Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

emphatically, but also no need for working them out to remote conclusions. Hence these works have become for most people the best-known and best-loved type of classical music. In their perfect fusion of untranslatable dramatic emotion with every beauty of musical design and tone they have never been equalled, nor is it probable that any other art can show a wider range of thought embodied in a more perfect form. In music itself there is nothing else of so wide a range without grave artistic defects from which Beethoven is entirely free. Wagnerian opera aims at an ideal as truly artistic, and in so far of wider range than Beethoven’s that it passes beyond the bounds of pure music altogether. Within those bounds Beethoven remained, and even the apparent exceptions (such as Fidelio and his two great examples of “programme music,” the Pastoral Symphony and the sonata, Les Adieux) only show how universal his conception of pure music is. Extraneous ideas had here struck him as magnificent material for instrumental music, and he never troubled to argue whether instrumental music is the better or worse for expressing extraneous ideas. To describe the works of Beethoven’s second period here would be to describe a library of well-known classics, and we must refer the reader for further details to the articles on Sonata Forms, Contrapuntal Forms, Harmony and Instrumentation. It remains for us to attempt to indicate the essential features of his third style, and to conclude with a survey of his influence on the history of music.

Beethoven’s third style arose imperceptibly from his second. His deafness had very little to do with it, for all his epoch-making discoveries in orchestral effect date from the time when he was already far too much inconvenienced to test them in a way which would satisfy any one who depended more upon his ear than upon his imagination. It is indeed highly probable that there are no important features in Beethoven’s latest style that may not be paralleled by the tendencies of all great artists who have handled their material until it contains nothing that has not been long familiar with them. Such tendencies lead to an extreme simplicity of form, underlying an elaboration of detail which may at first seem bewildering until we realize that it is purely the working out to its logical conclusions of some idea as simple and natural as the form itself. The form, however, will be not merely simple, but individual. Different works will show such striking external differences of form that a criticism which applies merely a priori or historic standards will be tempted by the fallacy that there is less form in a number of such markedly different works than in a number of works that have one scheme in common. All this is eminently the case with Beethoven’s last works. The extreme simplicity of the themes of the first two movements of the quartet in B flat, op. 131, and the tremendous complexity of the texture into which they are woven, at first impress us as something mysterious and intangible rather than astonishing. The boldness with which the slow introduction is blended in broad statement and counter-statement with the allegro, is directly impressive, as is also the entry of the second subject with its dark harmony and tone, but the work needs long familiarity before its vast mass of thought reveals itself to us in its true lucidity. Such works are “dark with excessive bright.” When we enter into them they are transparent as far as our vision extends, and their darkness is that of a depth that shines as we penetrate it. In all probability only a veil of familiarity prevents our finding the same kind of difficulty in Beethoven’s earlier works. What is undoubtedly newest in the last works is the enormous development of those polyphonic elements which are always essential to the life of a composition, but which have very different functions and degrees of prominence in different forms and stages of the art. Polyphony inevitably draws attention to detail, and thus Beethoven in his middle period found its more obvious manifestations but little conducive to the breadth of designs which were not as yet sufficiently familiar to take any but the foremost place. Hence, among other interesting features of that second period, his marked preference for themes founded on rhythmic figures of one note, e.g. the famous “four taps” in the C minor symphony; an identical rhythm in a melodious theme of very different character in the G major concerto; a similar figure in the Sonata Appassionata; the first theme of the scherzo of the F major quartet, op. 59, No. 1, and the drum-beats in the violin concerto. Such rhythms give thematic life to an inner part without causing it to assume such melodic interest as might distract the attention from the flow of the surface. But in proportion as polyphony loses its danger so does the prominence of such rhythmic figures decrease, until in Beethoven’s last works they are no more noticeable than other kinds of simplicity. The impression of crowded detail is naturally more prominent the smaller the means with which Beethoven works and the less outwardly dramatic his thought. Thus those most gigantic of all musical designs, the 9th symphony, and the Mass in D, are, but for the mechanical difficulties of the choral writing, almost like works of the second period as far as direct impressiveness is concerned; and in the same way the enormous pianoforte sonata, op. 106, is in its first three movements easier to follow than the extremely terse and subtle works on a smaller scale that preceded it (sonata in A major, 101, and the two sonatas for violoncello, op. 102).

His enormous development of polyphonic interest soon led Beethoven to employ the fugue, not only, as in previous works, by way of episodic contrast to passages and designs in which the form and not the texture is the main object of interest, but as the culminating expression of a condition or art in which the unity of form and texture is so perfect that the mind is free to concentrate itself on the texture alone. This union was not effected without a struggle, the traces of which present a close parallel to that abrupt emphasis which we noticed in some of Beethoven’s early works. In his fugue-writing the notion that the chief interest lies in the texture is as yet so difficult to hold together with the perception that these fugues are based on a modern firmness and range of form, that the texture is forced upon the listener’s attention by a continual series of ruthlessly logical bold strokes of harmony. From this and from the notorious violence of Beethoven’s choral writing, and also from his well-known technical struggles in his years of pupilage, the easy inference has been drawn that Beethoven never was a great master of counterpoint, an inference that is absolutely irreconcilable with such plain facts as, to take but one early example, the brilliant piece of triple counterpoint in the andante of the string quartet in C minor, op. 18, No. 4, and the complete absence of anything like crudeness in his handling of harmonics, basses or inner parts at any period of his career. Beethoven may have mastered some things with difficulty, but he mastered nothing incompletely; and where he is not orthodox it is safest to conclude that orthodoxy is wrong. Had he lived for another ten years he would certainly have produced an immense amount of choral work, and with it many other great instrumental works in which this last remaining element of conflict between texture and form would have dwindled away. But while this would doubtless result in such work being easier to follow and might even have given us a version of the great fugue, op. 133 (discarded from the string-quartet, op. 131), that did not surpass the bounds of practical performance, it would yet be no sound criterion by which to stigmatize as an immaturity the roughness of the polyphonic works that we know. That roughness is, like the abrupt epigrammatic manner of some of his early works, the necessary condition in which such material realizes mature expression. Without it that material could receive but the academic handling of a dead language. And by it was created that permanent reconciliation of polyphony and form from which has arisen almost all that is true in “Romantic” music, all that is peculiar to the thematic technique of Wagnerian opera, and all the perfect smoothness of Brahms’s polyphony.

The incalculable depth of thought and closeness of texture in Beethoven’s later works are, of course, the embodiment of a no less incalculable emotional power. If we at times feel that the last quartets are more introspective than dramatic, that is only because Beethoven’s dramatic sense is higher than we can realize. The subject is too large and too subtle for dogmatism to be profitable; and we cannot in Beethoven’s case, as we can in Bach’s, cite a complete series of illustrations of his musical