On Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op.132

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Stanley Corngold, Yellow Barn's Writer in Residence, offers these remarks about Beethoven's Op.132:

When I was in high school, many years ago, my brother Noel, who was to become an eminent physicist, was commuting from our home in Brooklyn to Columbia University. His new status as an undergraduate brought about an immediate increase in literacy in our household. Noel read the required Great Books on the subway, books that he then brought home, thinking it would do me no harm to add a title or two to my Lafayette High School reading list, which consisted of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, a much abridged Macbeth, and Giants in the Earth, by O.E. Rolvaag—the last named not an obvious choice of required reading for incipient Brooklyn policemen, firemen, and meter-readers, since it described the struggle of Norse Calvinists on the windy plains of North Dakota.

In this way, a copy of Aldous Huxley's novel Point Counterpoint came into my hands, with some far-reaching consequences. In a remarkable scene, one Maurice Spandrell, a nihilist out of Dostoyevsky, invites Mark Rampion, a D.H. Lawrence knockoff, to listen to a gramophone recording of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Opus 132. The third movement is prefaced with the words, "A Sacred Song of Thanks to God, on the Recovery [of My Health], in the Lydian Mode." "You can't understand anything until you have heard it," Spandrell declares. "It proves all kinds of things—God, the soul, goodness—unescapably. It's the only real proof that exists; the only one, because Beethoven was the only man who could get his knowledge over into expression."

Spandrell proceeds to accompany the performance with instructions to his skeptical listener. "Here's the beginning of the slow movement," he notes, as the melody starts to unfold.

The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air...It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure, and crystalline..., a counterpoint of serenities, ...the calm of still and rapturous contemplation, not of drowsiness or sleep...The beauty was unearthly, the convalescent serenity was the peace of God. The interweaving of Lydian melodies was heaven.

Huxley, through Spandrell, announces the intervention of music of a "modern" character. "The Lydian harmonies were replaced by those of the corresponding major key. The time quickened. A new melody leapt and bounded, but over earthly mountains, not among those of paradise." Spandrell explains: "The Lydian part begins again on the other side. Then there's more of this lively stuff in A major. Then it's Lydian to the end, getting better and better all the time..."

Huxley's description is sublime but accurate.

The bright heaven of Lydian music vibrated on the air...But something new and marvelous had happened, in its Lydian heaven. The speed of the slow melody was doubled; its outlines became clearer and more definite; an inner part began to harp insistently on a throbbing phrase. It was as though heaven had suddenly and impossibly become more heavenly, had passed from achieved perfection into perfection yet deeper and more absolute. The ineffable peace persisted; but it was no longer the peace of convalescence and passivity. It quivered, it was alive, it seemed to grow and intensify itself, it became an active calm, an almost passionate serenity. The miraculous paradox of external life and eternal repose was musically realized...

They were silent again. The music played on, leading from heaven to heaven, from bliss to deeper bliss. Spandrell sighed and shut his eyes. A touch of discord in the Lydian harmonies gave an almost unbearable poignancy to the beatitude. Spandrell sighed again. There was a knocking at the door.

Spandrell leaves the room to answer it, whereupon three British Fascists, whose leader Spandrell has assassinated and whom he himself has summoned, fire a bullet into his brain. A critic, Chris Schuler, observes, "The juxtaposition makes the crime particularly shocking and reminds us harshly of the limits to what art can achieve." "Suddenly," we read, "there was no more music; only the scratching of the needle on the revolving disc."

The learned and elegant musicologist Scott Burnham recently lectured on Beethoven's quartets, remarking that "with his reference to the Lydian mode, Beethoven was reaching for an archaic sound. And indeed the movement begins with an air of antique simplicity, solemn, prayer-like—as from a world of hard pews and quietly profound homilies. It opens with an imitative call to prayer, and then we kneel."

This hyperbole brings me back to my story. It is 1951. I am now myself a student at Columbia University, and I notice that while studying one of the Great Books, no doubt, it is the evening of the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Thinking that I already had a good deal to atone for, and wanting to declare my loyalty to my parents, who were intermittently observant, I resolved to celebrate the holiday in my fashion. Point Counter Point suddenly came into my mind, foremost Huxley's suggestion that proof of the existence of God lay not far away at the Columbia University Music Library, where I would find 78 rpms of this divine music. The next afternoon, Yom Kippur, I played the heiliger Dankgesang again and again. It was everything that Huxley/Spandrell claimed it to be, with only a little ensuing violence. I staggered off, metaphysically besotted and unable to work.

It was many years before I heard the Opus 132 again. I cannot say why I waited. Perhaps because it was enshrined in a special place in memory, linked indissolubly to the afternoon of October 10, 1951, to a holy place, to a holy time. But the opportunity presented itself irresistibly sixty years later at Yellow Barn. The splendid Jupiter Quartet would play the entire corpus of Beethoven’s string quartets, beginning with the Op. 132. I drove up from Princeton to be at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main Street, in Brattleboro on Sunday evening, April 17, 2011, to hear the performance. It was sublime. And if not entirely proof of the existence of God, it was certainly proof of the godlike genius of Beethoven. And of a contrary principle, as well—Huxley's—as I will explain.

For, that night in April, on emerging from the (literally) stone cave of the Hooker-Dunham Theater, in a trance of happiness, I walked into...Hell. An enormous building with 59 apartments, Brooks House, located at the corner of Main Street and High Street, was burning into the sky. Everywhere: blazing lights, alarms, fire trucks, firemen, hoses, flooding. I had to think again that listening to the Opus 132 was fraught with the promise of violence. Is it a sort of retribution for a moment of impermissible identification of the unworthy listener with music that, as Rampion, Spandrell's opponent, says, "is too good." "How can anything be too good?” Spandrell asks. "Not human," replies Rampion. "If it lasted, you'd cease to be a man. You'd die."

For Spandrell, violence, the inhuman, the less than human, lies just outside “the limits to what art can achieve." The tragedy is the limits of art. For Rampion, the superhuman, the killingly more than human, lies precisely within the limits of great art. The liberation of the empirical human being from the metaphysical captivation of great art is the blessing of its limits. In this light it would be folly to deny the promise of the inhuman violence that attends the greatest art, of which Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, is the non plus ultra.

Find out about Yellow Barn's performance of Beethoven's Op.132 on Wednesday, July 31, 2013