the form’s every crevice, its every expressive
possibility. The word farewell is suggestive of
many things—dignity, serenity, acceptance—
none of which come close to conveying the
content or character of this sonata. Op. 111’s
first movement is all rage, and agony, and rage
at being in agony. It begins in midsentence, the
emotional storm already in progress, and for
the entirety of the movement, it does battle. Its
main theme, in brutal, fortissimo unison, comes
to a screeching halt three notes in, forcing the
listener to fixate on the gnashing ugliness of
the interval created by the previous two. This
mood never abates; the movement is at nearly
all times severe and airless, and by the end of it,
we are as exhausted and shaken as Beethoven
himself. Even the coda’s sudden move into major brings no relief. It is anchored by three upward intervals, each larger than the one before,
the last a yawning chasm, an expression of a
want that will never be met.
I remember so precisely my inability to
breathe when, at thirteen, I first heard this
movement come to its terrible end. I hadn’t
realized that bitterness was a part of music’s
expressive arsenal; for a sweaty, bespectacled
teenager, who lived and felt through music, this
was an unsettling discovery. The silence in the
concert hall seemed thick and miserable, so unlike the silence that had preceded the start of
the movement not ten minutes earlier.
When the silence was broken, the particles
in the room, and in my body, again reorganized
themselves. “I know not how such things can
be!— / I breathed my soul back into me.” I very
much doubt that Edna St. Vincent Millay had
the theme of the second movement of op. 111,
much less its effect on thirteen-year-old me, in
mind when she wrote those lines. And yet, as
an evocation of what this music is—of what it
does—they are as precise as they are eloquent. I
could not, and cannot, do better.
Because I really, truly, do not know how
such things can be. I do not understand, in spite
of thirty years of playing the piano, and thirty-
six years of hearing C-major chords, how the C
major that opens the second movement—the
same C major that brought the first move-
ment to its remorseless close—can be so in-
stantly transfigured. I do not understand, after
thirty-six years of attempting to regulate my
own emotions, with varying degrees of success,
In Beethoven’s music, what may be called the
expression of irony makes an appearance for
the first time. E.g., in the first movement of
the Ninth. With him, moreover, it’s a terrible
irony, the irony of fate perhaps. Irony reap-
pears with Wagner, but this time transposed
into the civic mode.
You could no doubt say that both Wagner and Brahms, each in his different way,
imitated Beethoven; but what in him was
cosmic becomes earthly with them.
The same expressions occur in his music,
but obeying different laws. In Mozart’s or
Haydn’s music again, fate plays no role of
any sort. That is not the concern of this music.
That ass Tovey says somewhere that this, or
something similar, is due to the fact that Mozart had no access to literature of a certain sort.
As if it had been proved that the masters’ music had been made what it was solely by books.
Certainly, music and books are connected. But
if Mozart found no great tragedy in what he
read, does that mean he did not encounter it in
his life And do composers never see anything
except through the spectacles of poets?
Only in a quite particular musical context is
there such a thing as three-part counterpoint.
Tender expression in music. It isn’t to be
characterized in terms of degrees of loudness or tempo. Any more than a tender facial
expression can be described in terms of the
distribution of matter in space. As a matter
of fact, it can’t even be explained by reference
to a paradigm since there are countless ways
in which the same piece may be played with
Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Culture and Value.
Wittgenstein—who grew up in a house that had
seven grand pianos—wrote these personal notes
on music two years after he had resigned his professorship at the University of Cambridge. The
Tovey referred to here as “that ass” is Donald Francis
Tovey, a British musician who wrote various
essays on musical composition. In a 1912 letter to
philosopher Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein called
Mozart and Beethoven “the actual sons of god.”