Saturday, September 30, 2006

Goblins and Elephants

The first musicology I ever wrote was my senior year in high school. In AP English we read E.M. Forster's Howard's End, and I was very taken by the passage in chapter five where the family attends a concert of Beethoven's Fifth. When they get to the third and fourth movements, Forster illustrates the personality differences between the two siblings, Helen and Tibby, by showing how they listen to Beethoven differently:
Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

Helen goes on to analyze the third and fourth movements quite extensively in terms of goblins and elephants. The goblins creep about the universe, "with increased malignity," until Beethoven scatters them about the universe.
He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Today I got to teach the Fifth Symphony for the first time. Just the second movement, and after a lengthy review of German Idealism--as Hedwig says, "You, Kant, always get what you want"--we only had time to discuss the augmented 6th chord at about m. 28. It's just a little bit of harmonic trickery, the Gb of the violins in previous measures re-spelled as F#, now the raised 6th of the augmented 6th chord. And augmented 6ths always lead to the dominant, which in this case is G major, the V of C major. So thus, with this one quick little re-spelling we are suddenly launched into the world of C major, the eventual gusts of splendor and superhuman joy in the last movement.

The professor of this course wanted us to point out the augmented 6th here because it is one of many ways in which these C major moments poke through. However, technically speaking, a moment like this isn't "real." We aren't actually in C major for more than a few measures, and it is just a little bit of trickery that makes us feel momentarily assured. But you know, that's just a bit of annoying Beethoven-ness. Beethoven wants you to feel like nothing is real unless you've worked hard at it. It's got to be built from the ground up, and you've got to feel the pain along the way--and after a solid forty-five minutes of Beethoven, you've felt the pain! There's no quick fix.

Beethoven's probably right, but I don't like it. I think he is asking the wrong questions. Beethoven, and the rhetoric of hard work and discipline, doesn't pay enough attention to small gestures that might not be a gust of superhuman joy and the magnificence of life and death, but nevertheless accomplishes no small amount of work of its own. Earlier today, Mary and I were listening to a bunch of recordings from the Kronos Quartet 25th anniversary box set; an excellent investment, incidentally, if one is looking to blow some money! One of the CDs is a recording of Morton Feldman's Quartet for Piano and Strings. It clocks in at seventy-nine minutes of near-stillness and quietude, the music almost imperceptible at times. It does have its own ethic of discipline and hard work, since after all it does require an enormous amount of physical effort to play so quietly. But rather than Beethoven's model of extreme ups and downs, with goblins and elephants, the Feldman quartet models a life of quiet pleasure and appreciation for subtle beauty. And if music was a world, I'd much rather life in a Feldman string quartet than in the Fifth Symphony. Hard work just can't be sustained forever, or if it can be, it is at the expense of pleasure. I've definitely done a lot of hard work this year, and although it's gotten me to some good places, it's not going to get me everywhere.

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