Monday, June 18, 2007

Beethoven, Hero

With Beethoven, the human element first came to the fore as the primary argument of musical art. (Ferrucio Busoni)
This claim could be set against the idealist reading of Beethoven's symphonies as expressions of the ineffable Absolute: it neglects the "human element." There is a powerful tendency to hear the heroic style as narrative, as in the liner notes to an excellent recording on period instruments:
The Fifth, that cosmic tale of tragedy leading to triumph, is the Star Wars of symphonic music. And the Third is a swash-buckling thriller which, for sheer passion, romance and gusto had to wait for Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark to find its visual counterpart.
Obstacles to this take on the Eroica include the death of the hero in the second movement, and perhaps his birth in the close. But the impulse is not confined to blurbs.

The history of programmatic accounts of the heroic style is told with sympathy and verve by Scott Burnham in Beethoven Hero. Despite occasional lapses – "To consider Beethoven's music as a projection of experiential temporality presupposes a temporal actant." – it is a beautifully written book, and intricately argued.

Burnham's defence of the "vulgarly" ethical response to Beethoven's style seems at first to dismiss the idealist reading altogether. We are affected by the sense of self as hero, not by more abstract intimations:
For the same reason, our minds will drop the loftiest metaphysical trains of thought to snatch at the merest tidbit of human interest: what avails the ding an sich when we hear the latest gossip about someone we know?
But this is doubly qualified. First, by a move towards synthesis:
Beethoven's enhanced sense of drama entails a new relationship between theme and form: the form no longer serves to present prestabilized thematic material but rather becomes a necessary process in the life of a theme. […Now] the theme as subject truly appears to create its own objective world (its form), thus musically embodying one of the principal conceits of German idealism.
Beethoven's heroic style merges the Goethean enactment of becoming with the Hegelian narration of consciousness.
Second, by a latent suspicion of "heroic" listening, which Burnham finds sublimated in the language and structures of music criticism:
[Recent] tonal theories […] are controlled by the paradigm of the heroic style: the engaging pull of this style compels us to process all music in a linear fashion, to expect implications to be realized, balances to be disturbed and then restored, closure to be unarguable, endings to be culminations.
I don't know whether to believe this. But it does reflect the terms most often invoked when philosophers talk about the representational power of music: struggle, conflict, return, resolution.

What Burnham finds admirable in the programmatic approach it that is not dishonest in its employment of concepts drawn from heroic narrative. In becoming covert, the human element becomes insidious: presenting itself as the form of music, as such, it prevents us from listening in other ways.
[Does] the ability to place yourself on the map, knowing how far you have come, how far you have left to go, does this type of knowledge take precedence over an awareness of your actual surroundings, of where you in fact are?
The question leads to an invocation of film rather different from the one that was cited above:
[The] thrill of listening may be more a matter of simply being in the world of the piece […] This is comparable to the pleasure of watching a favorite movie repeatedly. It is certainly true that we might pick up new details of the unfolding of the plot with each viewing, but what really keeps us there is the world the movie creates: we like being there.