This article shows how discourse on Beethoven's late works has been underpinned by material fascination with the composer's body, most apparent in the cult veneration of his dying face, which was commodified in the form of his mask. From 1890 to 1920 in Germany and Austria, Beethoven's mask became a ubiquitous item of decor for the music room, a devotional object linked with the face of Christ in the popular imagination. This mislabeled “death” mask was cast during Beethoven's lifetime, a stoic visage that put a face to the legend: that is, to the legendary 1868 account by Anselm Hüttenbrenner that recounted Beethoven's death as a heroic battle with the storm clouds. Two conflicting physiognomies—the stubborn Napoleonic commander and the suffering Christ-like redeemer—led to a critical divide that saw late works as either transcendent of, or marred by, suffering. When we unmask a prehistory of late style, we see how modern discourse on lateness still orbits around this tension between the spiritual and material, between transcendence and decay, and how this critical tradition crystallized around Theodor W. Adorno's stark resistance to the transcendent deathbed that was epitomized by the writings of Ludwig Nohl. Lateness, then, has a hidden backbone in a popular fascination with the artist's body. This same fascination led many to imagine Beethoven's final compositions as almost tangible traces of his person, hearing his late Adagios as “grave-songs,” as the composer's dying voice.
Beethoven's Mask and the Physiognomy of Late Style
Abigail Fine is an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Oregon. Her research focuses on cultural history, celebrity, and materiality in Germany and Austria. Her current monograph project explores how the widespread fascination with composers' earthly traces, such as relics and pilgrimage sites, shaped the reception of their music.
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Abigail Fine; Beethoven's Mask and the Physiognomy of Late Style. 19th-Century Music 1 March 2020; 43 (3): 143–169. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2020.43.3.143
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