Beethoven acknowledged the radical nature of his “Quartetto serioso” (1810) when he noted that it had been written for “a small circle of connoisseurs” and was “never to be performed in public.” The coda to the quartet's finale, with its sudden reversal of tone, has proven especially problematic, eliciting responses that include incomprehension (Marx) and outright dismissal (d'Indy). More recent accounts have pointed to irony as a strategy of negation, but Beethoven's contemporaries were inclined to embrace it as a constructive, liberating device. The Schlegel brothers, among others, championed it as the primary instrument of an epistemological framework that promoted the accommodation of multiple perspectives. The antifoundationalist nature of irony encourages a mode of understanding that precludes the possibility of any one “correct” perspective. Beethoven's use of “serioso” here and elsewhere, moreover, evokes a sense of the word that conveys pathos bordering on bathos. The “Quartetto serioso” is Beethoven's most extreme essay in irony, a device that would permeate his later works in more subtle but no less far-reaching ways. Opus 95 also reflects the growing prestige of artistic incomprehensibility, part of a broader shift from an aesthetics based on the principles of rhetoric, in which the artist bears the burden of intelligibility, to an aesthetics based on the principles of hermeneutics, in which the audience assumes responsibility for comprehending a given text. Beethoven's “late” works, often regarded as products of self-critique or turning inward, can thus be heard as part of a wider effort to engage audiences as active participants in a community dedicated to a dialectic of critique.
The String Quartet in F Minor, op. 95—marked “Quartetto serioso” in the autograph score1—occupies a curious position in Beethoven's output. He completed the work in October 1810 but seems to have made no attempt to publish it for more than six years, and we have no reliable account of any public performance during that time.2 It was among the several compositions he gave to the English pianist, cellist, and composer Charles Neate in February 1816 to perform and eventually place with a London publisher.3 But Neate did nothing with the quartet, and when Beethoven turned instead to the composer-conductor Sir George Smart later that same year, he characterized it in these terms: “N. B. The Quartett is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public. Should you wish for some Quartetts for public performance I would compose them to this purpose occasionally. I mention here that I should like to receive regular orders from England for great compositions.”4
The notion of a substantial work to be published but “never to be performed in public” is striking. Beethoven wanted to promote his reputation in England but recognized that the F minor string quartet was unlikely to win broad approval, at least through performance.5 More important still, the notion of writing for only “a small circle of connoisseurs” anticipates the way in which subsequent generations would come to think of the composer's late string quartets. And indeed, opus 95 has long been recognized as a harbinger of the composer's late style: it is full of the disruptions, harmonic oddities, and formal surprises that characterize so many works of his last decade.
Opus 95 thus offers an unusual window onto Beethoven's path to his late style. His use of the term “serioso,” as I shall argue, points to the work's inherently ironic nature, which was shaped at least in part by the intense debate about the nature of irony taking place in the early nineteenth century throughout German-speaking lands, and particularly in Vienna. Irony, when unrecognized—and it often goes unrecognized—has the capacity to generate confusion and a consequent sense of incomprehensibility; yet it was precisely this sort of provocative obscurity that was being promoted by Beethoven's philosophical contemporaries as a way of creating a more active mode of engagement with readers. In opus 95 we can hear Beethoven applying these same principles to the realm of purely instrumental music in ways that anticipate the kinds of challenges he would pose to listeners repeatedly in the works of his final decade. From this perspective, Beethoven's late style, long regarded as the consequence of a turn toward subjective interiority, can be understood instead as a conscious and systematic attempt to engage listeners in a way that was fundamentally new to music, even if its precedents in poetry, literature, and criticism had been established several decades earlier. The late style, in other words, reflects Beethoven's reconceptualization of the fundamental relationship between composer and listener, by which music moved from being understood as an art based on the parameters of rhetoric, with the composer bearing the responsibility of constructing an intelligible and moving whole, to being understood as an art based on the principles of hermeneutics, with the listener assuming the burden of responding to—and thereby completing, as it were—the aesthetic challenges put forward by the composer.
Just how serious is Beethoven's “Quartetto serioso”? In many respects the title seems entirely fitting, for an air of urgency permeates most of the work, including a rhythmically propulsive third-movement scherzo marked “Allegro assai vivace ma serioso.” Yet this tone is repeatedly undermined, most strikingly at the beginning of the first movement and at the end of the fourth. The quartet opens with a furious unison turn, followed by a series of harmonized octave leaps that together establish a mood of serious intensity firmly grounded in the key of F minor (see Example 1).6 After a brief pause the turning figure resumes in the cello alone (m. 6), but launching now from the unexpected pitch of G♭. The more lyrical idea that plays out above fails to take hold, however, and the insistent turning figure, now in the viola (mm. 13–17), soon leads to a reiteration of the opening unison turn in the tonic. Similar interruptions, unexpected returns, and unmediated juxtapositions of contrasting musical ideas continue throughout this and all subsequent movements.7
Nowhere are these unprepared shifts more evident than in the finale, which begins with a portentous slow introduction (Larghetto espressivo, 2/4) that segues into a minor-mode rondo (Allegretto agitato, 6/8; see Example 2a). The episodes (beginning at measures 44, 55, and 94) provide thematic variety but no relief from the sense of urgency established by the principal theme. Not until a brief transition (mm. 123–32) does the relentless drive of the music begin to abate, and when the coda begins (m. 133) we hear an entirely new theme: the mood has shifted from serious to comic, the style from high to low, the tempo from Allegretto to Allegro in cut C time, and the entire coda—most of it played piano—ends after a mere forty-three measures (see Example 2b).
This coda, as Lewis Lockwood has observed, has “baffled many a dedicated Beethovenian.”8 It certainly has elicited a remarkable variety of responses. Uniquely among Beethoven's early- and middle-period quartets, opus 95 was never reviewed during the composer's liftetime, and it was not until 1863 that Adolf Bernhard Marx, a dedicated Beethovenian if ever there was one, became the first to address it in any detail. He had avoided discussing the work altogether in the first edition (1859) of his life-and-works study of the composer, only to confess in the second edition (1863) that he could gain no “clear idea of the whole, or even merely a sense of unified psychological development.” He deemed the final forty-three measures an entirely separate, fifth movement and refused to call it a coda on the grounds that it lacked any recognizable connection to the preceding Allegretto agitato. In the end, however, Marx accepted responsibility for his failure to understand it and gave Beethoven the benefit of the doubt: “we will gladly assume that the fault lies in us.”9 Almost fifty years later Vincent d'Indy was far less forgiving. For him, the finale's coda was “without interest or utility of any sort,” the movement as a whole perhaps at best an example of how not to compose.10 Walter Willson Cobbett, writing in 1930, was equally dismissive: “One might imagine it some light Rossinian operatic finale which had strayed into this atmosphere of sustained beauty, and we think that no interpretation could palliate this error of a genius.”11
Nineteenth-century critics were particularly inclined to interpret this coda through the lens of biography, hearing in it a turning point in the composer's life. Ludwig Nohl and Joseph von Wasielewski both perceived the shift from darkness to light as a reflection of the composer's resolve to move on from his rejected marriage proposals to either Therese Malfatti (Nohl) or Therese von Brunswick (Wasielewski). Nohl called the quartet a “Faust monologue, serious and melancholy,” very much like the “Appassionata” Sonata (also in F minor) in its “grumbling against fate, which is why we do not hesitate to seek the deeper sources of the work's being, its very pulse,” in “the lived experience of its creator, and not merely in his artistic imagination.” The finale's coda brings “reconciliation and peace.”12 Wasielewski likewise heard the quartet's ending as a reflection of Beethoven's ability to overcome his “painful anguish” and turn “with manly resolve toward the sunlight of life.”13 Hugo Riemann pointed to the coda as evidence that the composer had by this point in his life “found himself again.”14 These interpretations, and others like them, are of course part of a long tradition that perceives Beethoven's personal suffering—be it because of love, deafness, physical pain, or any other kind of affliction—as a principal stimulus of his creative strength.15
A number of observers have acknowledged the contradictory nature of this coda without proposing any particular rationale for it. Theodor Helm, writing in 1885, was the first of many to point out the similarities between the quartet's finale and the overture to Egmont, composed around the same time: the latter also begins in F minor and ends with a fast, triumphant coda in F major.16 But Helm offered no explanation for the differences between the two works: the trumpet-and-drums ending of Egmont is driven by Goethe's drama, and specifically by its demand for a closing “symphony of victory” (“Siegessymphonie”), whereas the quartet's ending lacks any comparable external motivation, so far as we can tell. Joseph de Marliave found the finale's “epilogue” to be “marked by a certain air of irresponsibility.”17 Basil Lam called it a “comic-opera coda, absurdly and deliberately unrelated” to the work as a whole, “the Shakespearian touch that provides the final confirmation of the truth of the rest.”18 David Wyn Jones observes that the last movement “almost defies comprehension,” particularly “the final move in the coda to an exhilarating F major. … The self-avowed difficulty of the quartet as a whole invites comparison with the late quartets, but the later works find a cohesion that is more satisfying than that evident in Op. 95.”19 For Michael Talbot, the “finale of the ‘Quartetto serioso’ … seems planned to cock a snook at this august designation,” while along the same lines Jürgen Heidrich considers the coda an incongruous “last dance [Kerhaus]” that “exhibits absolutely no connection to what precedes it” and that comes across as a “cynical Abgesang to the emotional abyss of the Quartetto serioso.”20
Both in spite of and because of such obvious surface ruptures, several more recent commentators have pointed to the thematic, harmonic, and formal devices that link the coda to the finale and to the quartet as a whole. These critics invariably relate the chromatic figure at the beginning of the coda to the turning figure of the first movement's opening and emphasize the prevalence of disjuncture throughout the work, beginning with the disruptive feint toward the Neapolitan G♭ in measure 6 of the first movement. The composer Randall Thompson was the first to argue that the unexpectedly bright nature of the coda is in its own way consistent with the extreme and abrupt constrasts of many kinds throughout opus 95. His verdict on the quartet's ending was that “No bottle of champagne was ever uncorked at a better time.”21 Ernest Livingstone and Reinhard Wiesend have since shown in detail how the numerous discontinuities across all four movements can be reconciled through intervallic relationships among the work's various themes.22 While these analyses make a strong case for the underlying coherence of opus 95 as a whole, they do not suggest any particular motivation for the more obvious and extreme contradictions of tone in the coda. Hermann Danuser, for one, is careful to point out that for all the technical elements that link it to the rest of the quartet, the coda ultimately manifests “the buffa device of ‘smiling through tears.’”23
Yet another interpretative approach has emphasized a sense of compositional disengagement in the finale's coda. Paul Bekker, in his Beethoven monograph of 1911, maintained that it is only in the final forty-three measures that Beethoven lets fall the “mask” he has been wearing throughout the work. He likened the coda to the ending of Shakespeare's The Tempest:
At that moment when the storm becomes most violent, it suddenly seems to disappear. … A gently resonating F major chord proclaims a profound peace and there—suddenly Ariel flutters in, the light, airy bringer of joy, who announces liberation in delicate, fairy-like sounds. Prospero the punitive judge has disappeared; Prospero the joyful Prince of Spirits reveals himself. Beethoven discards his “serioso” mask. In battling the seriousness of life he has not perished in the maelstrom of passions. Precisely the immersion in the seemingly impenetrable gloom of F minor images has freed his vision and made him receptive toward the far more impenetrable humor of life's play. This internal liberation, this transformation from lamenting and persecuted warrior to a superior, smiling observer, is reflected in the F minor quartet with its surprising turn at the end. With this, the solution to the problems of life is found. The way is now open—the way to the Eighth Symphony.24
Joseph Kerman, in his landmark 1967 book on the string quartets, noted that everything about this coda is “effortless and amusing and trite. … The agitation and pathos and tautness and violence of the quartet seem to fly up and be lost like dust in the sunlight.” By 1810, Kerman proposed, Beethoven “had reached a stage of compositional virtuosity … that allowed him to gloss over doubts with great ease and with a certain impressive show of sang-froid.”25 For William Kinderman, the coda is “problematic” because it “blithely ignores the dramatic tensions of the work up to that point,” and those tensions, rather than being resolved, “are forgotten and seemingly transcended.”26 Daniel Chua has similarly argued that this ending is full of “clichés so incongruous to everything else in the quartet that the situation is one of aporia rather than humour.” The coda as a whole reflects what Chua calls “a creative refusal to respond to the struggle” that has gone on up to this point in the finale.27
Save perhaps for the finale of the Ninth Symphony, no other movement by Beethoven has provoked such a wide range of sharply contrasting interpretations. This in itself is an indicator of the movement's radical nature, and over the last half century a number of commentators have pointed to irony as a way of making sense of this quartet's deeply enigmatic ending. Rey Longyear, writing in 1970, was the first to apply the term specifically to the finale's coda, which he characterized as a paradigm of Romantic irony, by which a work of art calls attention to its own artifice by undermining the sense of aesthetic illusion. For Longyear, the “opera buffa-like” coda “destroys the illusion of seriousness” and incorporates “paradox, self-annihilation, parody, eternal agility, and the appearance of the fortuitous and unusual.”28 A number of subsequent scholars have built on this insight. Kurt von Fischer called the coda “neither amusing nor victorious, but rather both an ironic and a utopian contradiction of what has gone before. … The resolution of conflicts is apparently possible neither as victory nor as synthesis, but rather only in contradiction.”29 More recently, Robert Hatten has argued that Longyear's interpretation did not go far enough, maintaining that the coda shifts the “level of discourse” in a way that suggests both negation and disengagement, a rising above the surface-level tragic tone of the music.30 Tamara Balter, in turn, hears the coda as an “annihilation” of the “grief and pathos conveyed in the four movements,” a move that is “prototypically Romantic-ironic.”31 Nancy November agrees with Longyear that the coda enacts an “ironic reversal,” but she hears its overall effect not as a contradiction but rather as a reinforcement of the “serious nature of the discourse” as a whole.32
It is ironic—and altogether fitting—that accounts of irony in opus 95 have differed so sharply. Irony is, after all, about contradiction, and it operates on many different levels. The enormous scholarly literature on it includes multiple competing taxonomies that testify to its inherently slippery nature.33 In its simplest form, irony is saying one thing and meaning the exact opposite. From context and tone of voice we know perfectly well when “Yes, of course” means “No, not at all.” On a higher level, irony allows for genuine ambiguity, in which a statement and its exact opposite are perceived as equally plausible. In such instances we might well ask a speaker, “Are you being ironic?” Or as we are more likely to say colloquially, “Are you serious?” And even then, can we believe the response we receive? Again: Just how serious is Beethoven's quartet? Irony in its most sophisticated form is a hall of mirrors: there is no fixed point, nothing is stable, and perceptions can vary enormously. In irony's most refined manifestations we cannot distinguish between “real” and “feigned” meanings, and the very binary of “real” and “feigned” becomes not only irrelevant but misleading.
But how does irony relate to purely instrumental music? The mechanisms of verbal irony—a rhetorical trope—cannot be mapped onto instrumental music in any direct or detailed fashion, because instrumental music's “meaning” is hopelessly contested from the very start. We cannot simply assume that the semantic or performative conventions of verbal irony operate within a medium incapable of “saying” anything, much less “meaning” its opposite. The broader parameters of rhetoric, on the other hand, can be readily applied to music. Throughout the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, composers, performers, and listeners alike operated within a rhetorical framework, a set of mutually understood premises by which a composer attempts not only to delight listeners but also to move (“persuade”) them emotionally.34 A composer might certainly “fool” or even mislead listeners from time to time—we routinely speak of deceptive cadences or false recapitulations, and Haydn's music is full of such passages35—but these are essentially local events, limited both in musical and verbal rhetoric to specific moments, not entire works.
Mark Antony's funeral oration in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar illustrates both the power and the limits of rhetorical irony: with his refrain of “For Brutus is an honourable man” he leaves no room for doubt about his true feelings. But like any good orator Mark Antony knew that he could use irony only sparingly, for rhetoric, in order to be effective, depends on the audience's perception of a speaker's fundamental sincerity, and it is for this reason that he concludes his oration in an entirely different manner. He breaks off abruptly, overwhelmed by emotion: “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, / And I must pause till it come back to me.”36 The irony that permeates his oration is redeemed by the sincerity of its summing up: listeners cannot be left at the end thinking that the speaker has been deceiving them all along. An orator operating within the venerable traditions of rhetoric would never end a speech by revealing to his audience that not a word of what he has said is true.
Yet this is precisely what Beethoven seems to be doing in opus 95: toward the end of four very serious movements he suddenly shifts tone and leaves us to wonder if we have had the wool pulled over our ears throughout. Hugh Macdonald, like Bekker before him, uses the image of a compositional “mask” to explain opus 95's ending in just this way. The coda, he maintains, is
not an apology or a sop or a mere gesture towards the world of smiles and laughter, but a deliberate slap in the face. … Is Beethoven simply removing the tragic mask to reveal the cackling smile underneath? For most of the work he holds us in the hollow of his hand utterly convinced that the music means what it seems to mean. Then at the last possible moment he reveals the disturbing truth that it was all a horrible joke, mere sleight of hand. …
… Every time we think we have the measure of his mind, he steps deftly sideways, or he removes the mask. … For all Beethoven's clear desire to write music of power and beauty, there is a cruel streak in his make-up of the kind that finds it amusing to beckon you closer and closer until you are near enough to receive a heavy punch on the nose.37
Macdonald goes on to relate the finale of opus 95 to Carl Czerny's account of Beethoven's unusual behavior after improvising at the keyboard. As Czerny recalled in 1852,
His improvisation was most brilliant and striking. In whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry, while many would break out into loud sobs; for there was something wonderful in his expression in addition to the beauty and originality of his ideas and his spirited style of rendering them. After ending an improvisation of this kind he would burst into loud laughter and banter his hearers on the emotion he had caused in them. “You are fools!” he would say. Sometimes he would feel himself insulted by these indications of sympathy. “Who can live among such spoiled children?” he would cry.38
It would be easy to dismiss this report as yet one more entertaining but probably apocryphal anecdote were it not supported by certain moments in music that Beethoven committed to paper, including the coda of opus 95's finale.
What would motivate such a compositional strategy? Even if we accept the premise of Romantic irony as the destruction of aesthetic illusion, why introduce it at this juncture, at the very end of a multimovement work? What is the point of exposing art's underpinnings? The notion of a compositional mask is problematic in this particular instance, and it is revealing that Edward T. Cone chose not to invoke his own image of the “composer's voice” in his commentary on the finale of opus 95.39 For if we interpret the coda of opus 95's finale as the moment when the music—or Beethoven, or Beethoven's compositional persona—removes a metaphorical “mask” to reveal a “true self,” we are assuming that there is some true self, a stable compositional “voice” in the music, as Cone would have it. Cone would have been the first to insist that we need not equate any particular persona with Beethoven himself; but how do we reconcile the presence of more than one “voice” in the work? How can we accept both as equally valid? “Once a face is revealed to be a mask,” as Julian Johnson has noted in connection with the music of Gustav Mahler, “all identities are suspect.”40 It was this unmediated juxtaposition of voices that made the music of Mahler and other later composers (such as Satie, Ravel, and Shostakovich) so jarring for their contemporaries.41
The notion of multiple voices in Beethoven's music is scarcely a new idea. Karol Berger has called attention to Beethoven's predilection for shifting quite suddenly “from one ontological level to another,” even in the early piano sonatas, and Nicholas Mathew has pointed out that “Beethoven's voice is unavoidably plural,” not only across the composer's oeuvre as a whole but even at times within individual movements.42 A number of prominent scholars have, moreover, noted more specific parallels between elements of irony in Beethoven's music and the writings on this subject by such figures as Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel.43 Yet such accounts have tended on the whole to emphasize only one side of irony: its capacity to negate or subvert.44 Early Romantic philosophers such as Novalis and Schlegel were more inclined to treat irony as the driving force behind an epistemological perspective that privileged neither the positive nor the negative but insisted on the simultaneous necessity of both.
The Discourse on Irony in Beethoven's Vienna
The particular strand of irony to be considered here is one with which Beethoven himself would have been familiar in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the years leading up to the composition of this quartet. It was around 1800 that irony began to be understood not simply as a local rhetorical device but as an instrument of knowledge.45 Known variously as “cosmic,” “infinite,” or “epistemological” irony, this conception of irony rejects the idea that any one perspective by itself can suffice to make sense of the universe. Or to put this in more positive terms: this conception of irony insists that multiple perspectives are essential in any attempt to come to terms with the universe in all its complexity and chaos. In the case of music, and specifically in the case of opus 95, this would mean hearing the juxtaposition of contrasting voices not as contradictory but as complementary and constructive.
The most important figures in this discourse were Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763–1825), August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845), Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), and Adam Müller (1779–1829). With the exception of Jean Paul, all of them spent a substantial amount of time in Vienna at some point during the years 1805–10, and Jean Paul's works were well known there. These writers championed irony not simply as a means of contradiction or subversion but as the primary instrument of an epistemological framework that encouraged the simultaneous accommodation of multiple perspectives toward any given object or idea. By this line of thought, irony's function goes well beyond negation: its broader and higher purpose is to expand the realm of possible perspectives, no matter how contradictory the consequences of those perspectives may seem. Epistemological irony encourages a mode of understanding that moves beyond the limitations of linear, deductive reasoning and beyond the premise that any one perspective might be privileged, much less “correct.” In this context, we can hear the coda to the finale of opus 95 at least in part as a response to the intense discourse on irony taking place in Beethoven's Vienna during the time he was writing this quartet.
Friedrich Schlegel was the leading exponent of epistemological irony—more on him in due course—but when he moved to Vienna in 1810 he joined a group of prominent philosophers, critics, and playwrights there who were already helping to expand the concept's reach. His brother August Wilhelm had for two years been giving public lectures in Vienna on the history of literature, lectures that were attended by members of the aristocratic families and cultural elite in whose circles Beethoven moved. The list of subscribers includes such names as Lobkowitz, Kinsky, Liechtenstein, Dietrichstein, Schwarzenberg, Fries, Apponyi, Grassalkowitz, Hammer, Odeschali, Pálffy, Pichler, and Seckendorf, togther with such literary figures as the Collin brothers, Johann Adam Schmidt, Joseph Sonnleithner, Joseph von Sonnenfels, and Georg August Griesinger.46 August Wilhelm Schlegel's lectures on Shakespeare coincided with a tremendous wave of enthusiasm for the English playwright in Vienna, an enthusiasm Beethoven is known to have shared. And irony, manifested in Shakespeare's tendency to juxtapose the tragic and the comic, is one of the hallmarks of his style that was repeatedly emphasized by Schlegel and by the Viennese press in general.47 The French diplomat Louis-Philippe-Joseph Girod de Vienney, Baron de Trémont, said of his visits to Beethoven in the fall of 1809 that the two would “talk philosophy, religion, politics, and especially of Shakespeare, his idol, and always in a language that would have provoked the laughter of anyone who might have been listening in.”48
Irony in Shakespeare's plays, August Wilhelm Schlegel argued, is not limited to individual characters or scenes but frequently extends to the whole of the drama. Most poets, he observed, are “partisan,” in that they “demand blind belief” from their readers. But “the more passionate the rhetoric, the more easily it falls short of its goal,” for perceptive readers can become all too aware of being manipulated, and when we see through the artifice, we question our submission to the will of the artist.
If on the other hand by a dexterous maneuver the poet occasionally turns the coin over onto its less shiny side, he thereby places himself in a secret understanding with a select circle of his readers, those who are most perceptive. He shows them that he has anticipated their objections and that he is not a captive of the objects being presented, but rather hovers freely above them, and that he if wanted to do things differently he could utterly annihilate that which he himself had magically conjured up.49
This twofold approach of the artist—to move an audience and yet at the same time demonstrate a certain emotional remove from the material at hand—is characteristic of early nineteenth-century attitudes toward irony as an artistic device that could at once be both engaged and distant.
Another figure active in this Viennese discourse was the playwright Ludwig Tieck, who was in personal contact with Beethoven on multiple occasions between early August and mid-October 1808. He witnessed the curious episode in which the composer smashed a bust of Prince Karl Lichnowsky in a fit of rage over a perceived slight from his erstwhile patron.50 Tieck was already famous by this time for writing plays in which all pretense of aesthetic illusion is shattered, the actors stepping out of their roles and producers coming on stage to address audiences directly. “Dear Reader,” he interjects into his reworking of Charles Perrault's tale of Bluebeard, “you speak so much of unity, of coherence in books. Look for once into your own breast and examine yourself; in the end you live exactly as—or worse than—I write.”51 On the grounds of such moments of parabasis, Friedrich Schlegel called Tieck a modern-day Aristophanes, and a more recent critic has noted that Tieck's works are precursors of later anti-illusionist dramas by Brecht, Genet, and Beckett.52 Tieck distinguished irony from “mockery, ridicule, or persiflage,” with which it was too often associated; he preferred to align it instead with the “deep seriousness that is simultaneously bound to jest and true levity. It is not something that is merely negative, but is rather thoroughly positive. It is the power that preserves the poet's command over his material; he should not lose himself in it but rather stand above it. Irony thus protects him from one-sidedness and empty idealizing.”53
Aristophanes was of particular interest to the publicist and literary critic Adam Müller, who had converted to Catholicism during an extended stay in Vienna in 1805. Müller and Friedrich Schlegel together played a central role in reviving the ancient playwright's comedies, which until that time had been all but forgotten, at least in the public mind.54 Like Tieck, Müller saw irony as a source of artistic freedom: by allowing the artist to distance himself from his own work, irony expressed “the entire secret of artistic life in its true and original form. If you desire a German translation of the word [Ironie], I know of none better than this: Revelation of the freedom of the artist or of the individual.”55
Not present in Vienna but widely discussed there at the time was the novelist and critic Jean Paul, whose Vorschule der Ästhetik (1804) placed humor—a broadly encompassing term that for him included irony—at the center of his own writings and aethetics. He reserved “irony” for a more specifically destructive sort of humor, maintaining that humor is subjective, irony objective.56 Jean Paul's taxonomy of various devices, including humor (“Laune,” “Humor”), wit (“Witz”), and irony itself (“Ironie”), was part of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring conceptual order to a range of related but unruly concepts. Terminology among the early Romantics was decidedly inconsistent. Novalis, for example, noted that “Schlegel's irony seems to me to be genuine humor,” though he did not find the terminological difference a bad thing in itself. To the contrary: “for an idea, multiple names are advantageous.”57
Jean Paul's argument for the centrality of such devices in the literary arts was in any case enormously influential. Humor in all its manifestations ultimately revolves around the quality of multivalence, by which a passage of prose or music could be read or heard in more than one way at the same time. Humor, Jean Paul maintained, is the “inverted sublime” (“das umgekehrte Erhabene”), which
annihilates not the individual but the finite through its contrast with the idea. It recognizes no individual foolishness, no fools, but only folly and a mad world. Unlike the common joker with his innuendoes, humor does not elevate individual imbecility but lowers the great … thereby annihilating both great and small, because before infinity everything is equal and nothing.58
Jean Paul then proceeded to draw a specific parallel between the music of Haydn and the prose of the English humorist Laurence Sterne, who
repeatedly speaks at length and weightily about certain phenomena before finally concluding that not a single word of it all, in any case, has been true. One can sense something similar to the audacity of annihilating humor, and at the same time an expression of disdain for the world, in certain music—for example, Haydn's, which annihilates entire passages through one that is foreign, and which storms along between pianissimo and fortissimo, Presto and Andante.59
Beethoven would go on to juxtapose incongruous elements in his music to an even more extreme degree and as a result earned repeated approbation during his lifetime as a “musical Jean Paul.”60
We cannot know to what extent Beethoven's thought was shaped by any one or more of these individuals; beyond his documented contacts with Tieck there is no evidence directly linking the composer to any of these figures. But it is implausible that he had no inkling of the contemporary discourse about irony, for the Viennese press was full of discussions of it, and his circle of acquaintances and business associates included numerous participants in this debate.61 Joseph Schreyvogel, for example, directed the Kunst- und Industrie-Comptoir—Beethoven's primary publisher in the first decade of the nineteenth century—from 1807 until 1813 and also published and edited the Sonntagsblatt, a journal that reported extensively on August Wilhelm Schlegel's Vienna lectures and published a number of Friedrich Schlegel's aphorisms. These included one that reads “Irony is the form of paradox. Paradox is everything that is at once good and great.”62 Schreyvogel (who worked under the pseudonyms “Thomas West” and “August West”) hailed Friedrich Schlegel as “the true champion of the new aesthetics,” noting that “his seriousness is irony; his irony appears to be the most bitter seriousness.”63 Throughout its three-year run (1806–9) the Sonntagsblatt routinely delivered its position on various topics with large doses of its own irony. One reviewer, possibly Schreyvogel himself, asserted that wit must have no other purpose than to evoke laughter, and that by this measure Lucian, Juvenal, Cervantes, and Swift were mere “ordinary minds,” whereas “Eulenspiegel, Hasenhut, and a pair of young jokers with whom I am acquainted” are “the most ingenious talents who ever aspired to wit.”64 On another occasion, and in a more sober vein, Schreyvogel evoked some of the same names to illustrate the serious nature of jest:
But the jest [Scherz] must have a purpose, and something that serves reason must come out of the play of imagination if that purpose is not to be perceived by a serious spirit with indifference or even revulsion. We know of Socrates's tendency toward irony and the use he made of it. A sense of deep seriousness lies at the base of all truly great products of comic literature. Lucian, Cervantes, Swift, are without doubt of more serious natures than a large number of moral-philosophical writers, who make a profession of seriousness and morality.65
Beethoven was also in direct contact with two other figures closely connected to the Schlegel brothers: Joseph Stoll (1778–1815) and Leo von Seckendorf (1775–1809), coeditors of the short-lived Prometheus. In its brief run from January through September 1808 this journal published numerous pieces both about and by the Schlegels, including poetry, aphorisms, and essays; Beethoven published the first of his four settings of Goethe's “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (“Sehnsucht,” WoO 134, no. 1) in the third number of the journal.66 The final issue of Prometheus includes an extended essay on humor by the historian and playwright Gottlob Heinrich Adolph Wagner, who called irony the “soul and life-principle” of the ancient world because of its ability to separate and unravel that which appears united; the humor of the modern world, by contrast, unites that which would seem to be separated and unbound. Both approaches, Wagner argued, are nevertheless devoted to distancing the self from the object and in so doing create alternative perspectives on the world.67
The Perception of Irony in Beethoven's Music
Beethoven's contemporaries certainly recognized the tendency of his music to juxtapose incongruous elements, though not necessarily to unite them. References to “bizarre” passages recur often in the earliest reviews of his music, and the first of many comparisons to Jean Paul appeared in 1807 in connection with the Eroica Symphony.68 Other literary figures to whom Beethoven was repeatedly compared include Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Byron, each closely linked to the aesthetics of irony.69 A French critic writing in 1811, after hearing a portion of an unidentified symphony by Beethoven, gave us this memorable image: “Having penetrated the listener's spirit with a sweet melancholy, he immediately shreds it with a mass of barbarous chords. It is as if we were seeing doves and crocodiles penned up together.”70 The nineteen-year-old Franz Schubert noted in his diary in June 1816 that the “Bizarrerie” of much modern-day music was traceable “almost exclusively” to “one of our greatest German artists”—Schubert almost certainly had Beethoven in mind here—“who unites, confuses, and makes no distinction between the tragic and the comic, the agreeable and the repulsive, the heroic and the howling, the most holy and the harlequin.”71
The first explicit use of the term “irony” in connection with Beethoven's music appears in a notice from 1814 by the Berlin-based critic, actor, librettist, and composer Carl Blum (1786–1844). Blum's comments are particularly rich in that they touch on two of the most important qualities consistently associated with the aesthetics of irony in the early nineteenth century. First, irony is something that hovers over the artwork as a whole and only occasionally imposes itself with force. It is subtle. Second, irony is perceptible not to all but only to some—whether August Wilhelm Schlegel's “select circle of readers” or, for that matter, Beethoven's “small circle of connoisseurs”:
In the works of the greatest poets there is often an irony that hovers gently above the whole but that breaks through incisively at times; it is easily perceived by thoughtful observers. I would adduce here, among many, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Goethe. Beethoven's compositions have not been considered nearly enough from this perspective; yet only in this way will that which is seemingly unpleasant and alien be recognized as exquisite and necessary. Genuine poetic irony hovers over many of his most outstanding works, at times gently, but also at times incisively and frightfully.72
Blum also identifies the three authors whom critics of Beethoven's time associated with irony more often than any others. If Shakespeare and Cervantes would seem to be predictable choices, Goethe might come as a surprise. Yet Goethe's contemporaries repeatedly noted the presence of irony in his writings. The most famous instance was Friedrich Schlegel's widely circulated and much-discussed essay of 1798 on Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, in which Schlegel praised the “irony hovering above the entire work,” even while noting that not every reader would perceive it.73 “Schweben”—to hover, to be in suspension between two points—is the word Blum would later use, and it is a word often invoked in connection with irony. Schlegel lauded the novel's “aura of dignity and momentousness” that could nevertheless “smile at itself.”74 Goethe's air of detachment, he maintained, gave the novel an aura that was at once both serious and humorous, weighty and light: “One should not let oneself be fooled when the poet treats persons and events in such a light and humorous way, when he almost never mentions his hero without irony, and when he seems to smile down from the heights of his spirit upon his masterwork, as if this were not for him the most solemn seriousness.”75 For Adam Müller, Goethe had no equal in “the art of contradiction, the reflective exchange of algebraic signs, the form in which any possible contradiction can manifest itself, thus in rooted motion, in true irony, in universality.”76 Jean Paul similarly saw Goethe as one of the great “humorists,” together with Cervantes, Sterne, Voltaire, Rabelais, and Shakespeare—in short, with those authors widely perceived at the time as ironists.77
Goethe himself used the term in a strikingly broad, epistemological sense. In his Farbenlehre of 1810, he maintained that
the mere viewing of a thing can do little for us. Every act of seeing develops into an observation, every observation into a reflection, every reflection into an association, and thus one can say that with every attentive view of the world we theorize. But to undertake and do this self-consciously, with an awareness of self, with freedom, and—to allow ourselves the use of a bold word—with irony, a particular skill is necessary if … the desired result of our experience is to become vibrant and useful.78
Irony may seem an odd methodological aspiration for a scientific treatise, but Goethe's use of it here is consistent with the prevailing notion of the concept during his lifetime as a hallmark of detachment and reflection. As literary critic John A. McCarthy puts it, irony for Goethe “designates a bifocal view of the world” that arises from “the simultaneous awareness of subject and object.”79
This conscious exercise of authorial detachment—carried to the extent of ostentatious distancing—is a quality that Friedrich Schlegel and Jean Paul alike associated with the figure of Socrates, who in Plato's dialogues famously professes ignorance so as to expose the faulty logic of others. Socratic irony is decidedly not local: it focuses not on the import of any given assertion but on the premises it implies. As Schlegel describes it,
Socratic irony is the only dissimulation that is completely involuntary and yet completely calculated. It is as impossible to feign it as it is to reveal it. It will remain a riddle to anyone who does not possess it, even after the most open avowal. It is intended to deceive no one, save those who consider it deceptive. … In it, everything should be playfulness and everything should be seriousness, everything should be candidly open and everything should be deeply disguised. It springs from the union of savoir vivre and the scientific spirit, from the fusion of a complete philosophy of nature and a complete philosophy of art. It comprises and arouses a feeling of the insoluble conflict between the unconditional and the conditional, and of the impossibility and necessity of a complete articulation of the same. It is the freest of all licenses, for through it one transcends oneself; and yet it is the most law-bound as well, for it is absolutely necessary. It is a very good sign if those who are attuned quite simply have no idea how to take this constant self-parody; they believe and disbelieve over and over again until they become dizzy and consider the joke as something serious and the serious as a joke.80
This fragment does more than merely describe Socratic irony: it enacts Schlegel's own conception of irony, oscillating as it does between opposites and in the process embracing both. The binaries come in rapid succession here: Socratic irony is at once involuntary and calculated, entirely serious and entirely playful, open and disguised; it fuses art and nature; it captures the impossibility of reconciling the unconditional and the conditional, the absolute and the relative; it is both the freest and the most law-bound of all licenses.
With its emphasis on the mutually productive tension between opposites, this type of irony can be understood as a form of dialectic, as indeed it was by Schlegel and his contemporaries.81 Schlegel defined an idea as a “concept perfected to the point of irony … a constantly self-producing fluctuation of two conflicting thoughts.”82 The key word here is “constantly.” Irony may begin with negation but it does not end there. In fact, it never ends—hence the occasional designation “infinite irony.” For Schlegel, irony is by its very nature always in flux, a “constant alternation of self-creation and self-destruction.”83 Synthesis, such as it is, is necessarily provisional and temporary. Irony was to his mind not merely a fallback, but rather the best epistemological approach available, the only position honest enough to accommodate the chaotic universe on its own chaotic terms and embrace—not overcome, but embrace—the irreconcilable differences between subject and object through a perpetual state of oscillation, of hovering, of Schweben.
Schlegel's theory of irony owes much to Johann Gottlieb Fichte's notion of the self. Fichte (1762–1814) rejected the idea of the self as a fully integrated entity, asserting instead its processual nature in a constant hovering or oscillation (Schweben) between an active, positing self (the “I”) and the boundaries inherent in that positing (the “Not-I”), or that which delimits the “I.” “The nature of the ‘I’ is a drive,” he declared.84 The self is thus both an action and its corollary, the product of the reflection that lies at the heart of that action. Schlegel's epistemological irony is in effect an application of the very oscillation by which the self can recognize its own existence.85 Fichte's sense of the self not as a substance but as a perpetual process also influenced Friedrich Schiller's notion that the human spirit is constantly driven by the tension between the sensuous (“Sinntrieb”) and the abstract (“Formtrieb”), a tension that can be reconciled only through art—that is, through a “Spieltrieb,” or “play-drive.”86 Novalis, too, was strongly influenced by Fichte's conception of the self, noting at one point that “all being, and being in general, is nothing other than freedom—an oscillation between extremes that must be united and must be separated. It is from this perspective of oscillation that all reality derives; everything is incorporated in it. … For oscillation … is the source, the mother of all reality, reality itself.”87
Schlegel called this ongoing process a “Wechselerweis,” an “alternating proof” or “alternating demonstration.” Such an approach conjures up the specter of circularity and violates one of the most basic principles of logic, the Aristotelian principle of noncontradiction, that “opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time.”88 But circularity and contradiction are abhorrent only if one accepts the singularity of outcomes as a desired goal and if one begins from a point of departure that could itself be demonstrated as true. Schlegel and his cohorts were convinced that the search for a single starting point in philosophy was futile, and that philosophy really had to “begin in the middle, like an epic poem,” as he put it, in motion and not at any arbitrary, fixed point.89 This outlook has since come to be called “antifoundationalist.” Philosophy, Schlegel maintained, is for this reason “the true home of irony” and could achieve its aims only by merging with other modes of thought: “All art should become science, and all science should become art; poetry and philosophy should be united.”90
This was a radical new way of thinking about thinking. Kant had rejected any hint of circular thought, but later philosophers, beginning with Fichte, recognized that one possible way—perhaps the only way—out of the dilemma of subjectivity was a conceptual system that was antifoundational, circular rather than linear. In Schlegel's theory of irony, as Daniel Dahlstrom succinctly puts it, “there can be no pretension to an endgame of some harmonious totality.”91 This mode of thought is basic to early Romantic philosophy and helps to explain both why it fell from favor later in the nineteenth century and why it has enjoyed renewed respect more recently in the twentieth and twenty-first.92
Among later writers on Beethoven, Theodor Adorno in particular was drawn to the idea of Schweben as a foundational element of epistemology.93 Lydia Goehr has shown just how central this concept was for both Adorno and Schoenberg, tracing its roots back to the writings of the early Romantic philosophers, including Fichte, Novalis, Schelling, and Friedrich Schlegel. She notes Adorno's distinctive transformation of this philosophical principle, however, and rightly emphasizes the differences between earlier and later applications of the concept:
Between the German Idealists and Adorno lay a course of history that had moved from a still living society to a dead one. Life, he would write after Auschwitz and at the extreme, can no longer be led to death, for life is already dead. The historical difference was crucial: if Adorno was to use das Schwebende effectively in his own philosophical writing, he would have to do so by using the concept in the service of a modernist negative dialectics, and that meant in deep historical recognition of the metaphysical impossibility of reaching a harmonized state within an idealist construction of the world.94
In this sense, Adorno emphasized the tearing down rather than the building up inherent in Friedrich Schlegel's notion of a constant cycle of creation and destruction. Still, there are many points of contact with earlier perspectives on das Schwebende. Adorno called the sign of truth in Beethoven's music its “Suspension,” its transcendence of form, and cites as an example of this the passage that begins at measure 72 of the third (slow) F minor movement of the String Quartet op. 59, no. 1. This new theme, he points out, appears at the moment when a listener would reasonably expect the onset of the recapitulation; what we get instead is formally superfluous, and the theme cannot be related to what has gone before—a description that maps readily onto the coda of the finale of opus 95. A structurally anomolous passage such as this, Adorno maintains, throws light on those more overtly “incomprehensible” moments in Beethoven's music, such as the E minor theme in the development section of the first movement of the Eroica Symphony, or the secondary theme in the slow movement of the Piano Sonata in D Minor, op. 31, no. 2 (the “Tempest”).95
But if irony is a never-ending dialectic, what are we to make of a dialectic that does not begin until the eleventh hour and for which there is no rejoinder? What makes the coda of opus 95's finale particularly problematic is that it seems to serve no structural purpose: it is easy to imagine the quartet without this curious ending, for by the time we reach it there is nothing in the minor-mode section of the finale that seems to be missing, as the rondo has run its course with the requisite main theme and alternating episodes. Nor is there any sense of metamorphosis here at the end. We do not hear a reinterpretation in the major mode of a theme previously presented in the minor, as we do, for example, in the coda of the finale of opus 132; instead, we are presented with a theme that is entirely new. And perhaps most strikingly of all, there is no sense of back-and-forth, as in, say, the finale of opus 135, which alternates several times between a question (“Muss es sein?”) and its answer (“Es muss sein!”). Opus 95 offers contrast but no rejoinder, not even the semblance of a gesture toward synthesis.
This coda constitutes the equivalent of the quartet's “last words,” and Western culture has a long history of scrutinizing last words for heightened meaning, particularly if they are enigmatic. Because of its seemingly incongruous nature, we can can hear certain resonances between the end of opus 95 and the last words of Socrates as reported by Phaedo in the Platonic dialogue that bears his name. Phaedo tells us in some detail how the poison Socrates had consumed began to take effect, body part by body part. And then at the end comes this:
As his belly was getting cold Socrates uncovered his head—he had covered it—and said—these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget.”—“It shall be done,” said Crito, “tell us if there is anything else.” But there was no answer. Shortly afterwards Socrates made a movement; the man uncovered him and his eyes were fixed. Seeing this Crito closed his mouth and his eyes.96
Like the ending of opus 95, these dying words have evoked both admiration and scorn, both of which are summarized in a brief essay entitled “Irony” by the playwright August von Kotzebue, published in Berlin in 1806:
Irony is in fact a dangerous thing, for among a hundred persons there will always be ninety-nine who do not understand it but rather accept it in full seriousness. “Crito,” Socrates said at the hour of his death, “we owe a cock to Asclepius; pray do not forget to pay the debt.” Voltaire, Racine, and even our own Haller reproached this noblest of men for these words. It is incomprehensible, they say, that Socrates, the sworn enemy of all superstition, could die with such an absurdity on his lips. Other clever people, however, surmise—rightly, it seems to me—that Socrates, who was always a great friend of irony, was merely joking here as well. Whenever anyone had been rescued from grave danger, the Greeks used to use the expression “You owe Asclepius a cock.” … Voltaire, Racine, and Haller could have spared themselves their astonishment, for it is precisely this joke that demonstrates that the dying man stayed true to character even in death.97
More recent scholars have argued that Socrates's final words were actually meant quite seriously as a way of saying that death is a cure for the grave danger that is life.98 It is only fitting that the philosopher's final statement has been understood as both tragedy and comedy, profound and ludicrous, appropriate and out of place. And so it is with the ending of opus 95. As is true of any last words, there is no opportunity for follow-up. Is Beethoven being serious? To answer this question with “Yes and no” is neither evasive nor equivocal. From the perspectives of epistemological irony it can in fact be heard as both at the same time. And buffoonery has its place in this dynamic. As Friedrich Schlegel observed,
There are ancient and modern poems that throughout and at every turn breathe the divine breath of irony. In them there is a truly transcendental buffoonery. Inside: the frame of mind that surveys everything and that elevates itself infinitely above all that is conditional, including its own art, virtue, or ingenuity. Outside: in performance, the mimic manner of a typically good Italian buffo.99
Schlegel's account of irony in poetry reads uncannily like a description of Beethoven's opus 95, with its buffo-like ending, more than a decade before the fact. By these lights, the coda is not a revocation of all that has gone before, a “taking back” of the work in the spirit of Adrian Leverkühn's attempt in Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus to revoke Beethoven's Ninth, but rather a broadening of perspectives. Irony, to use Kenneth Burke's memorable phrase, is a “perspective of perspectives,” and its premises are “neither true nor false, but contributory.”100
Above and beyond all this, irony is consistent with Beethoven's growing interest around 1810 in Eastern philosophy and religion, a wave that was sweeping across Europe in general and Vienna in particular during the early decades of the nineteenth century.101 Once again, Friedrich Schlegel played a central role. His Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, a landmark in Orientalist studies, attracted widespread attention and was well received in Vienna.102 His treatise includes a chapter on “The Doctrine of Two Principles,” which emphasizes the dualism of life in the form of Yin and Yang. He saw in this dualism the historical origins of idealism: “All reality is the product of contradictory elements. … Duality is the character of all principles.”103 His account also stresses the need for a certain degree of detachment from the vicissitudes of life. These were sentiments that clearly appealed to Beethoven and that manifest themselves throughout his music, perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in opus 95 and more broadly in his later works in general.104
This reading of opus 95 as an essay in epistemological irony is supported by Beethoven's designation of the work as “Quartetto serioso.” While he omitted this unusual title for the published edition—perhaps on the grounds that it might discourage sales—he left it intact in the autograph score, and “serioso” is a revealing adjective indeed.
Modern-day Italian dictionaries point to two possible meanings of the word. In most contexts, it is understood as synonymous with “serio,” and at times even as an intensification of that word: extremely serious. But at other times, depending on the context, that intensification can go so far as to become hyperbolic. “Serioso” can thus indicate excessive seriousness, so demonstrative and ostentatious as to call into question the sincerity of its expression. Dictionaries of Beethoven's time do not transmit this second, less common layer of meaning, but its use in this sense is evident in a fair number of sources from the composer's era, including at least one in German, Der Melancholische, J. F. Jünger's 1795–96 free translation of Robert Sadler's Wanley Penson, or The Melancholy Man, a widely popular novel of sentiment originally published in London in 1791 (see the Appendix below). The relevant passage is a digression within a long meditation on the art of criticism. Penson is reminded of a scene he had once witnessed in a street involving three jackasses: one of them urinates and the other two linger over the results, taking in the smell at some length and giving the appearance of intense concentration. Penson calls these two “seriosos,” and Jünger's translation preserves the term while amplifying the aesthetic element implicit in the original. Jünger's version reads, “With the countenance of connoisseurs, the two seriosos inhaled the fumes of their esteemed colleague's evacuation. ‘What might lead them to do this?’ I asked myself. ‘What else?’ came the answer: ‘They are criticizing what their companion has done.’”105
Another German-language source comes from a calendar published in the 1720s, in which the month of February features “Signor Serioso,” a “famous dancing master and violinist of the Carnival band” (see Figure 1). The idea of a dwarf as dancing master is very much in the spirit of Carnival and its penchant for the mock-serious, role-playing, and the inversion of social hierarchies. The musical associations are especially appropriate here: cooking tools have been turned into a violin and bow, and while the motions of performance may be true to form, the sounds will be anything but.106 The figure is not “Signor Serio,” but rather “Signor Serioso.”
Beethoven appears to have had no precedent for applying this term to a work of music. He could easily have called opus 95 a “Quartetto serio,” using a form parallel to such constructions as “opera seria” and “aria seria,” yet he opted instead for “serioso.” While the composer's command of Italian is difficult to gauge,107 his several uses of the term over the course of his career make it clear that he was sensitive to its multiple shades of meaning. On some occasions it seems to have served as a synonym for “serio” (as in opus 95's third-movement Allegro assai vivace ma serioso), while on others it appears to have functioned as a marker of ostentatious seriousness. These uses may be summarized as follows:
In the earliest sketches for the Eroica Symphony, found in the Wielhorsky Sketchbook (1802–3), Beethoven labeled some brief incipits, unrelated to the eventual scherzo of the Eroica, with the heading “Menuetto serioso.” Both Kurt von Fischer and Lewis Lockwood have suggested that he may have used the term to indicate that this would be a weighty scherzo, without the standard implications of the label “scherzo,” whose root word, like its German equivalent (“Scherz”), means “joke.”108
In 1809 Beethoven made two settings of a text by Metastasio and published them back-to-back under the title “L'amante impaziente” in the five songs of opus 82. The first, op. 82, no. 3, is marked “Arietta buffa,” and the second, op. 82, no. 4, “Arietta assai seriosa.” It is striking that Beethoven should set the same text from two utterly different perspectives and publish the two settings side by side, the first exceedingly light and comic, the second exceedingly heavy and serious—or as he marked it, after much deliberation, “assai seriosa.” “Arietta seria” would have been the conventional choice of label, comparable to “Aria seria” and directly parallel to the preceding “Arietta buffa.” The autograph manuscript shows that Beethoven did in fact begin with the designation “Arietta seria” (see Figure 2). Dissatisified with this straightforward and conventional designation, however, he labored to find just the right way to suggest a reading of the work that takes the song's seriousness less than wholly seriously. He altered the heading to “Arietta un poco più seriosa” before finally settling on “Arietta assai seriosa,” with two further variants visible at the top of the page—“poco seriosa” (in ink) and “Arietta poco seria” (in red pencil). What, in the end, does “assai seriosa” mean in this context? “Rather serious”? “Serious enough”? “Very serious”? As Thomas Seedorf observes, the “assai” here points to the “typically ironic exaggeration” that Beethoven resorted to at times.109 Walter Dürr similarly hears a “dose of irony” in this overly sentimental setting, which seems all the more heavy-handed by virtue of its placement after a particularly clever, lighthearted setting of the same text.110 The final, waffling designation “Arietta assai seriosa” invites the listener to hear the work as either earnest or mocking—or as both at the same time. Such is the nature of irony: what we hear in this arietta is the same sort of seriousness that allowed some of Laurence Sterne's contemporaries to acclaim his Sentimental Journey through France and Italy as the ne plus ultra of the sentimental novel and others to regard it as a hilarious send-up of the genre.111
Variation 6 of the “Diabelli” Variations, op. 120, is marked “Allegro ma non troppo e serioso.” Once again, the music conveys a sense of overexaggeration. There is a gross disparity between energy expended and results achieved. The opening trill and the two-part imitation at the very start portend grandiosity, but the arpeggiated subject is so simple and so brief as to be laughable (see Example 3).112 The pianist Alfred Brendel, who has proposed an imaginative title for each variation in this set, calls this one “Trill Rhetorics (Demosthenes braving the surf),” which again points to exaggeration. Demosthenes is reported to have practiced his oratory while declaiming into the roaring surf, forcing himself to be heard above the din of the crashing waves.113 Brendel's image captures perfectly the sense of overexertion, of intentional excess.
In sketches for the String Quartet in E-flat Major op. 127, in the pocket sketchbook Artaria 205/4 (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), p. 24, Beethoven outlined a six-movement structure that included a fifth movement (“5tes Stück”) marked “serioso.” The brief incipit, a downward triadic outline in C major with dotted rhythms, is too brief to suggest possible motivations behind the use of the term in this context.114
In sketches for the String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132, in the sketchbook Autograph 11/2 (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), fol. 25v, Beethoven marked the incipit of the introduction to an ultimately rejected finale as “marcia serios[a] pathet[ica].” The theme moves in largely downward stepwise motion, with dotted rhythms figuring prominently, as in the incipit for the rejected fifth movement of opus 127. Once again, the material is too brief to support reasonable speculation as to the reasons behind the marking, but the fact that Beethoven was still mulling over the word “serioso” as late as 1824–25 is in itself noteworthy.115
For Beethoven, then, “serioso” could cut both ways: serious, or so serious as to be laughable. An incorrigible punster, Beethoven would no doubt have been attracted to the term because of its multiple meanings. To read opus 95 as an essay in epistemological irony is certainly consistent with Beethoven's well-documented predilection for sudden shifts of tone between high and low, both in words and in music. In his correspondence this is perhaps nowhere more strikingly evident than in an often-quoted letter of ca. 1798 to the work's eventual dedicatee, Baron Nikolaus von Zmeskall-Domanovecz (1759–1833), a minor Hungarian nobleman whom Beethoven would later call his “earliest friend in Vienna”:116
Dearest Baron Muckcart-driver,
Je vous suis bien obligé pour votre faiblesse de vos yeux—By the way, I forbid that my happy disposition, which I have from time to time, be taken from me in the future, for yesterday I became quite sad through all your Zmeskall-Domanoveczian blather; the Devil take you, I don't want to hear anything at all about your moral philosophy, Power is the morality of those who stand out from others, and it is mine as well. And if you start in on me again today, I shall pester you quite thoroughly until you find everything I do to be good and praiseworthy (for I am coming to the Swan even though I would prefer the Ox but that of course depends on your Zmeskallian-Domanoveczian decision). (reponse)
Adieu Baron Ba . … . ron r o n nor / orn / rno / onr /
(Voilà quelque chose from the pawnshop.)117
This letter, together with others like it, testifies to Beethoven's close and easygoing relationship with Zmeskall: it is full of inside jokes whose meanings are not at all clear to outsiders. It also reflects the composer's penchant for juxtaposing the serious and the comic. Some critics consider Beethoven's assertion that “Kraft ist die Moral der Menschen, die sich vor andern auszeichnen” (power is the morality of those who stand out from others) as the composer's “Wahlspruch,” or “life-motto,” while others dismiss it as a meaningless, facetious posturing of the moment.118 Zmeskall was in any case at the center of the “small circle of connoisseurs” for whom Beethoven had written opus 95. This was no abstract, imagined gathering but an actual circle of friends who met with some regularity to play quartets in the home of Zmeskall, who by all accounts was an outstanding cellist.119 The banker and violinist Johann Baptist von Häring (ca. 1761–1818), who fashioned the English of Beethoven's letter to Smart in 1816, belonged to this circle as well.120 Presumably these private soirees included discussions of the music being performed, and it is easy to imagine at least one of the performers in this intimate circle, having played or heard opus 95 for the first time, asking the composer to explain this curious coda. This is, after all, an ending whose obscurity provokes questions.
In 1810, the year in which Beethoven wrote his “Serioso” quartet, Ignaz Theodor Ferdinand Arnold published his “Gallery of the Most Famous Musicians of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” which ignores Beethoven but has this to say about the music of Haydn:
There is no musical idea, be it ever so simple or ornate, that would not become interesting through inversion, fragmentation, transposition, and similar such devices. Sureness and facility in the arts of counterpoint, supported by an inexhaustible imagination, lead the ear unexpectedly into wildernesses and depths, where it gladly follows such sure guidance and for which it is always richly rewarded. Haydn does this like a clever orator, who, when he wants to convince us of something, proceeds from the basis of a statement that is universally recognized to be true, one with which everyone agrees, one that everyone must be able to understand; but he knows so cunningly just how to use this statement that he can soon convince us of anything he wishes, even if it is the very opposite of the statement originally proposed.
Haydn's music enters our ears quite smoothly, for we have a sense that we are hearing something that is easily grasped and already familiar to us. But we soon find that it is not, nor is becoming, what we thought it was or what we thought it should become. We hear something new, and we marvel at the master who knew so cleverly how to offer us, under the guise of the well known, something never heard before. Precisely this endearing popularity gives his compositions—for all the richness of their harmony and instrumentation—an inexhaustible clarity, general intelligibility, and comprehensibility so that we grasp the most difficult things with ease.121
No one ever talked about Beethoven's music in this way. A Viennese reviewer writing in 1806 expressed disappointment that the composer's more recent works for piano did not live up to the expectations established by such earlier publications as the Piano Trios op. 1: “In his conspicuous eagerness to be entirely novel, Beethoven is not infrequently incomprehensible, incoherent, and opaque.”122 “Artful popularity” and “popular artfulness,” by contrast, were constants in the reception of Haydn's music. Even when he thwarted listeners’ expectations—as he often did—Haydn operated within the traditional parameters of rhetoric, taking care to resolve moments of ambiguity or potential confusion. The finale of the String Quartet in E-flat Major op. 33, no. 2, for example, famously plays with listeners’ assumptions about how pieces end. The crucial difference between this unconventional ending and Beethoven's in opus 95 is that while Haydn's listeners are left feeling amused (or not), they are not left feeling puzzled. Haydn gives us the whole joke, punch line and all, and we understand it. There is no conundrum here, at least not on the surface. Haydn engages his listeners without mystifying them.123
Beethoven's critics, on the other hand, repeatedly called what we now think of as his early- and middle-period works difficult to understand if not incomprehensible.124 Whereas Haydn won praise for his synthesis of “artful popularity” and “popular artfulness,” Beethoven had been rebuked as early as 1798 for his “obscure artfulness or artful obscurity.”125 He recognized early on that many listeners found his music difficult, yet he accepted this verdict. As he wrote to the piano maker Andreas Streicher in 1796, “I am satisifed even if only a few understand me.”126
E. T. A. Hoffmann confronted Beethoven's reputed incomprehensibility in a radically new way—at least for the field of music—in 1813:
Beethoven's powerful genius oppresses the musical rabble, which vainly seeks to rebel against it. … But what if it is simply your weak perception that causes the deep inner coherence of every Beethovenian composition to escape you? What if it is entirely because of you that you do not understand the language of the master, which is intelligible to the initiated but which leaves the portals of the innermost sanctuary closed to you?127
Hoffmann incorporated similar comments into his 1813 review of the opus 70 piano trios, noting near the end of his long account that “many not altogether bad musicians complain about the incomprehensibility of Beethoven's compositions, and even of Mozart's; but this is due to a subjective imbecility that does not permit them to grasp and retain the whole in its parts. For this reason they always praise in weak compositions their great clarity.”128 The issue here is not simply the competency of critics (easy enough to disparage), for Hoffmann goes out of his way to point out that those who find Beethoven's music incomprehensible include musicians who are “not altogether bad.” The problem, rather, is the framework within which such critics approach music in general: it is only those who listen with presumptions of clarity and intelligibility who find Beethoven's music incomprehensible.
Two years later Amadeus Wendt (1783–1836), a professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig, addressed “charges of difficulty and incomprehensibility” at greater length in an essay entitled “New Music, and Beethoven's Music, Particularly his Fidelio.”129 Wendt was not an unabashed admirer of Beethoven, in no small part because of the challenging nature of his music; he nevertheless concluded his comments on the matter with the following: “For it is the true indicator of great works that they satisfy us even more when enjoyed repeatedly, and that they furnish ever richer enjoyment through contemplation of the infinite beauty that encompasses the whole, just as the observant eye always finds and discovers multiple worlds in the cloudless sky.”130 Later generations would find such an assertion unremarkable, yet for its time, together with Hoffmann's more dramatic formulation of 1813 (“what if it is simply your weak perception that causes the deep inner coherence of every Beethovenian composition to escape you?”), Wendt's position on incomprehensibility points to a sea change in the aesthetics of listening. The idea that some works cannot be judged until they have been heard multiple times was by no means self-evident in Beethoven's lifetime. Not until the second decade of the nineteenth century do we begin to sense the first signs of what would eventually amount to a fundamental shift in critical attitudes toward the broader phenomenon of incomprehensibility in music. Whereas earlier critics had seen it as a defect, at least some were now prepared to concede that what seemed at first unfathomable might, with repeated listenings, make more sense.
From Rhetoric to Hermeneutics
What Hoffmann and Wendt were describing reflects the beginnings of a paradigm shift in assumptions about the relationship between composers and listeners. Under the paradigm of rhetoric, the burden of intelligibility fell on the composer. Under the paradigm of hermeneutics, the burden of comprehension fell on the listener.
These contrasting paradigms fostered very different modes of listening. Both are implicit in Ignaz Seyfried's account of the piano “duel” between Beethoven and Joseph Wölfl that took place in Vienna in 1799. Even in his improvisations, as Seyfried recounts, Beethoven compelled listeners to rise to his level, for his “language” was that of “mystical Sanskrit … whose hieroglyphs can be read only by the intiated.” Wölfl, by contrast, “trained in the school of Mozart, was always equable; never superficial but always clear and thus more accessible to the multitude. … He always enlisted the interest of his hearers and inevitably compelled them to follow the progression of his well-ordered ideas.”131 Seyfried's account appeared more than thirty years after the event and thus may not be as reliable as we might wish in issues of detail, but the salient point here is his categorical distinction between techniques of improvisation that are readily comprehensible (Wölfl's) and those that are not (Beethoven's).
Beethoven's approach to improvisation carried over into his notated music, as witnessed by the repeated charges of obscurity and incomprehensibility. Old habits of listening died hard: a year after the composer's death the critic Ernst Woldemar challenged the editors of Cäcilia to acknowledge that Beethoven's last works were the product of a declining imagination, accelerated by growing deafness. Drawing on the standards of classical oratory, Woldemar maintained that
Beethoven, in his last compositions, has no longer given even the slightest consideration to the Horatian law “sit quodvis, simplex duntaxat et unum” (what you undertake to create should at the very least be simple and whole), which applies to all the fine arts; he writes … into the wide blue beyond, without concern for what or how it will all turn out.132
Woldemar's appeal to the dictates of Horace is revealing, for it highlights the presumed coupling of clarity with effect and contrasts sharply with the approach of a growing number of his contemporaries, who by the late 1820s were willing to grant the benefit of the doubt to composers of works that were less than immediately clear and intelligible.
Nowhere is this new paradigm of listening more striking than in the often-cited anonymous review of a performance of the String Quartet in B-flat Major op. 130 that appeared in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in May 1826. Well disposed toward the quartet as a whole, the critic called the work's finale (later published separately as the Große Fuge, op. 133) “incomprehensible, like Chinese,” noting, “When the instruments have to struggle with enormous difficulties in the regions of the South and North Poles, when each of them presents a different figuration and crosses the others per transitum irregularem amid countless dissonances, when the players, suspicious of each other, do not attack entirely cleanly: then truly the Babylonian confusion has been consummated.”133 Yet this same critic, having accused Beethoven of writing in what amounts to a foreign language, goes on to concede that “we do not want to dismiss things too hastily. Perhaps the time will come when that which at first sight seemed to us opaque and muddled will be recognized as clear and pleasing forms.”134
By the late 1820s a new relationship between composers and listeners had become the norm rather than being the exception. Critics were now open to the idea that incomprehensibility could no longer be dismissed outright as a defect. “The incomprehensible,” as the critic (Johann Friedrich?) von Weiler noted in an essay on Beethoven's music in 1828, is rooted in the “infinity of poetic genius.”135 And after a performance of the Ninth Symphony in Vienna in February 1828 an anonymous reviewer observed that
We are gradually beginning to learn how to disentangle the threads of this artful musical fabric; its miraculous outlines step forth ever more clearly, and scarcely a couple of short years will have passed before this gigantic work will be as generally known and understood as its predecessors [i.e., Beethoven's earlier symphonies], which at the time of their appearance were also decried as the equivalent of Egyptian hieroglyphs.136
Within a few years of Beethoven's death, then, the assumed relationship between composers and listeners had changed in fundamental ways. For the first time in the history of music, listeners were expected to work. It was no longer enough to be merely attentive (“aufmerksam”): listeners now had to engage their own imaginations and meet composers on a higher level of thought.137
This new way of thinking about the relationship between composers and listeners owes much to a corresponding reconfiguration of the relationship between authors and readers that had been advocated some two decades earlier by a number of prominent philosophers and critics, most notably, once again, Friedrich Schlegel, who identified two types of author, one “analytic,” the other “synthetic”:
The analytic author observes the reader as he is and makes his assessment accordingly, applying his machinery to produce the requisite effect. The synthetic author constructs and creates for himself a reader as he should be; he imagines him not as static and dead, but as alive and reciprocating. He allows that which he has created to appear step-by-step before the reader's eyes, or he entices him to create it himself. He has no wish to create a specific effect on him, but rather joins with him in the holy relationship of the innermost Symphilosophie or Sympoesie.138
For Schlegel, the “analytic” author operates within what we can recognize as a rhetorical framework, taking into account the capacities of an anticipated audience within the parameters of rhetorical decorum.139 The “synthetic” author, by contrast, operates within an oracular framework and creates a work with the expectation that the reader must actively engage with the proffered text in order not only to make sense of it but to extend its potential. Author and reader together thereby enter into a “holy relationship” based on a process of reciprocal philosophizing or poeticizing. From the reader's perspective, this goes beyond what we would today call hermeneutics. Symphilosophie creates an even more fluid dynamic, an ongoing dialogue of creative spirits in which criticism becomes a creative enterprise in its own right, one that includes readers as well as authors, and by extension listeners as well as composers.140 “The true reader,” Novalis asserted, “must be the extended author.”141 Or as Friedrich Schlegel put it, “True criticism is an author raised to the second power.”142
To paraphrase Schlegel, we might well say that Beethoven was seeking to create for himself listeners as they should be, to set in motion an experience in which the listener is “alive and reciprocating,” not merely passive and receptive, or “static and dead,” to use Schlegel's even more graphic formulation. In this way, Beethoven was moving in step with those literary figures of his generation who perceived it as their duty to engage with and elevate those who might be open to such an approach.143 They accomplished this at least in part by presenting texts that made immediate and substantial demands on their readers, and irony was an important means of creating such demands.144 Literary critic Gary Handwerk has pointed to numerous works of this period that “utilize an interruptive structure similar to parabasis in their abrupt shifts from one narrative level to another, from fairy tale or fantasy or dream to realism and back again,” citing as examples Friedrich Schlegel's novel Lucinde, Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Brentano's fairy tales, and E. T. A. Hoffmann's novellas and short stories.145 Beethoven's late works reflect a corresponding development in music. Irony—often misunderstood—and its correlative, incomprehensibility, played major roles in this aesthetic.
Critics and scholars have routinely interpreted the increasingly difficult nature of Beethoven's late music as a reflection of his growing indifference toward listeners and a turn inward. Whatever their merits, such accounts ignore the newfound prestige of incomprehensibility in the aesthetics of his time and place. Within the parameters of the rhetorical tradition, incomprehensibility (obscuritas) had long been regarded as a defect. But over time a growing number of critics, including Lessing, Herder, and Friedrich Schlegel, came to regard artful incomprehensibility as a hermeneutic provocation, a challenge to interpretation, an incitement to readers to engage purposefully with difficult texts.146 By these lights, clarity was no longer a quality to be embraced without reservation, and incomprehensibility—Unverständlichkeit—no longer one to be avoided at all costs.
Friedrich Schlegel's widely discussed (and widely misunderstood) essay “On Incomprehensibility” (“Über die Unverständlichkeit”), of 1800, served as the manifesto of this new outlook. It was in effect the coda to a literary finale, the last salvo in what the Schlegel brothers had determined would be the final issue of Athenäum, the journal they had founded, coedited, and to a great extent coauthored over the previous three years. The essay defies easy description or characterization: it embodies Schlegel's ideal of the synthetic author, for it challenges readers to make sense of its difficult prose and sometimes dizzying line of argumentation. It enacts its own subject, claiming at times not to be ironic when seemingly full of irony, and at other times to be ironic when seemingly straightforward. “Comprehensibility” and “incomprehensibility,” as Schlegel both argues and demonstrates, are relative terms, and our understanding of the universe rests on the incomprehensibility of its chaos. Unverständlichkeit is not a product of Unverstand—a lack of understanding—but rather an index of deeper insight into the shallowness of what is too often perceived as clarity. The prose takes surprising twists and turns and ends with a poem of Schlegel's own—a gloss on Goethe's poem “Beherzigung”—that he hopes “one of our outstanding composers will find worthy of providing with a musical accompaniment.” For “there is nothing more beautiful on earth,” he concludes in an apparent non sequitur (for music had up to this point not been mentioned at all), than “poetry and music working together in beloved union to ennoble mankind.”147
Schlegel was not alone in recognizing the chimeric nature of clarity and the depths revealed by the incomprehensible. His brother August Wilhelm had identified nature itself as the paradigm of unfathomability (“Unergründlichkeit”) and the artistic genius as an “image in miniature” of natura naturans, of nature in its most creative state.148 As he observed on another occasion, “it is precisely from obscurity that the magic of life derives,” an obscurity “in which the root of our being becomes lost” and that produces an “inexhaustible secret. This is the soul of all poetry.”149 Schiller famously called Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre “calm and deep, clear and yet incomprehensible, like nature itself.”150 And Novalis's unfinished Die Lehrlinge zu Sais, brought to press posthumously by Tieck and Schlegel in 1802, opens with an extended meditation on acceptance of the incomprehensible as the means by which to gain a deeper understanding of the universe. Adam Müller's 1808 essay on Aristophanes likewise endorsed the value of incomprehensibility as an engine of insight. All these writers distinguished between incomprehensibility as a product of mere authorial incompetence, and incomprehensibility as a product of authorial imagination, depth, and agility.151 In Brian Tucker's memorable phrase, it is in early German Romanticism that the riddle moves “from an irritant to an ideal.”152
It is thus not surprising that literary hermeneutics should enjoy its first modern flowering in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Hermeneutics was by no means a new discipline at the time, but Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834) was instrumental in establishing it in its modern form. He insisted that all texts—not just difficult ones—are susceptible to misunderstanding and thus in need of interpretation, and in his interpretation of biblical texts he established a methodology by which to examine the matrix of the capacities of language, the historical position of the author, and the relationship between the parts and the whole of the text at hand.
Hermeneutics presumes a quality of depth in the object of contemplation; it assumes categorically that there is more to any given work than what appears on its surface. The application of these assumptions to music in the first half of the nineteenth century, above all to instrumental music and particularly in German-speaking lands, reflects a major shift in thought about the very nature of the art.153 Schleiermacher's methodology could be—and was—applied to texts of all kinds, including music, as Ian Bent has demonstrated in his examination of E. T. A. Hoffmann's lengthy 1810 review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.154 The range and detail of Hoffmann's analysis were without precedent at the time, but the demand for such accounts had been growing over the previous decades. Periodicals aimed at music lovers had begun to proliferate in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that one of them, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig, established in 1799, was able to succeed as a long-running venture. This is a testimony in part to the quality of the journal, in part to the market conditions of a readership that had reached critical mass. Hoffmann's account may be the most sophisticated and extensive review of its kind published during Beethoven's lifetime, but it is by no means an anomaly, for it is one of many responses to the public's growing acceptance of the idea that listeners have an obligation to come to terms with the new music they are hearing. The challenge was all the greater when it came to instrumental music, as vocal works offered a ready-made point of access in their texts, whereas untexted music could not be so readily deciphered. And it is around 1800 that the phrase “understanding music” (“Musik verstehen”) first appears in connection with listeners.155
It was incomprehensibility, as literary critic Robert S. Leventhal has argued, that proved to be the “hinge of hermeneutics,” for it is “precisely through the provocation and failure of hermeneutics” that “the interpretive task is most pressing.”156 Two distinctly different critical approaches toward incomprehensibility arose in the early years of the nineteenth century. Schleiermacher's hermeneutics—continued by Wilhelm Dilthey, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and others—assumed the integrity of a text as an integrated whole and sought to eliminate incomprehensibility to the fullest extent possible.157 Friedrich Schlegel's destabilizing, disintegrative hermeneutics, by contrast, considered the incomprehensible a spur to interpretation but saw it as ultimately inescapable, insurmountable, and immune to any totalizing “answer” or “solution.” This approach went largely underground in the nineteenth century (with the exception of Nietzsche) and for a good part of the twentieth but reemerged in the work of such diverse critics as Walter Benjamin, Adorno, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Stanley Fish.
The Path to the Late Style
Epistemological irony and incomprehensibility together offer an alternative to the Hegelian dialectics so often invoked in analyses of Beethoven's music, particularly the late works, in which surface ruptures and contrasts of tone become increasingly prevalent. By approaching Beethoven's late music from this perspective we can understand its often jarring juxtapositions not as a self-critique of his earlier styles but rather as a means of provoking us to listen in a way that encourages a perpetual oscillation between opposites.
The driving forces behind the changes in Beethoven's music from about 1817 onward are numerous and complex and need not be rehearsed here. Leaving aside the fraught issue of the very concept of “late style,” there can be no question that many factors contributed directly or indirectly to those features that we now consider characteristic of the works written in the composer's final decade.158 These include his growing deafness and declining health, his sense of impending death, his increasing social isolation, his disillusionment with the political scene, the legal and personal turmoils associated with the guardianship of his nephew, and his growing interest in earlier compositional styles and in counterpoint. What gets lost in narratives of this period, however, is an even more fundamental shift in attitude, one whereby Beethoven moved farther and farther away from the long-standing premise of music as a rhetorical art, an art, that is, in which it is the responsibility of the composer to reach the listener. What we find in the later years, adumbrated in the coda of opus 95, is an approach that confronted listeners increasingly with music they perceived to be ironic, incomprehensible, or both.
It is in the late style that the principles of rhetoric give way to the principles of hermeneutics: rhetoric is the work of the composer, hermeneutics the work of the listener, and it was now up to listeners to interpret what the composer had put before them. By the last decade of his life Beethoven was himself oscillating across works, across movements of a work, and at times even within a single movement of a work between two different compositional approaches, one rhetorical, the other oracular, opaque, enigmatic, open to—indeed, demanding—interpretation.
Recent attempts to come to grips with Beethoven's late style almost invariably center on issues of coherence and dissociation, on the relationship between what Dahlhaus called the “rhapsodic laceration of the surface” and a presumed “network of latent relationships.”159 And while principles such as organicism and unity no longer enjoy the prestige they once did, they remain basic to analysis. As Kofi Agawu points out, “to fail to advance an explanation for coherence is tantamount to listing ingredients without indicating how they are to be mixed.” At the same time, while “few analysts have taken it upon themselves to prove that a piece of tonal music is unified[,] fewer still have attempted to demonstrate the absence of unity in a tonal piece.”160
How, then, do we explain the internal contradictions in Beethoven's late works? Adorno heard them as gestures of self-critique, a reflection of the composer's realization that the synthesizing forces of his earlier works were no longer sustainable:
The late Beethoven's demand for truth rejects the illusory appearance of the unity of subjective and objective, a concept practically at one with the classicist idea. A polarization results. Unity transcends into the fragmentary. In the last quartets this takes place by means of the rough, unmediated juxtaposition of callow aphoristic motifs and polyphonic complexes. The gap between the two becomes obvious and makes the impossibility of aesthetic harmony into the aesthetic content of the work; makes failure in the highest sense a measure of success.161
Edward Said, building on Adorno's readings, observed that the late works represent “a moment when the artist who is fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship with it. His late works constitute a form of exile.”162 Julian Johnson, in turn, has noted that
The late works are not concerned with forging a new style, construed in a shallowly modernistic fashion, but precisely with questioning the propositions of an older one. The result, in the late sonatas and late quartets, is a kind of linguistic self-consciousness that constantly interrogates and tests its own assumptions. This music advances musical propositions only to instantly negate them and presents musical materials only to reveal their conventionality. It mixes up the trivial and the profound, the serious and the humorous, the highly complex and the utterly simple, the logical and the contingent. Above all, it undermines the grammar of linear and directed motion on which the Classical style is predicated, unfolding movements in a kind of plural logic marked by frequent caesurae and apparently arbitrary changes of direction. Such a radically self-critical music goes to the heart of modernity.163
Alienation, fragmentation, inwardness, isolation, autonomy: all of these reinforce the need for hermeneutics and play a deservedly important role in our attempts to understand this strange and difficult music. Yet we lose something if we view the last decade of Beethoven's life as one in which he was essentially in communion only with himself. Beethoven was too deeply steeped in the rhetorical tradition to have abandoned decorum altogether within a few short years, and perceptions of incomprehensibility in his music were proliferating long before the advent of what we now think of as his late style.
Beethoven's outlook during his final decade, in other words, was not entirely inward. He lived in a period of transition between two eras of musical production and consumption governed by the fundamentally different principles of rhetoric and hermeneutics. The latter has since dictated the default manner of listening: it grants deference and accords agency and autonomy to the creative artist. This at any rate is how we tend to distinguish “serious” composers from those who continue to take their audiences into account and (as Adorno would have it) pander to the culture industry. Beethoven is known to have done just this from time to time (for example, in Wellingtons Sieg, op. 91), and it is this portion of his output that critics have deplored so roundly and for so long. By this line of reasoning, the “true” Beethoven emerges in the late works when he writes, in effect, for himself.164
But the idea of the late works as music turned inward upon itself— “radically self-critical”—although valid enough in one sense, discourages thinking about this repertory as one still based at least in part on the older premises of rhetoric, a tradition deeply embedded not only in Beethoven's own personal education and profession but in the musical enterprise of his entire generation, which relied to an unprecedented degree on the sale of music on the open market. To the extent that Beethoven took into account the competencies and expectations of listeners in opus 95 and in other “incomprehensible” works or passages of later years, he did so in order to move them beyond those competencies and expectations. The rhetorical principle of decorum as applied to anticipated listeners is, after all, impossible to avoid entirely: even the “synthetic” composer observes it by taking into account what those listeners—at least those beyond “a small circle of connoisseurs”—will not understand. In his late works, then, it is not so much his own earlier style that Beethoven is criticizing as the traditional framework within which he had written those works—which is to say, the framework of rhetoric, whereby it is the composer's responsibility to make his ideas comprehensible. Through repeated and increasingly frequent juxtapositions of the profound and the trivial, the serious and the slapstick, Beethoven in effect moved from writing within a framework oriented toward rhetoric to writing within one oriented toward hermeneutics, though neither is wholly absent at any given moment in his output. In this sense, the works of his final decade intensify and extend techniques that critics had been hearing in Beethoven's music almost from the start.
Friedrich Schlegel's epistemological irony and destabilizing approach to hermeneutics thus provide a contemporaneous philosophical basis for Agawu's insights that “an aesthetic rooted in conflict holds the greatest potential for unraveling the secrets of late Beethoven” and that the late works uphold a fundamental “dissonance between … domains,” retaining contrast as a premise. Agawu suggests that
we might modify a formulation of Adorno's, and say that the late style is concerned with the irreconcilability of dialectical opposites (in contrast to their reconcilability in the second-style period). But we could also conclude that the analytically perceived dissonance is, in fact, a conceptual consonance. This last formulation would satisfy a certain aesthetic bias for unity and higher-level consonances. At that level of the discussion, however, the subject would no longer be music, but words.165
While Schlegel would have resisted the notion of “conceptual consonance,” he would surely have welcomed the critical response—in words—provoked by Beethoven's music. It is this sort of move from perception to contemplation to critique that gave Schlegel reason to believe that all the arts, including music, could in their own way articulate philosophical issues not accessible through language. By altering the focus of our critical engagement from the text to our response to that text, Schlegel's hermeneutics provide a basis not only for his beloved notion of Symphilosophie but also for the broader early Romantic agenda of critique as a means of progressive thought.
By the 1820s enthusiasm for irony and incomprehensibility in the arts had largely passed.166 In the wake of the Restoration the aesthetic aspirations of an earlier time now struck many as overly idealistic if not naive. Friedrich Schlegel himself had become a diplomat and publicist in the service of Metternich's regime and was no longer producing provocative new theories of literature, while August Wilhelm Schlegel had decamped to the court of the crown prince of Sweden and from there to the University of Bonn. Even Fichte had moved away from his antifoundationalist stance by the time of his death in 1814.167 Hegel, who in the meantime had emerged as Germany's preeminent philosopher, dismissed irony altogether in the introduction to his lectures on aesthetics, identifying Friedrich Schlegel by name and berating him at some length in a tone of thinly veiled personal hostility.168 “Irony,” Hegel declared on another occasion, “is a play with everything. … Every high and divine truth disintegrates into nothingness (vulgarity); everything that is serious is at the same time a joke.”169
The intense discourse on irony and incomprehensibility in the first decade of the nineteenth century in Vienna had nevertheless left its mark on Beethoven. His music reflects an aesthetic that embraces these qualities and their attendant impact on the relationship between authors and readers, composers and listeners. He began his career as an analytic composer; more than any other composer of his generation he became a synthetic one. Both tendencies are evident to varying degrees throughout his career, but the increasing move toward the synthetic helps explain many of the more puzzling anomalies of his later works, including the Missa solemnis, which Adorno famously called an “Alienated Magnum Opus” and struggled to integrate into his understanding of the late style.170 What the Missa solemnis lacks is precisely those qualities related to irony that are basic to so many of the later works. Beethoven's unusual note at the head of a manuscript of the Kyrie—“From the heart, may it go to the heart”171—can be read as a notice that the Missa solemnis is in effect an irony-free zone.
Adorno also struggled with the Ninth Symphony, a work in that most public of all instrumental genres. Responding to its triumphant nature, he called the Ninth “not a late work, but a reconstruction of the classical Beethoven.” To his mind, only portions of the last two movements could be reconciled with the late style.172 Yet Beethoven's contemporaries clearly heard—and were puzzled by—the frequent contrasts of tone, and most of all in the finale. An anonymous reviewer commenting on a performance in Leipzig in 1826 opined that the last movement “takes place entirely in the unfortunate dwellings of those who have been banished from heaven. It is as if the spirits of the underworld were celebrating a Festival of Mockery aimed at everything that can be called human joy. With enormous strength, the dangerous throng entered to shred the human heart and turn to grey the divine sparks with wildly noisy, monstrous derision.”173 A reviewer in the Berliner Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, also writing in 1826, observed that the finale sings of joy “in the most bizarre manner” and that the way in which the voices are introduced is “grotesque.” “How,” this reviewer asks, “could someone who has grasped so profoundly Goethe's spirit in Egmont provide such a trivial introduction to Schiller's hymn?”174
Nor can we ascribe such responses to poor performances or to the uninformed judgments of the musically unsophisticated. After hearing a performance of the Ninth conducted by her brother in Cologne in 1836, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel called the work a “colossal tragedy with an ending that should be dithyrambic but that pivots at its peak toward its opposite extreme, burlesque.”175 Her brother concurred, confessing in a letter to Gustav Droysen a year later that although the “instrumental movements belong to the greatest that I know in the art [of music], I, too, do not understand it from the point at which the voices enter.”176 “Isolated flashes of genius” notwithstanding, Louis Spohr considered the work's first three movements “worse than all the previous eight symphonies,” the finale “monstrous and tasteless,” “trivial” in its treatment of Schiller's text.177 By these criteria, the Ninth is indeed a late work.
In short, the paradoxes of the late style are there not to be resolved, at least not in ways that can be considered definitive and final. Rather, they serve as provocations to ongoing critical engagement. Having read repeated accounts of the “incomprehensibility” of his music, Beethoven at some point began to rethink the fundamental nature of the relationship between composers and listeners, and in the finale of opus 95 he pushed the qualities of irony and incomprehensibility to an unprecedented extreme, one he would rarely again approach in such a concentrated fashion. He harbored no illusions about the difficulties that this work—particularly its ending—would pose for listeners. Written for a “small circle of connoisseurs,” it had (and still has) the potential to expand membership in that group, even more than two hundred years after the fact. For if, as Hugh Macdonald suggests, the ending of opus 95 is Beethoven's way of punching us on the nose, it is not with contempt but with the intention of making us more active, more thoughtful, more responsive listeners. And if in the end we find that the coda remains incomprehensible, we can perhaps imagine that this was a response that Beethoven—channeling the aesthetics of Friedrich Schlegel and his literary compatriots—would have welcomed.
Examples of the term “serioso” used in the sense of overly serious or mock-serious, 1725–1829 (relevant phrases are set in boldface)