Beethoven's Last Quartet
I had not the slightest hesitation in supposing that Krespel had gone mad, but the professor was of the contrary opinion. “There are men”, he said, “whom Nature, or some peculiar destiny has robbed of that outer covering beneath which we others conceal the madness within us. They are like insects with thin integuments, whose visible play of muscles seems a deformity, though in reality it is the perfectly normal thing. What in us remains as thought, in Krespel’s case is translated into action.” (Hoffmann)
It was the year 1827, in spring; in one of the houses on the Viennese outskirts, a few lovers of music were performing a new quartet by Beethoven, which was hot off the press. With amazement and vexation they were following through the outrageous lurches of this genius in decline: there was such a change in his writing! The charms of original melody, filled with poetic thought, had disappeared; the exquisite finish had been transformed into the laborious pedantry of an untalented counterpointist; the fire that had previously flamed in his fast allegros and, gradually strengthening, had overflowed like boiling lava in full, huge consonances, had collapsed amid incomprehensible dissonance; and the original, light-hearted themes of the jolly minuets had been transformed into gallops and warbles, impossible on any instrument. Everywhere there were primitive, unattainable strivings towards effects that have no place in music; everywhere there was some dark feeling, not even making any sense to itself. And yet this was the same Beethoven, the very one whose name, along with those of Haydn and Mozart, is uttered with such Teutonic pride and joy! Several times, driven to despair by the incomprehensibility of the composition, the musicians threw down their bows and were ready to ask: was this not a mockery of the works of an immortal? Some attributed this degeneration to the deafness which had stricken Beethoven over the last years of his life; others leaned rather towards the insanity which had at times also blackened his creative gift. Here an expression of insincere sympathy escaped; and there some other wag recalled how Beethoven, at a concert where his last symphony was being played, waved his arms about, completely out of time, thinking he was conducting the orchestra – oblivious to the real Kapellmeister standing behind him. But they soon took up their bows again and, out of respect for the former reputation of the famous symphonist, and as though even against their will, carried on playing away at his unintelligible composition.
Suddenly the door opened and a man walked in, wearing a black frock-coat, without a tie, and with dishevelled hair; his eyes were burning – but this was not the fire of giftedness. Only the beetling brow, the harshly clipped extremities of the forehead, indicated the unusual development of the type of musical organ that had so taken Hall’s fancy when he had examined the head of Mozart.(2)
“Excuse me, gentlemen”, said the unexpected visitor, “permit me to look round your apartment – it’s being offered for rent …”
Then he placed his hands behind his back and approached the players. The gathering respectfully yielded a place to him. He leaned his head first to one side and then to the other, trying hard to listen to the music, but to no avail: a hail of tears started to fall from his eyes. He silently moved away from the performers and sat down in a further corner of the room, with his face covered in his hands. But hardly had the bow of the first violinist begun to squeal up by the bridge on an unexpected note added to a septième chord, and a wild consonance had resounded in the doubled notes of the other instruments, than the afflicted visitor jumped out of his skin, shouting: “I can hear! I can hear!”. In tempestuous joy, he started clapping his hands and stamping his feet.
“Ludwig!” – said the young girl who had come in after him, “Ludwig! It’s time to go home. We are only in the way here!”
He looked at the girl, knew what she meant, and without saying a word plodded after her, like a child.
At the edge of the city, on the third floor of an old stone house, there is a small, stuffy room divided by a partition. A bed with a torn blanket, a few reams of music paper, and the remnants of a fortepiano – these comprised the only decoration. This was the domain, this was the world of the immortal Beethoven. For the whole way, he did not say a word; but when they got there Ludwig sat down on the bed, took the girl’s hand, and said to her:
“My dear Louisa! You are the only one who understands me; you are the only one who is not afraid of me; you’re the only one I don’t embarrass … You may think that all these gentlemen who perform my music understand me: that’s never been the case! Not one of these gentleman-Kapellmeisters around is even capable of conducting it; they only care about the orchestra playing in time, and as for the music – what’s that to them! They think that I am going downhill; I even noticed that some of them seemed to be sniggering as they were playing my quartet – and that’s a real sign that they have never understood me. On the contrary: only now have I become a truly great musician. Walking home, I thought up a symphony that will make my name live forever; I’ll write it out, and burn all the old ones. In it I am going to overturn all the laws of harmony, I’m going to discover effects that no one has even suspected until now; I’ll construct it on a chromatic melody with twenty kettledrums; I’ll bring into it chords from a hundred bells, tuned against a range of tuning forks. For …” – he added in a whisper – “I’ll let you into a secret: when you took me to the bell-tower, I discovered that bells are the most harmonious instrument, which can be used perfectly in a quiet adagio. I’ll bring drum-beats and gunshots into the finale – and I shall hear this symphony, Louisa!” – he exclaimed, beside himself in delight – “I hope I shall hear it”, – he added smilingly, after a short reflection. – “Do you remember that time in Vienna, in the presence of the crowned heads of the whole world, I conducted the orchestra in my Battle of Waterloo?(3) Thousands of musicians, submissive to my gesticulation, twelve Kapellmeisters, and the fire of battle and cannon all around … Oh! … to this day that’s my best work, never mind what that pedant Weber says!(4) – But what I am going to write now will eclipse even that composition. I can’t stop myself from giving you some conception of it.”
With these words Beethoven went over to the fortepiano, on which there remained not a single entire string, and with an air of importance pounded at the soundless keys. Monotonously they thudded against the dried up wood of the ruined instrument, and at the same time the most complex fugues in five and six voices overran all the mysteries of counterpoint, of their own accord capitulating to the fingers of the creator of the Incidental Music to Egmont; and he was striving to impart the maximum expression to his music … But suddenly he struck the keys hard with the flat of his hand and stopped.
“Do you hear it?”, he asked Louisa, “this is a chord which no one until now has dared to use. There it is! I’m going to combine all the tones of the chromatic scale into one accord and I’ll prove to the pedants that this chord is right. – But I can’t hear it, Louisa, I can’t hear it! Can you understand what it means not to hear one’s own music? All the same, it seems to me that, when I collect wild sounds into one concord – then it’s just as though it is ringing in my ear. And the more depressed I get, Louisa, the more notes I feel like adding to this septième chord, the true qualities of which no one before me has understood … But that’s enough! Perhaps I have worn you out with it, like I wear everyone out these days? – Only, do you know what? For such wonderful inventiveness, I can reward myself today with a glass of wine. What do you think of that, Louisa?”
Tears welled up in the eyes of the poor girl, who alone of all the pupils of Beethoven, did not abandon him and, under the pretence of taking lessons, supported him by her own labours. She supplemented by these means the miserable revenue that Beethoven received for his compositions, the greater part of which was expended pointlessly in incessant changes of accommodation, and the distribution of largesse to all and sundry. There was no wine! There scarcely remained a few groschen for bread … But she soon turned away from Ludwig, in order to cover her embarrassment, poured some water into a glass – and presented it to Beethoven.
“A splendid Rhine wine!”, he said, taking gradual sips with the appearance of an expert. – “A royal Rhine wine! As though from the cellar of my father – Friedrich of blessed memory.(5) I remember this wine really well! It gets better by the day – that’s the sign of a good wine!” And with these words, in a raucous but certain voice, he began singing his music to the famous song of Goethe’s Mephistopheles:
But, despite himself, he frequently combined it with the mysterious melody by means of which Beethoven had defined Mignon.(7)
“Listen, Louisa”, he said finally, giving the glass back to her, “the wine has bucked me up, and I intend telling you something which I’ve been both wanting and not wanting to tell you now, for a long time. Do you know, I think I’m not going to live for very much longer – and what sort of a life do I have, anyway? – it’s a chain of endless tribulations. From my most youthful days, I caught sight of the abyss which is the division between thought and expression. Alas, never have I been able to give full expression to my soul; never have I been able to transfer onto paper what my imagination has unveiled. I write; they play it – but it’s not the same! … It’s not only that it is not what I had felt; it was never even the same thing I had written. A melody would get lost because some mediocre craftsman had not thought of putting in an extra valve; some awful bassoonist would make me rework an entire symphony just because his bassoon wouldn’t produce a couple of bass notes; or a violinist would diminish an essential sound in a chord because he found it difficult to deal with double stopping. – And as for voices, and the singing, and oratorio and opera rehearsals … Oh, the hell of it haunts my ear to this day! But I was still happy then. Sometimes I would notice some inkling of inspiration come over these inane performers; I would catch in the sounds they made something resembling the dark notion embedded in my imagination: then I would be beside myself, vanishing into the harmony created by me. But there came a time when, little by little, my keen ear began to coarsen: it still retained sufficient sensitivity to catch the mistakes of musicians, but it shut itself to beauty; a cloud of gloom gripped it – and I cannot hear my compositions any more, I can’t hear, Louisa! … Entire ranges of harmonic accords drift about in my imagination; original melodies cut one across the other, merging into a mysterious unity. I want to express it – but it has all disappeared: obstinate materiality will not produce for me a single sound – rough feelings obliterate the soul’s entire vibrancy. Oh, what can be more terrible than this discord between soul and feelings, between soul and soul! To engender in the mind one’s creative work and by the hour to be dying in the pangs of parturition! … The death of the soul! – How terrible, how alive this death is!
“And what’s more, this senseless Gottfried drives me into pointless musical argumentation, forcing me to explain why in one place or another I employed such and such a fusion of motifs, or such and such a combination of instruments, when I cannot really explain this to myself! As though such people would know what a musician’s soul is, what a human soul is! They think it can be etched by the fabrications of craftsmen working on their instruments, going by the rules which the dried up brain of some theoretician thinks up in his spare time … No, when this moment of rapture comes over me, that’s when I convince myself that such a perverse state in art cannot continue; that the dilapidated forms will be replaced by new, fresh ones; that all of our present instruments will be left behind, and their places taken by other ones, which will perform the works of geniuses to perfection; and that the absurd gulf between written and played music will finally disappear.
“I have spoken about this to our professorial gentlemen, but they didn’t understand me, just as they didn’t understand the power inherent in artistic rapture, just they didn’t understand that I am admonishing time and operating in accordance with the inner laws of nature that have yet to come to the notice of the common herd and which are, at other times, incomprehensible even to me … Fools! In their frigid delectation, when they’ve nothing better to do, they will pick out a theme, they arrange it, they extend it and they won’t fail then to repeat it in another key. Then, as if to order, they add in the wind instruments or some quaint chord on which they ruminate over and again, and all this they will smooth out and lick clean so prudently. What do they expect? I can’t work like that … They compare me to Michelangelo, but how did the creator of Moses work? In anger, and in rage, with fierce blows of the hammer, he struck away at the inanimate marble and forced it to produce the vibrant thought lying hidden beneath the shell of stone. That’s me, too! I don’t comprehend frigid delectation! What I understand is that rapture, when, for me, the whole world is transformed into harmony: every kind of feeling, every kind of thought sounds in me, all the forces of nature become my weapons, my blood boils in my veins, a shudder passes through my body and the hair on my head is aroused … And it’s all in vain! Yes, what is it all for? What’s the point? You’re alive, you’re tormented, you’re thinking; you’ve written it down, and that’s that! Creation’s sweetest pangs are riveted to the paper – you can’t bring them back! The ideas of a proud creative spirit are consigned demeaningly to the dungeon; the lofty exertion of the terrestrial creator, who has challenged the very power of nature to a debate, becomes mere matter in human hands! – And people? People! They come along, they listen, they pass judgement – as though they were actually judges, as though your creations were for them! What is it to them, if a notion that has taken on an image they can understand happens to be a link in an endless chain of notions and sufferings? That the instant when an artist comes down to a human level is just a fragment from a lengthy and morbid life of immeasurable emotion? That his every expression, his every written line, was born from the bitter tears of some Seraph riveted to human clothing, and ready to give up half a lifetime, just to inhale for a minute the fresh air of inspiration? And meanwhile the time is approaching – just like it did just now – when you feel that your soul has burned out, your powers are weakening, your head is sore: whatever you may be thinking, everything is getting muddled up and everything is obscured by some sort of screen … Oh! Louisa, how I would like to convey my last thoughts and feelings to you, those which are preserved still in the treasure-house of my soul – so that they don’t vanish for ever … But what is that I hear?”
With these words, Beethoven leapt up and with a strong blow of the hand flung open the window, through which, from a nearby house, harmonious sounds were wafting in …
“I can hear!” – exclaimed Beethoven, throwing himself onto his knees, and emotionally extending his hands towards the open window, – “it’s the Egmont music – that’s what it is. Yes, I recognise it: we have the wild cries of battle; and now the storm of passions. It flares up and rages; there it is now at its height – but now it’s all died down, and there’s just an icon-lamp left, which is going out, it’s being extinguished – but not for all eternity … Again the trumpets have sounded: the whole world is being filled with them, and no one can stifle them …”
At the sumptuous ball given by one of the Viennese ministers, crowds of people were gathering and dispersing.
“What a shame!” – someone said – the theatrical Kapellmeister Beethoven has died, and they say he left nothing to cover his burial.”
But this voice was soon lost in the crowd: everyone was paying attention to the words of the two diplomats who were talking about some argument which had taken place between whoever it was, at some German prince or other’s palace.
(1) E.T.A. Hoffmann, Councillor Krespel [Rat Krespel, 1818], quoted here in J.M. Cohen’s translation.
First published 1844.
Contributed by Neil Cornwell.
Beethoven’s Last Quartet is one of the embedded stories of Russian Nights, the philosophical frame-tale-novel by Vladimir Odoevsky (often known as V.F. Odoevsky, or ‘Odoyevsky’) first published in full in 1844. The Beethoven story, like a number of the other tales to be found within Russian Nights (including the more extensive “life” of Sebastian Bach), was first published as a separate story (in 1830).
In his “biographical” stories, Odoevsky is not principally concerned with historical fact; he is engaged rather in creating an intuitive, sensitive picture of a great artist in adversity. The key to a great artist’s life lies not in history, but within the works. The depiction of the composer in Beethoven’s Last Quartet is thus fittingly Romantic, with an extensive monologue – a kind of stream-of-consciousness profession de foi – as its core. The tale comes itself from a Russian Romantic storyteller (on whom Hoffmann and Goethe were important influences) – who was also the first significant Russian musicologist and, indeed, himself a minor composer.
It is more than tempting to think that the quartet movement being played at the opening of the story is the Grosse Fuge, written as the original finale to the String Quartet No. 13 in Bb major (Opus 130), found at first to be “incomprehensible and almost unplayable”. Consequently it was substituted with a shorter, lighter, “easier” last movement (said to be the last thing Beethoven ever completed). The Grosse Fuge was published separately (as Opus 133), presumably in the hope (and very much in the spirit of Odoevsky’s story) that it would eventually contrive to revert to its original place – as indeed it does, at least in many modern recordings and performances.
The reference in the story to musicians throwing down their bows in despair, though, has an apparent basis in fact – at least as reported in rehearsals taking place in the late 1820s in Russia.
[This new translation of the story and commentary are by Neil Cornwell, University of Bristol]
Neil Cornwell, The Life, Times and Milieu of V.F. Odoyevsky, 1804-1869, London: The Athlone Press/Continuum, 1986 (and Ohio UP).