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Webster Aitken on Late Beethoven · An Essay












At left: Photo of Webster Aitken by Thomas Turner (used with his kind permission)

Webster Aitken on Late Beethoven


“Late Beethoven, as a concept, conveys to the musician a particular kind of tonal temperature, weather or season, just as surely as the idea of December or midsummer imprints an image of appropriate seasonal characteristics on the consciousness of any observer.  To define this temperature, to note what visibility and atmospheric conditions prevail in this tonal region, is, of course, to play the works themselves.  I propose here but to enumerate a handful of devices that flavour the element in which they abound so strangely and so characteristically.


   “To be noted first of all is a preoccupation with the writing of fugues – not fugues in the interlocked knot-garden-like sense of the Baroque masters – but great sprawling affairs that writhe and twist like crocodiles in a Louisiana bayou; or smart granitic chunks barricading the nests of barbed wire the easy flow and progress of the sound.  In each of these last pianoforte works there is an out-cropping of fugal sections, like geological strata, heaved into sight by intense upper turmoil.  In spite of their grandeur and visionary power, the earlier sonatas display no such fugual cataclysms.


   “Another time-honored procedure that undergoes the most violent disturbance of its history at the hands of Beethoven in this period is the theme and variation formula.  Beethoven’s discretion in avoiding use of the term “variation” is not only caution, but tacit confirmation that these variations will transcend their subject matter to such an extent as to be no longer recognizable as such.  The concrete theme with which in each instance Beethoven begins, climbs by many devious paths and circuitous routes to a final dissolution, to a final hovering on the fringe of soundlessness.  There were to be other types of variation in time to come but they add little to the techniques that Beethoven evolved in the course of this long arduous – and private – struggle with his God.


   “Here then are the three salient items by means of which one is enabled to plot the curve of this special musical weather – “tempest to the South” – or “great halcyon days ahead.” There are, of course, other peculiarities of writing that merit close attention such as the occurrence of wide blank spaces, pinned together by a single tone on either end; or sudden plunges and leaps that the ear is apt to miss unless the performer strains to lay bare the backbone of continuity that supports such whims and (what in other composers would certainly be) folly.


   “Perhaps the most dramatic invention of this late phase is the transformation of the simple trill to a new order of function.  The alteration of two tones to give the illusion of sustained sound on keyboard instruments is an ancient and moss-grown platitude.  Here it becomes a veritable seething aorta, contributing substances to the whole tonal organism, spewing fire and flame and just generally raising Hell!  Any student who has grappled with these passages will admit a similarity to Leviathan who, reputedly, was furnished with row upon row of teeth.


   “There is no room to go into details of performance: to attempt to describe, say, how one sets about encompassing the clean C major of Opus 111 or Opus 120 – or the savage energy of the B-flat major that the recipe calls for in Opus 106 – or the incandescent gayety of A major in Opus 101 – or the celestial light of E major in Opus 109, where “die Mater Gloriosa schwebt einher,” to quote a stage direction by Goethe.  These works are so tightly packaged that is a source of endless delight to pay head in the course of performance to the exquisite rarities and wonders that line every main avenue of thought.  It is in drawing attention to these delights, as well as discoursing the principle matter with wit, wisdom and clarity, that the artist is concerned.  The sum total of his achievements as a person and artist is on display in a light that is merciless, true, but at the same time challenging and stimulating: some of us prefer to be shown no other.”


            Reprinted by kind permission of Delos Music International

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