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2011年3月11日 星期五

Interpreting Beethoven’s Middle and Late Styles of Work

前言: 對於 Beethoven 來說,或許耳聾了是一個不幸中的恩賜。就是因為他不再須要了解別人的想法,只為根本聽不到他們說甚麼,所以,他就可以用近乎肆意放縱的心態去創作,想寫甚麼就寫甚麼,不須理會別人的感受,甚至喜歡與否。這樣,他流下來那如謎一樣的音樂,讓各種各色人去評論,研究,探索,甚至閒談,吹捧。這都只因這些樂曲往往帶有無限詮釋的可能,跟本是不需要,甚至是不可能讓聽眾達致一個共同的理解。有人說,這類曲樂,往往在貝多芬晚期風格 (late style 1824-1827) 的音樂裡呈現。可是,我卻認為貝多芬的中期的音樂風格 (middle style 1803-1820) 的音樂 ,如英雄交響曲 op.53 等,都已經浮現了這種如謎一樣的特性。而且,我認為這些帶有如謎一樣的音樂特性,正是現代藝術的多角度詮釋 (multiple readings) 的先驅。並為在貝多芬往後一佰多年後的後現代詮釋理論奠下了基石。就讓我們看看前人和今人甚樣看 Beethoven 的 中與晚期作品風格裡的謎樣特性。


正文:


Interpreting Beethoven’s Middle and Late Styles of Work



To many experienced concertgoers, Beethoven’s late style works are apt to lack of the composer’s earlier boldness and charm, for which the classical aesthetics is highly praised. The eerie sound is only to signify the listeners that conventional elements have struggled to break away from the work, leaving only incomprehensible fragments behind, and communicating itself as if in cipher, expressing “expressionlessly”. In fact, these fissures and rifts are hard to decipher, just like a spontaneous composite of “irrational” dissonances, perhaps noises, and a series of irrational chopping sound blocks under the governing of an uncontrollable mind.

For this dramatic change of style from an ineffable genius to a nutty deaf madman, the acceptable explanation may be that these works are products of a subjectivity, or of a “personality” ruthlessly proclaiming itself, which breaks through the elegance of form for the sake of expression, replacing sweet harmonies for the dissonance of its sorrow and rejecting any superficial sensuous charm for a deep contemplative profundity.

One explanation for Beethoven's change of style is that he had a change of personality when he became deaf.  His later music, particularly the six late string quartets, starting from op.127 to op. 135, loses previous charm and becomes more dissonant and yet more contemplative.


Therefore, it is not surprise that Theodor Adorno regards Beethoven’s late works are “relegated to the margins of art and brought closer to a personal documentation”. This is why referencing Beethoven’s individual biography and his life are seldom absent from discussions of his late works; as if, in face of human’s life, struggle, destiny, and finally death, conventional art concept has to forfeit its right and give way to the philosophical and aesthetic theory. Thus the concepts of self-consciousness, irony, sublimity, together with the ideas of subjectivity and psychological reflection are often applied in the interpretation of Beethoven’s later works.

However, reading music, symphony in particular, as philosophy, rhetoric, narrative or religious meditation is not only restricted to Beethoven’s late works. In the mid-style Beethoven, works such as Symphony no. 3 in Eb major, Eroica, and Symphony no. 5 in C minor, are also well opened to various modes of interpretation. Scholars, philosophers and musicologists of different generations are like to apply a narrative reading to the mid-Beethoven’s works. For example, both the 19th century philosophers A.B. Marx and Alexandre Oulibicheff coincidentally offered a programmatic interpretation to Eroica. They both claimed that they could hear the music of the first forty-five bars of this Napoleon-oriented program symphony as a sonic picture of a battlefield where generals, array of soldiers and horses with flags, canons, guns and swords are all participating in the battle.

Besides the battlefields, to many scholars, Erioca is always read as a narration of the growth of a hero, thereby describing the dualistic contrast of the musical elements as the conflict between the hero’s inner nature and his/her external world. Sometimes, this psychological reading could be elevated to a higher humanistic level. Romain Rolland projects the hero’s battle as a battle jointed between two souls, figured roughly as the will and the heart. And the fighting will go on continuously between one’s “ego of love” and the “ego of will” as the self continues growing up. Even the formalists who tend to eschew any programmatic interpretation exploit the dual nature of the contrasting elements in Eroica to give a reading in terms of structural downbeat orientation versus structural upbeat orientation. As we have seen, a narration centers around a metaphoric hero’s or self’s growth, conflicts, struggles, conquer and finally victory seeming to be the basic paradigm for all sorts of interpretation of Eroica, or even of the mid-style works of Beethoven.

To more or less, using programmatic interpretation to understand Beethoven’s music relates to the rising importance of the concept of idée in 19th century Romanticism. In fact, the power of idée, or idea, in symphonic works is its ability to override formal musical considerations if necessary. Forms, harmonies, and other musical parameters are subjective to idée. When thinking the main theme of Eroica as an idée representing a human hero, the development of this theme is typically characterized as a spiral process in which the hero goes forth, suffers a crisis of consciousness, overcomes certain obstacles, experiences “death” for eternal glory, and finally returns enriched and renewed. Scott Burnham, a contemporary scholar, agrees with the importance of reading Beethoven’s music as a hero narrative and furthers claims that the value of such programmatic reading lies in our “continued subscription to the subject-laden values of the so-called Goethezeit, or Age of Goethe”. According to Burnham, the worldview of the Goethezeit is an “ennobling and all-embracing concept of self”. The emerging forms of the Romantic imagination are based on the “scenarios of the individual self, such as birth and death, personal freedom and destiny, self-consciousness, and self-overcoming”. Due to the unique on-going musical process set in Beethoven’s works, it is hardly surprise that Beethoven’s heroic style merges the Goethean enactment of becoming with the narration of consciousness. And this accentuation of the dramatic process of “becoming” comes along with many German dramas of the Goethezeith, which are usually expressed as the heroic quest for freedom as the underlying idea.  

True, it is the idea “freedom” that brings us closer to Beethoven’s symphonic works. In fact, according to Daniel Chua, Beethoven’s middle period works are no longer confined to be interpreted as philosophical heroism, but has elevated to represent a form of humanistic quest for total freedom. Chua borrows Theodor Adorno’s word to explain how the idea of “freedom” can be expressed in Beethoven’s music by saying that “the musical processes of Beethoven’s heroic works articulate the very structures of freedom.” But this is a particular form of freedom, not the cliché slogan of freedom, say, political freedom, of one commonly thinks of nowadays. Indeed Beethoven’s own voice of “freedom”, which can be derived from the German Idealist thought, is a kind of freedom to be articulated by the zero equation between the subject and its actions, which is capable of enabling humanity in two ways: first, “zero, as the origin of human self-creation and generates everything from nothing; second, nothing is the frictionless condition where the will is free from all determination.” Here, the keyword that brings us closer to the understanding of the idea of Beethovenian freedom is “nothing”, that is, in Adorno’s sense, nothing is signified, and “nothing” does anything. Of course, for the philosopher, zero-origin of creation that articulates the freedom of void does not simply mean an empty sign of music. What Beethoven does is to turn the empty sign into a symphonic procedure. It is zero origin because nothing is found at the origin of the creative act in Beethoven’s symphonic music.

Take the opening of symphony no. 9 as example. According to Adorno, the music heard in the initial measures just signifying nothing. This absolutely nothing is due to the nothingness of the programmatic element of this work that refers to. And the music goes on a “continuum of nothing” mainly because the symphony merely begins with an alien two-note gesture leaping downwardly in a bare, hollow sound of open fifth without showing any sign to articulate the forthcoming materials. Its appearance here is just like a free act over which no material has precedence. True, nothing is narrated here. As the music goes on, it still contains nothing and becomes nothing. From this sense, the idea of Beethovenian “freedom” is said to be articulated in the freedom of the void, which is only imaginable in the context of aesthetics, not in the reality. 

From the above discussion, Beethovenian scholars seem favor of using programmatic narration to interpret Beethoven’s mid-style works, viewing his music as a representation of a hero’s growth. The success of using this paradigm in many musical interpretations, to more or less, I believe, is because of the revolutionary milieu that makes the fin de siècle Europe well-prepared for accepting of such a “hero” come, and the power of the so-called motivic variation technique, which is largely demonstrated in numerous Beethoven’s works for its fitness for such paradigm. On the contrary, since the political-cultural milieu and Beethoven’s compositional language have been greatly changed in his late period, the paradigm of interpretation thus turns inwardly to the individual side of Beethoven’s personal psychological and aesthetical states, rather than the socio-cultural side. That is why the concept of self-consciousness and irony are well fit for explaining the music of late Beethoven. However, for the far-reaching and overwhelming power of Beethoven’s music, whether it is Beethoven’s mid- or late style works, thinking his music as a philosophical idea is always possible. Daniel Chua’s exploration on Beethovean freedom is undoubtedly a typical example of illustrating this.


David Leung (theory david)
2011-03-11 (re-published)
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