how Beethoven can so effortlessly divest himself of the rigor and anguish that seemed all-consuming just moments ago.
All I do know is that they are gone. That
with the first notes of the second movement,
every last tooth has been ungritted, every last
muscle unclenched: this is pure wonderment.
The rhythmic austerity of the first movement
has been replaced by the gentlest of sways, the
raging dissonances by uncluttered, open consonance, the furrowed brow by the widest of eyes.
Beethoven loved nothing more than a monumental conclusion. The last time Beethoven
had ended a piano sonata in C major—the
Waldstein—he did so with no fewer than twenty-nine hammered-out C-major chords. When the
trajectory of the work is darkness to light—think
of the Fifth Symphony—this tendency is often
taken to an almost ridiculous extreme.
A freewheeling traversal of the keyboard
led back to the plainsong of the opening. I
heard the music bloom one last time, and then,
inevitably, sigh into a final cadence. I heard one
faint C-major heartbeat, then a second, then a
third. I waited for a fourth.
It never came.
That third C-major chord, without fanfare
or elongation or any superimposed sense of finality, was the last. It ended just as the first two
had, and when it did, the piece was no more.
It did not conclude; it entered into the void.
I didn’t dare move, but I drew in my breath
I had heard a death.
Beethoven wrote this death in 1822; his own
came five years later. He may have said farewell
to the piano sonata with op. 111, but he went on
to write two sets of bagatelles—epigrammatic
delights, both of them—and the gargantuan,
cryptic Diabelli Variations. He wrote the Ninth
Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. He wrote
five string quartets, one more staggering than
the next. He endured numbing loneliness, al-
coholism, deafness, family drama, and diarrhea.
He lived a fairly wretched life, but he managed
to work doggedly and produce a steady stream
of staggeringly great music. Op. 111 died, but
This is what makes writing about music
such a tricky business. Great literature can be
rich in subtext, of course, but its text has meaning, too. A bed might be a metaphor for a coffin, but it is first and foremost a bed. Novels and
poems make use of all those same words we use
every day, to tell people that we love them or hate
them or want them to bring us a pineapple.
Music is not like this; it is all subtext. Music’s mysterious capacity for saying the unsayable comes, in part, from its inability to say the
sayable. For those of us who love it beyond
reason, music speaks to our unconscious desires
and fears, gives voice to the feelings we don’t
know how to express, and sometimes don’t
even know we have. But it has never suggested
to anyone that they deliver fruit.
In other words, music is exquisitely personal, and constantly, maddeningly subjective.
If you love it—as anyone who embarks on this
folly of trying to write about it must—you want
to say something about it that is sharp and true,
which makes it all the more dispiriting to find
that someone else’s truth might be so different.
When I write about the “gnashing ugliness” of
the main theme of op. 111’s first movement,
that is deeply subjective; objectively, it is merely
C–E flat–B natural.
When I say that I lived, and live, through
music, that is what I mean. I am frustratingly
inscrutable to myself—so rarely do I properly understand why I feel the way I feel. And
even when I do have the words to describe
my emotions, I’m usually highly reluctant to
use them. Music is my interpreter, my megaphone, my teacher, my consoler-in-chief. To
me, it is magic.
It is also, I fear, a dangerous crutch. Am I a
musician because music speaks to, and for, me in
this way? Or does music speak to me so power-
Music sweeps by me as a messenger
Carrying a message that is not for me.
—George Eliot, 1868