“Late Beethoven,” referring to the composer’s spiritual, unbounded and occasionally cryptic works of his last years, has become a phrase that serves as a metaphor for certain achievement in music or culture–the pushing of aesthetic ideas past any previous horizon. In B’s case, this applies most directly to the late string quartets, and the last three piano sonatas, which press against press against the limits of form, harmonic conventions, rhythmic ideas and much else. To me, they sort of bust what music is for, and still seem to be doing it. Not much in life really qualifies for the phrase sui generis, but this music does.
I heard Stephen Spender read this poem on late Beethoven when I was in college, and he prefaced it by saying that Stravinsky had resisted late Beethoven for much of his life until then. (A claim I can’t verify.) Spender was himself an old man when he gave the reading, and clearly the idea of a “late style” engaged him.
Late Stravinsky Listening to Late Beethoven
To Robert Craft
“At the end, he listened only to
Beethoven’s Posthumous Quartets.
Some we played so often
You could only hear the needle in the groove.”
(She said, and smiled through her locked tears,
Lightly touching her cheek.)
Yes, lying on your bed under the ceiling,
Weightless as a feather, you became
Free of every self but the transparent
Intelligence through which the music showed
Its furious machine. Delectable to you
Beethoven’s harsh growlings, hammerings,
Crashings on plucked strings, his mockery at
The noises in his head, imprisoning him
In shouting deafness.
What was sound outside
His socketed skull, he only knew
Through seeing things make sounds. For example,
Walking through fields one clear March day
He saw a shepherd playing on his pipe
And knew there was the tune because he saw it
Jigging white against the green
Hillside. Then, stumping down into the valley,
Saw colliding blocks of thawing floes,
Clash cymbals unheard between banks,
Saw too the wind high up pluck the dumb strings
Of willow harps.
The eye-hole of his skull through which he looked
Beyond the barred and shutting discords on
A landscape all of sound. It drew above
A bass of mountain crags, a bird, a violin,
In a vast sky, its flight the line
A diamond cuts on glass, parabola
Held in the hearing eye. Flew on flew on
Until the curving line at last dissolved
Into that space where the perceiver
Becomes one with the object of perception,
The hearer is reborn in what he hears,
The seer in the vision: Beethoven
Released from deafness into music,
Stravinsky from the prison of his dying.
The Yale Quartet playing the slow movement of the Opus 132 Beethoven Quartet, written in 1825, or yesterday, or 1000 years from now.