Saturday, February 23, 2013

The starry skies above

Beethoven vor nächtlichem Sternenhimmel (Richard Pfeiffer)
The back problem continues today. Thus, another day on my back in bed, which has its positive side. It is rather meditative, because I don't get up and move around. Thank goodness I have a laptop. I have spoiled myself, for instance, allowing myself a second cup of tea in the afternoon. It is true that I can stand and walk, but sitting for any length of time is out of the question. Last evening I ventured out for a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and am paying the price today.

In connection with the Beethoven string quartets being performed there, the Met has offered two lectures on Beethoven. The one last evening on Beethoven and the Romantic sublime was by Marsha Morton of the Pratt Institute. It was an excellent paper, but I am not sure what the general Met audience took away from the presentation, even if it was accompanied by slides: references to Wackenroder, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Kant, and Schiller's essay on the poetry of Friedrich von Matthisson are only a few of the names that flew around fast and furious.

In contrast, Edmund Morris's talk three days before on the effect of Beethoven's deafness on his late works was audience-friendly, with a lot of learning dished out in small doses and enlivened with audio clips and with Morris himself at the piano illustrating some of his points.

Nevertheless, both presentations helped me to understand why I find Beethoven's music, aside from the sonatas, so torturous to listen to. Morton concentrated on the dissonance, irregularity, bombast, and so on that characterize the aesthetics of the sublime in the late 18th and early 19th century. Early critics of Beethoven, finding him unlistenable, remarked on just these characteristics. Morton gave credit to E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose  essay on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony fashioned the new and appreciative reception of Beethoven.

Beethoven watches over Liszt's performance (Josef Danhauser, 1840)
It wouldn't be a contemporary talk if gender issues were not introduced, in particular the "masculine" qualities of the sublime (already discussed by Edmund Burke) and thus sublime music, according to Morton became more and more eroticized by the time of Liszt.

The title of Edmund Morris's talk was "The Roar That Lies on the Other Side of Silence," and he made a plausible case for the effect of Beethoven's early tinnitus and the drumming and roaring in his ears as deafness set in. According to the program, "Beethoven's most exquisite (or sometimes frightening) effects may have arisen from his deafness."

Well, one man's exquisite is another man's torture. When I first met Rick, my husband, he was part of a music group that met monthly to listen to music, with one person each time presenting new recordings. One of the members of the group, quite knowledgeable, nevertheless hated what she called "nervous music"; thus, the group didn't listen to music written after Schubert's death, 1828. Rick was more ecumenical. Toward the end he especially liked Mahler.

The final audio clip of Morris's presentation was the full recording of "Meeresstille," which Morris prefaced by noting that Goethe had not even responded after  Beethoven had sent him the score. I had to laugh at that, especially after hearing the recording. No doubt, I am one of those people who prefer pleasant (angenehme) music. I presume Goethe was also. As I wrote in an essay a few years ago, Goethe seems to have put the sublime behind him quite early, way before the Romantic writers took it up.

Picture credit: Beethoven Haus, Bonn; Objective Art

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