unanswerability of fate into an answer in itself.

As in the final movement of Op. 110, this revelation comes to ground disturbingly in bars 166-178, the viola and cello insistently repeating the “muss es sein? “ motif while being shouted down by the violins. But once again this reemergence of what we might call the language of uncertainty and despair is transmuted into a kind of “what-are-you-going-to-do?” insouciance, and the quartet, after a positively cheeky pizzicato interlude, comes to an untroubled F Major conclusion. For the last time in his musical career, then, Beethoven allows the symbolic language of music to run up against the literal language of poetry, and for the last time he allows the language of music to pass through and beyond it, finding meaning that language alone cannot articulate. To paraphrase a later philosopher, for Beethoven it is finally not a case of “thereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent,” but rather “thereof we cannot speak, thereof we must sing.”

III. Apotheosis: The Opus 130 Quartet and the Grosse Fuge

We come then, to the heart of the matter. How do these different currents that we have observed in Beethoven’s musical language— the creating of a symbolic narrative syntax through musical progression and the assimilating of music to a beyond-words language of expression —come together to make it such a potent force of healing and consolation? How, beyond practical questions of technique and narrative interpretation, does the language of his music speak so directly to our deepest sorrows and bring them to some kind of reconciliation?  In answer to this, I would like to take an extended look at the Op. 130 quartet. This work unifies what I’ve identified as the primary elements of Beethoven’s language of consolation and presents perhaps the composer’s compelling portrait of grief (or struggle, adversity, etc) overcome. This is not to say that it is objectively and in itself the most “consoling” (such a judgment is inevitably subjective and up to the taste of the individual listener), but as a paradigm of Beethoven’s technical and expressive “working out” of negative emotion it is unparalleled.

The quartet begins with an expansive Sonata movement in B Flat Major. A stately contrapuntal opening, its melody figured around the kind of hairpin chromatic turns that pervade Beethoven’s late music, sets a mood of gravity and seriousness (Beethoven himself called this movement “a serious and heavy-going introduction.”) A passage of chromatic wandering brings us to a tonic cadence, and the cello leads the other voices in a G Flat Major fugue. After only 15 bars of this fugue, however, the music comes to ground on a fermata and then takes off in a racing allegro.

The rhythmic and expressive character of the music has been entirely changed in half a bar. Adagio has become allegro, legato has become non ligato, and solemn and stately has become busy unto frenetic. This transformation, as dramatic as it is abrupt, lasts only six bars, however, and we then return to legato-adagio material of the movement’s opening.

From the very first bars of the quartet, then, a principle of extreme stylistic contrast has been established as the music’s primary motivator. Sonata form is essentially a narrative of contrasts developed and brought together, and this long movement, with its vertiginous shifts in style and mood, seems to set the juxtaposition of radically disparate styles and moods as its paradigm of development. What makes this paradigm interesting, however, and what sets it apart from those in Beethoven’s other Sonata movements, is the prominence it accords to juxtaposition without ever trying to resolve it. Where most Sonata movements frame the integration of contrasting themes into a harmonious whole, here Beethoven seems to deliberately frustrate this tendency. In spite of this movement’s length and conventional Sonata structure (Beethoven even includes a full exposition repeat) it is a sense of disunity that ultimately prevails. The tensions normally reconciled by Sonata form’s progressive, end-directed structure remain unresolved, and the search for unity is projected forward toward the remaining movements.

 The following four movements do little to alleviate these tensions. The second movement begins abruptly, as though in mid-sentence, and juxtaposes an astonishingly modern-sounding B Flat Minor scherzo with a frenzied B Flat Major dance. The third movement, subtitled poco scherzoso (a little jokingly), cheerfully upends the seriousness that has thus far defined the quartet. The fourth movement, a soaring alla tedesca (German dance) in G Major, takes this cheerfulness even further and wrenches us away from the prevailing B Flat Major/Minor tonality of the preceding movements. The fifth movement Cavatina, in the starkest contrast of all, plunges us from this lightness into almost unbearable sadness, singing a song of endless heartbreak.

We need to linger for a moment on this movement. We do not generally know how Beethoven responded emotionally to his own work, but we have testament from violinist Karl Holz that this movement had a special significance for him. ”He told me he wrote it with tears in his eyes and that nothing he had ever written had a greater effect on him…Even the mere memory of it was enough to bring him to tears.” If we accept Holz on this, this movement would seem to represent one of the few times in Beethoven’s oeuvre when his own sadness, a sadness in no way performative or assumed, finds its way into his music. Maynard Solomon remarks that Beethoven, in both his life and his work, usually adopted a stoical response to suffering, and most of his predominantly “sad” music is tempered either by a sense of resolve (as in, for example, the funeral march of the Eroica symphony) or one of personal remove. Here, however, a pure, hopeless sadness seems to come straight from the composer’s heart, a lifetime’s sorrow poured out in a long, tragic aria.

This movement is very conventional on the surface—a melody in the first violin is accompanied by the other voices and follows an ABA structure—and yet it packs an emotional punch so intense that many writers on Beethoven (including this one) shrink from trying to describe it. It is another of the composer’s unforgettable songs without words, and in imitating the structure of a tragic aria he seems not only to be passing the limits of what can be said (as he did in the discussed in part 2) but the limits of what can be felt. In the movement’s B section, as the second violin, viola, and cello play a hushed, triplet-figure accompaniment, the first violin seems to dissolve into breathless sobs, trying but unable to hold together its new melody in C Flat Major.

It is not only words that are inadequate to describe this suffering, but music too. The beyond-words transcendence that Beethoven finds in the Op. 110 sonata, the Op. 132 quartet, and the Op. 135 quartet is unequal to the agony of this moment, and all the violin can do is grope pathetically at an unrealizable melody. The music does finally work its way into a recapitulation of the A section, but the memory of that fathomless sorrow remains, hanging like a shadow over all that must come after.

At this moment in the quartet, then, we see Beethoven faced with two enormous challenges if he is to bring the music to a conclusion. He must find a way of unifying the extreme technical and stylistic diversity of the first five moments, and he must provide a consoling response to the emotion of the Cavatina. Literal and symbolic “language,” having failed him in providing technical/narrative coherence to the quartet and expressing the sadness of its penultimate movement, must find a new expression that unifies and transcends them both.  Consolation, the final affective aim of perhaps Beethoven’s most troubled and emotionally fraught work, must be found not only in the resolution of chaos into order, but in the assuaging of a pain so deep that it cannot be articulated.

The answer Beethoven finds is the grosse fuge. I’m tempted to simply post a Youtube link to this movement and leave it at that (, but some words of explanation are necessary. The grosse fuge is a fifteen-minute double-fugue that is so dense, complex, and emotionally intense that Igor Stravinsky (who was never a great fan of Beethoven) called it “the most perfect miracle in all music.” It pushes the capacities of players, listeners, and even the composer himself to the absolute limit, and sounds like nothing so much as the creation (or destruction) of an entire universe. Indeed, in the way this movement evokes the cosmic shaping of chaos into sublime order, we are put in mind of the creation as evoked by John Milton:

Silence, ye troubl’d waves, and thou Deep, peace,
Said then th’ Omnific Word, your discord end:

Nor staid, but on the Wings of Cherubim
Uplifted, in Paternal Glorie rode
Farr into Chaos, and the World unborn; 
For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine
Follow’d in bright procession to behold
Creation, and the wonders of his might.

There is, alas, nowhere near enough room in this essay for me to explain how all thisworks from a technical perspective, nor is there a satisfactorily objective way of describing the grosse fuge’s narrative and expressive impact. In entirely subjective terms, then, for me the grosse fuge represents two things: It is the composer’s ultimate expression of will and his greatest moment of spiritual transcendence. Beethoven believed all his life that his will was strong enough to overcome any adversity, and here this will is brought audibly to bear as nowhere else in his oeuvre. The contrapuntal techniques employed throughout the grosse fuge are so abstruse that one has the impression of Beethoven deliberately setting himself the most absurd challenges just so he can overcome them. As if a 15-minute fugue isn’t enough, Beethoven turns it into a double fugue. As if a 15-minute double fugue isn’t enough, Beethoven bases the fugues on two different meters. As if a 15-minute double-fugue with cross-rhythms isn’t enough, Beethoven throws in every contrapuntal device he can think of. And as if all this isn’t enough, Beethoven maps the different “movements” of the fugue (yes, there are separate movements) to the technical and thematic character of the other movements of the quartet, symbolically reconciling the diversity of the rest of the music. 

That this expression of will is a kind of apotheosis of that exerted in the first movement of Op. 59 no. 3 is, I hope, obvious. Beethoven is giving an ultimate demonstration of how chaos and despair can, by a determined mind, be wrested not only under control, but into a coherent and satisfying form. What is perhaps less obvious, but is for our purposes more significant, is the way this movement effects the kind of beyond-words transcendence we saw in the works in part 2. The Cavatina, which seems to yearn so desperately for a language to express its suffering, comes to ground like so many of Beethoven’s attempts to bring words out of music. Only this time the despair is so deep, the suffering so intense that the transcendence must somehow match unfathomable despair with illimitable grace.  Amazingly though, when the grosse fuge explodes into life on a unison G (the same tonic pitch that closes the Cavatina) and proceeds to construct such an awe-inspiring edifice on top of it, we do have the sense that this is what is happening. When we reach the end of the movement, having been brought up against such otherworldly beauty and sublimity (we recall that Beethoven thought fugal counterpoint to be music’s most spiritual form), we are left with a feeling of peace and resolution that defies description. In the words of John Gillespie Magee, we have “slipped the sultry bonds of earth, / …And, while with silent lifting mind [we’ve] trod / The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out [our hands], and touched the face of God.

IV. Coda

We know a good deal about Beethoven’s interior life, much more than we would have any right to expect. His conversation books, his soul-baring documents like the Heiligenstadt Testament, and his voluminous correspondence give us remarkable insight into what he thought and felt throughout his relatively long life. What we don’t know, what we can’t know, is the degree to which the emotional and physical agonies described in these documents afflicted him on a daily basis. Just to review, this was a man who suffered from chronic, agonizing digestive troubles that frequently left him bedridden. He was prone to fevers and migraines that would last for months. He struggled with what looks to have been functional alcohol dependency. He lost his mother at the age of 16, was brutally abused by his alcoholic father, and had to take responsibility for his family at the age of 18. He longed his whole life for a loving relationship, but never anything experienced anything other than heartbreak. He adopted his nephew, endured a vicious, years-long legal battle for his custody, only for that nephew try to commit suicide to spite him. And, lest we forget, he went deaf. The man who gave humanity some of the most glorious music ever written was denied, in the ultimate irony, the chance to appreciate it himself.

It seems impossible that any human can have suffered so much. That Beethoven lived for 56 years without succumbing to temptation of suicide is in itself remarkable. The fact that he survived while creating some of the most extraordinary beauties our species has ever produced is little short of miraculous. The idea of Beethoven at 56, stone deaf, alcoholic, and in constant mental and physical pain finding it within himself to compose the Op. 130 quartet borders on the incredible. In fact, as with so much of what Beethoven did and composed, we would never believe it if we didn’t have the evidence before us.

We have to think then, in considering the extraordinary powers of his music to console, that the person who was finally the most consoled by it was the composer himself. Beethoven must have found in his art not just the self-forgetting thrill of creation or the vicarious sense of trouble overcome, but the assuaging presence of something that helped him bear the burden of his suffering. When people talk about the “spirituality” of Beethoven’s late music, this is what I think they’re getting at. The essence of consolation, according to Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen, is not simply the alleviation of suffering, but rather the presence of someone who can say to us, “You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden.” For most, it is the presence of the composer himself that brings them this consolation, the sense that Beethoven speaks to and stands with them during times of trial. For me, though (and here I will alienate skeptical readers of this essay) there is more to it. That Beethoven himself must have been consoled in this way suggests that it was not just an inward, self-communing presence that solaced his final years, but rather the felt presence of something above and beyond him. God, though he spoke so gloriously through Bach and Mozart, seems to me to have spoken with Beethoven, giving him the language, a language at once sublime and profoundly human, to assure himself and us that even in our darkest moments we never have to bear the burden alone.

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