Beethoven's Opus 111 According to Milan Kundera / Naphtali Wagner

Two types of music exist in our world: macrocosmic and microcosmic. The former, the "symphonic," soars outward, into the infinite space of the universe. The latter, the "variational," moves inward, into the infinite partition of the whole. Whenever the soul is carried away into the infinite outer space on the wings of macrocosmic music, one can lose the infiniteness of someone close, or even one’s own. To reach the close but unapproachable, one must move in the opposite direction. All of the above may be grasped by reading Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.[1]

A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are also like a voyage.  But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensées, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into that other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world lying hidden in all things. Beethoven thus discovered in variations another area to be explored. His variations are a new "invitation to a voyage"[2][p. 164].[3]

The composer, like everyone else, stands in the chasm between the macrocosm and microcosm. But unlike everyone else, so Kundera tells us, he does not wallow there of his free will, but rather soars into the infinite. Usually, his eyes are raised toward the "infinitely large."  At its best, his artwork carries him farther and farther to the end of the world.[4] Kundera presents here a linear approach to symphonic writing, but the usual narrative images of the conflict—struggle and resolution—are not manifest here; rather, they are those of clicking off the miles. Contrary to all conventional tonal analysis, the movement of the symphonic tones does not sound here as striving to rest, but rather as aiming further to an unknown target, while leaving behind a trail of objects it had already gone through. One may question this linear view of musical direction, but Kundera employs this image to contrast it with the opposite, less frequent direction, which is expressed in the variation form:

Variation form is the form in which concentration is brought to its maxim urn; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth [p. 226].

The reduction to the “core of the matter” could be interpreted as a contrast to the multiple themes (polythematicism) characteristic of the late classical period. This conception, however, is contrary to the common approach of music analysts, who aim to expose the hidden motivic unity behind the variety apparent to the naked ear. It is difficult to believe that Kundera deliberately chooses to ignore Beethoven's renowned motivic unity, which nourishes the various themes and ties them together. Apparently he sees the development of the motif and its various transformations over the course of a "normal" movement as some kind of dispersion in an outer space, "a journey to the first infinity," that is, "the great infinity" upon which he does not wish to expand.

"The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the wondrous depths of the atom” [p. 226]. Kundera may be echoing here the contrast between the theory of relativity and quantum theory, at least as they are portrayed by laymen. Whereas the former is able to address entities that rapidly click off the miles at nearly the speed of light, the latter deals with elementary particles governed by various laws of uncertainty. And if the physical image fails to convince, Kundera has in store images borrowed from the world of botany, contrasted here with that of astronomy: "With every variation Beethoven moves farther and farther away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope” [p. 226].

As music analysts, we rather like to show how the minute musical units are the reflections of large thematic ones (for example, when a motif of a few notes encapsulates or adumbrates an extensive musical event). The uncovered similarity between combinations of sounds, repeating in various dimensions, is one of the epitomes of music’s fractal trait. Kundera, however, is not interested in resemblance but rather in the increasing difference. For him, a set of variations is nothing but a series of musical close-ups, whose affinity with the original theme is gradually blurred. The enlarged article does not resemble the whole object, just as a magnified image of the surface of a leaf does not nearly reflect the image of the leaf in its entirety, even without reaching the level of component cells. Both biological and musical textures change under the lens. This description stems from an assumption about music perception according to which as the density of sounds per time unit increases, our musical present contracts. If the perception of the moment in time is limited to a certain window of events, the greater the density of the sounds that occupy that window is, the narrower its width on the time axis.

"Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack the other infinitude, that infinitude [seemingly] near at hand, within reach” [p. 226]. It turns out that the investigation of the macroscopic universe in the symphonic spaceship is less frustrating than that of the microscopic universe. At the macro level we praise each and every partial conquest we achieve because we do not find it difficult to come to terms with our inability to embrace it. But at the micro level our incompetence annoys us, as everything seems so close and accessible, and yet this is not the case.

Kundera finds a clever way to refresh the cliché about the human soul as unexplored depths: "Tamina[5] lacked the infinitude of her love, I lacked Papa, and all of us are lacking in our work because in pursuit of perfection we go toward the core of the matter but never quite get to it" [p. 226]. At this point the text becomes reflexive: Kundera tries to look inward, into his writing about introspection, and to this end he enlists musical allegory—Beethoven's variations in Opus 111. But to explore the signified, it is necessary to first investigate the signifier, and this is carried out by means of other similes: the scientist who studies the structure of the atom, the botanist who explores the cellular tissue of flowers, and Jules Verne journeying to the center of the earth. All of the above are aimed to assist us understand Beethoven's concept of variation, which in turn is supposed to help us comprehend Kundera's notion of the author's journey into the depths of his characters' souls to achieve aesthetic perfection. And yet the entire project blows up in the creator's face, frustrating him, because things are infinite, and therefore any attempt get to their bottom is doomed.

It is not surprising that in his later years variations became the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well (as Tamina and I know) that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities" [p. 227]. Kundera's tone implies that Beethoven, in his journey to the smaller infinite, went farther than any other creator in our universe.

Beethoven's microscope

Why does Kundera conceive variations as an internal cruise? Other classical musical forms are also based on continuous growth,[6] with musical units growing, accumulating an ever larger living space; new units are created from those that precede them, which differ from the latter but constitute an organic continuation of them. In contrast, in variations, the theme generally retains its dimensions. The length of each variation is typically equal to that of the theme (at least as far as the number of bars is concerned: if the theme is 16 measures long, the variations usually consist of 16 bars each). And yet, from one variation to the next the theme gradually liquidates. If, for example, the theme proceeds in quarter notes, the first variation is in eighth-notes, the second in triplets, the third in sixteenth-notes, and so on. The composer’s microscope lens becomes thicker from one variation to the next, and the smooth image of the theme becomes increasingly complex. This is, of course, a rough schematic description, as the variation process does not take place only in the rhythmic sphere, and even in this domain it is not so linear.

The development described above may take place in several waves or may merge into other developmental paths (for example, increased textural density, so that the sounds gradually grow in the vertical dimension as well). But the process of rhythmic foreshortening is felt to some degree in almost every set of variations, and may illuminate the idea of close-up that transpires from Kundera’s images.

The unfolding of the variation movement in Beethoven's sonata Opus 111 appears to follow the traditional model of variation set, but the abnormal overrides the routine, even if we restrict our examination to the rhythmic dimension alone. This movement is supposed to maintain a very slow tempo, adagio molto. A slow movement pulsates slowly, in other words, its beat is of a relatively long duration. A persistent slow pulse endures in the listener’s mind, even when quick rhythmic values are used, as long as one hears those fast tones as part of the framework of the long beats. In this case, however, it is questionable whether the sense of a slow beat that the Arietta (the theme) instills is maintained throughout all the variations. Although Beethoven demands that the performer maintain a constant tempo throughout, it is doubtful whether pianists can comply, a difficulty that loosens the listener’s grip on the theme during some of the variations (in addition to several other encumbrances that we do not delve into here). We begin by following the first liquidation wave, across the theme and the first three variations, as illustrated in the table and the musical examples below:

Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4
Beats per measure Units per beat Sub-units per beat Micro-units per sub-beat
The Arietta 3
Variation 1 3 3
Variation 2 3 2 3
Variation 3 3 2 2 3


Example 1: Arietta, m. 3 (Theme)

Example 2: Arietta, m. 19 (variation 1)

Example 3: Arietta, m. 35 (variation 2)

Example 4: Arietta, m. 51 (variation 3)

The sense of tempo depends primarily on the duration of the beat. The simplest manner to interpret Beethoven’s instruction to maintain a constant tempo is to keep a steady beat. Because a triple division is maintained in the bars throughout the movement (Level1 in the table), it is reasonable to assume that every measure has three beats and that these are supposed to maintain a fixed duration.[7] But the tripartite division of the pulse raises doubts about this organization, both for the performer and for the listener. Here are some of the impediments it creates:

  1. To maintain a constant tempo, the performer must interpret the adagio molto marking of the Arietta in an exceptional way and play it extremely slowly. Such a slow tempo may make it difficult for the listener to perceive the connection between the tones and the unfolding of the phrases. The tones may be heard exposed and bare, without sub-divisions. Beethoven’s starting point is so skeletal because he wishes to secure as large a partition space as possible for the variations. But such a slow dripping of the tones of the melody calls in question the cantabile (to be played songfully) marking, next to the tempo mark, because to be songful the tones should flow more fluently. The unusual spacing between registers (indeed, between the right and left hands), which drew sharp criticism soon after the work was published, enhances the sense of hollowness. But it is precisely this extraordinary presentation of the theme that makes it so cryptic, turning it into an object of investigation all through the variations. The question is how much one should emphasize its slowness without spoiling the perception of its melodic logic.
  2. If the performer moderates the slowness of the Arietta, resorting to a shorter beat, it becomes more difficult to fill in those later rhythmic values: at Level 4 the beat is divided into 12 rhythmic atoms! Thus, the performer would have to violate the rule asking to maintain a fixed duration, and lengthen the beats in order to enable their partition. This is not merely a technical problem, it raises the question of how to convey to the listener the ever-growing multi-rhythmic levels, as shown in the above table.[8]
  3. It is questionable whether any listener can hear such slow beats when they are partitioned into three additional levels. The question is one of music cognition and may be studied experimentally. Intuitively, no ear can track beats that are so elongated and divided. Presumably, at some point, probably with the third variation, we begin to hear the sub-beats as main beats, and as a result experience an acceleration in the tempo.[9] This acceleration significantly detaches the variation from the theme, until it resembles it "as little as a flower resembles its image under a microscope,” already relatively early in the movement. Moreover, the third variation seems to transport us, stylistically, to a different musical environment, which deviates from the circumstances of its writing, time, and place. It may arouse in the modern listener anachronistic associations with the world of jazz in the swing era.

Throughout the entire movement there is a growing feeling that we "drown in sounds." It is as though Beethoven elevates the density of tones above a certain critical mass, which severs their connection to the theme in the listener’s ear. This may be compared with a change of resolution on the computer screen. With each variation we appear to be presented with a denser picture, as though the resolution is increasing, but in reality the opposite is taking place. The theme is presented to us at the start at such a high resolution that we do not notice the pixels that comprise it. The variations increasingly reduce the resolution, as attested by the fact that the outline of the theme becomes blurred.

An association that has forced itself on me in this regard was the development process of the photograph of the alleged murder in Antonioni’s movie, “Close-up.”[10] Zvi Yanai discussed the film in a popular essay on the uncertainty principle. Yanai admits that there is not only a bottom edge to the resolution of a photograph, but also an upper limit above which the photograph ceases to provide information, as any further enlargement only distances the black information-containing stains from each other, increasing the white gap between them—empty whiteness that lacks in information and therefore does not contribute anything to the understanding of the photographed object. If at the beginning of the process we thought that the investigation was moving forward, toward an accumulation of knowledge, beyond a certain point the data becomes fuzzy to the point of crossing the border into no-information.

According to Kundera, the remoteness from the theme reaches its peak in the last variation. Beethoven does not enumerate the variations and does not segregate between them in the score, therefore it is difficult to tell where Kundera considers the last variation to begin. At least two variations compete for this label: the fifth variation (from m.131, with a pickup in m.130) is the last full variation to follow the theme entirely, measure for measure, and with no repetitions. Throughout the variation the melody is clearly seen in the top voice, but near its end (m.146) it is torn apart and expanded, and thus serves as a coda. The coda itself ends in a kind of secondary coda (starting from m.161). This closing section—the coda of the coda—may also be regarded as the final variation, because it closely follows the first half of the theme, while giving it a new texture. Here, too, the first half of the melody of the Arietta is quoted, first in an inner voice, then in the soprano, before the final wave of the handkerchief. It turns out that both possibilities, that of variation and that of codetta, are incompatible with Kundera's words about detachment to the point of loss of identity. Conceivably, he is referring to the heavenly texture of the melody in its last appearance, wrapped into a trill above and a tremolo below, which makes it so remote in the eyes of the author, although its identity is retained. The theme has turned, as it were, into another entity, flickering and flashing, while light years separate between it and the original melody (we have chosen words that entirely conflate the micro and the macro).[11]

Anecdote and Variations

Kundera expands the variations allegory and applies it to the Book of Laughter and Forgetting in its entirety:

This book is a novel in the form of variations. The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation, the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance [p. 227].

This kinship between the relatively independent parts of the book is not easily deciphered, and should not be dismissed by saying that the entire book revolves around the theme of laughter and forgetting. But at least in one case the variation relationship between different parts seems clear: if Chapter 1 in Part I ("Lost letters") is the theme, then Chapter 1 in Part VI ("Angels") is a variation of sorts. Unlike music, however, where the rhythmic relationship between theme and variation is dictated by the composer (even if also affected by the performance), here some cooperation is needed on the part of the reader, who must read the theme in Chapter 1 with “long rhythmic values,” and assign each word its full weight, whereas the variation is to be read fluently, with “shorter rhythmic values,” so that the reading time of each of these two chapters is equal, although the latter is much longer than the former.

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head [pp. 3-4].

This short chapter has the quality of a theme owing to its condensed nature. Every word is calculated. It is as short as an anecdote but laden with meaning as a metaphor. This minute chapter includes the element of forgetfulness, or rather—the official forgetfulness, and the comic essence of its failure as given away by Clementis’s hat: “we hang little thieves and take off our hats to great ones.” The words "that was a great turning point in the history," and their position at the beginning of the book, both call for slow and attentive reading that does not glide over any of the words. That is neither the case with the variation, nor with its opening paragraph, which was intended merely to remind us of what we have already read at the outset, and therefore there is no need for slow and attentive perusal.

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old own Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head [p. 215].

The paragraph that opens the variation gives the impression of an anti-variation. The story of the hat is shortened and its point is omitted: Clementis is wiped from the photographs and from Czech history. But later there is an impressive listing of deletions, a ramification of the initial forgetfulness motif. Kundera reviews the turnover of outdoor sculptures in Prague over the years, with each wave of statues replacing the previous one. He starts in 1621, with the Jesuit attack of saints’ statues aimed at wiping out the Reformation; these statues were smashed by the Czech Reformation, whose statues, in turn, were torn down by the Austrian counter-Reformation, which were then destroyed by Czechoslovak Republic, to be torn down by the Communists, who erected statues of Stalin, but then smashed them in favor of statues of Lenin, which are “springing up like weeds among ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting” [p. 217].

An additional saga of forgetfulness is embedded in the changes of the names of the street where Tamina was born: during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy it was called Cemokostelecka, after World War I it was called Marshal Foch Street, during the German occupation it was renamed Schwerinova, then Stalin street, etc. "And yet it was always the same street, they just kept changing its name, brainwashing it into a half-wit” [p. 217]. All this runs in sixteenth notes, and so are the mediating paragraphs about Kafka’s forgetfulness, himself a poet of forgetting: “The time of Kafka's novel is the time of a humanity that has lost its continuity with humanity” [p. 216] (here the reader is allowed to take a small ritenuto). The reader can rush across the lines, not in order to read carelessly, but because the theme behind these words has already been articulated in measured, equivalent quarter notes. The variation may captivate the listener's ear no less, usually even more, than the theme, but this is a different listening.

History of oblivion and forgetfulness

Not only the reading time may be accelerated in the transition between the theme and a variation, but historical time as well. Chapter 1 in Part I focuses the camera on one historic moment that could have been captured and immortalized in a photograph, had it not been reworked by a second photo, which is nothing but a photomontage of the first. The second shot and the events preceding it (the hanging of Clementis for treason) occurred four years later. Chapter 1, Part VI, however, rapidly reviews four centuries of religious and ideological photomontage—the turnover of statues. At the same time, within a framework that serves as a subordinate variation, it surveys the naming history of a single street, reflecting at least a half century of conquests and changes of government. To that we may add Kafka’s eight years of study in the same baroque palace, when it was the seat of the German Gymnasium during the monarchy. Thus, in this chapter we can identify three deployments on the time axis: one (Kafkaian) doubled in length of the interval between the authentic and the faked photograph (8 years instead of 4), the other, the street and its names, which stretches historical time at least tenfold, and the additional one (the story of the statues), which stretches it a hundredfold. Although these are not ordered from short to long as a set of musical variations that gradually accelerate their rhythmic values, the principle is retained: the same number of printed lines may embrace a single moment or stretch over hundreds of years.

Kundera lays out before us the history of oblivion. The past is elusive, especially after the historians who resisted oblivion were imprisoned, exiled, and destroyed. Musical time is elusive, too. The sounds that have passed are fading in our memory. Symphonic works that pass, according to Kundera, from one theme to another, on and on, enable us to live the current musical scene, to develop expectations for later events, and to let earlier events submerge. That is not true of the variations form, however. Here the composer keeps us all along within the same sixteen measures.

The picture that emerges here contradicts many of our most fundamental musical concepts. The music analyst assumes that transient sounds persist in our memory and that upon them are built those networks that give the work its artistic coherence. The symphony or concerto movement, based on sonata form, is rooted in the thematic rotation, so that the passing from "one theme to another, on and on," is not linear but rather spiral. Admittedly, the music progresses, but it does so in circles; the variation is nothing but a pronounced expression of the idea of repetition with change. We ought not to forget, however, that the story is not about the music but rather about existence under the shadow of oblivion, and the musical allegory is not a treatise on the essence of music, but rather it is intended to serve literary purposes. The question is whether readers can suspend their basic conceptions and adopt, for the sake of reading, Kundera’s distinction between symphony and variation, even if it contradicts their musical intuition. I believe they can.

Deafness and muteness

Ludwig Kundera, Milan Kundera's father, was a pianist and musicologist. Chapter 3, laying the groundwork for Chapter 7, tells us how Kundera's father started to forget words to the point where his vocabulary diminished greatly. His awareness, remaining undamaged (we are told), had become less and less accessible: “Things had lost their names and were merged into single, undifferentiated being. I was the only one who by talking to him could momentarily retrieve from that wordless infinitude the world of entities with names” [p. 219]. And so we have here yet another variation on the relation between infinite unity and multiplicity, which is always finite, between the wholeness that is closed in itself and its liquidation in public domain, just as the Arietta, first presented in long and hollow tones, liquidates throughout the ensuing variations. Chapter 3 is, of course, another variation on the theme of oblivion. It turns out that nature herself is one of its agencies, as opposed to father and son who try to fight it.

As the father’s linguistic condition worsened, the particularization was becoming increasingly difficult. In their promenades, father and son used to talk about music: “When Papa could speak normally, I had asked him very few questions. Now I wanted to make up for lost time. So we talked about music, but it was a strange conversation, between someone who knew nothing but a great many words and one who knew everything but not a single word” [p. 220]. Thus, the author does not pretend to have a thorough understanding of music, his only intention being to extract the knowledge encrypted in his father’s brain.

Throughout the ten years of his illness, Papa worked on a big book about Beethoven's sonatas. He probably wrote a little better than he spoke, but even while writing he had more and more trouble finding words, and finally his text had become incomprehensible, consisting of nonexistent words [p. 220].

It is difficult for the father to describe the music in words, and music is revealed as being more elusive and challenging than any other sensory object.[12]

He called me into his room one day. Open on the piano was the variations movement of the Opus 111 sonata. "Look," he said, pointing to the music (he could no longer play the piano), and again, "Look," and then, after a prolonged effort, he succeeded in saying: "Now I know!" and kept trying to explain something important to me, but his entire message consisted of unintelligible words, and seeing that I did not understand him, he looked at me in surprise and said: "That's strange" [p. 220].

The son understood that his father was eager to talk about a question that has concerned him for a long time:

Variation form was Beethoven's favorite toward the end of his life. At first glance, it seems the most superficial of forms, a simple showcase of musical technique, work better suited to a lace maker than to a Beethoven. But Beethoven made it a sovereign form (for the first time in the history of music), inscribing in it his most beautiful meditations.

Yes, all that is well known. But Papa wanted to know how it should be understood. Why exactly choose variations? What meaning is hidden behind it? That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said: "Now I know!" [p. 221].

These questions are suspended, in a way, until Chapter 7, which was already introduced at the beginning. The son’s belated understanding, presented to us in chapter 7, resulted according to him from his remorse:

I could not forgive myself for asking him about so little, for knowing so little about him, for allowing myself to lack him. And it is just that very remorse which suddenly made me realize what he most likely wanted to tell me when he was pointing to the Opus 111 sonata” [p. 225].

Kundera also lets us understand that there was no need to be tormented, because the comprehension flickered in the father’s mind only when his brain was already blocked. Beethoven lost his hearing, Kundera’s father his words. Deaf Beethoven had an inner ear perhaps like no other. No wonder his ear was attentive inward, and this is also the way in which he composed the variations. When Kundera’s father felt he has understood Beethoven and the secret of his work, he could no longer express it in words. But guilt for the father still yielded in his son’s psyche the insights he shared with his readers, so we can say that it was not in vain.[13]

Coda: Opus 111 pace Wendell Kretzschmar

(From Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, Chapter 8)[14]

How to continue the history of music after late Beethoven? According to the established periodization, this is the beginning of the Romantic period, but it is possible to skip forward directly to Wagner and his claim to harness Beethoven's achievements to his united arts cart. It is even possible to perform a bolder leap and argue that it is the music of the 20th century that forms a direct continuation of late Beethoven, as Thomas Mann did when he used the discussion of Opus 111 as a stepping stone for the fictional biography of the music revolutionary, Adrian Leverkühn. The lecture on the second movement of Opus 111 is delivered by the learned organist, Wendell Kretzschmar, in front of an audience of a few interested people, including Adrian Leverkühn and the narrator, Serenus Zeitblom. Such an unpopular lecture on a work that is “a hard aesthetic nut to crack" [p. 56], from a professor suffering from severe stuttering attacks, may invoke an association of a solipsistic concert of avant-garde music.

Similarly to Milan Kundera’s father, Kretzschmar also suffers from speaking difficulties: “His unfortunate stutter made listening to him a hair-raising journey along the edge of high cliffs, producing both terror and laughter and tending to divert one’s attention totally from the intellectual content and transform the experience into anxious, tense waiting for the next convulsive impasse” [p. 54].

In between Kretzschmar’s stutter attacks, “his boat could sail swiftly and jauntily over the waves for whole stretches at a time, with an eerie ease that seemed to belie his condition and could almost make one forget it” [p. 54], until the next “moment of shipwreck would arrive,” which is here described by an abundant aquatic imagery: “his funnelshaped mouth snapping for air like a fish out of water” [p. 54]. The multi-obstacle lecture is described as if it were a musical work, with the listeners in a state of vigilant anticipation for the next calamity to befall the performer. And it is not clear whether such disasters were internal events within the work, of the hair-raising upheaval type that composers are liable to create in order to overawe the listener, or rather events that are external to it. This creates a double drama: the very musical scene and the constant angst from loss of sounds (whether due to a sudden forgetting of notes in the score, technical failure, or any physical constraint). But the counterpoint between the two happenings is disharmonious in the sense that the fear of stumbling distracts the mind and interferes with the listening process.

As in the case of Kundera’s father, it is difficult to avoid a comparison between Beethoven's growing deafness and the lecturer's verbal disability. The barrier between them and the world seems insurmountable, and yet they manage to get through it and express their inner self outwardly.

“He [Kretzschmar] told us about the rumor claiming that the famous composer had written himself dry, had used up all his creative energies […] since for several years, in fact, nothing of significance bearing his name had appeared on the market. […then] the master had sat down and written these three compositions[15] for the piano in one swoop, without ever looking up from the page” [p. 56].

Scientific music?

Kretzschmar attributes to the hatemongers the view according to which the eccentric, late Beethoven suffers from scientific "excessive addiction to musical subtleties and musical science." Indeed, the same musical scientificness that Kundera praised with rich imagery borrowed from physics and botany is attributed here to the detractors of the work. The disconcerting contradiction between expressivity and scientific attitude has always haunted views about music. Thomas Mann sets the stage for the modern manifestation of the contrast between the two. Looking over Kretzschmar’s shoulder is the character of Schoenberg-Leverkühn, a composer, who, on one hand, is classified as Expressionist, and on the other, his serial compositional method is seen as “mathematical” sound calculation.[16] From here arises the dialectic between the objective and the subjective. The scientific is seemingly objective and the expressive subjective: Whereas the expressive is an articulation of something that is in the private domain, the scientific is ostensibly in the public domain to begin with. But the correspondence is not one-to-one. If by scientific we refer to the calculated and mathematical aspect of the work, then overtly scientific, when inconsistent with the limits of human musical cognition, leads to misapprehension. The listener might turn the tables and attribute this misunderstanding to an excess of subjectivity on the part of the composer, who is ostensibly submerged in his inner self, unable to be communicative.

“Beethoven’s own artistry had outgrown itself, had left the snug regions of tradition, and, as humanity gazed on in horror, climbed to spheres of the totally personal, the exclusively personal—an ego painfully isolated in its own absoluteness, and, with the demise of his hearing, isolated from the sensual world as well” [ pp. 56-57]. All this appears to lead to a solipsistic dive into the depths of subjectivity, leaving Beethoven detached from the understanding of most of his contemporaries, including that of longtime admirers. But the pair of opposites understood/misunderstood is not compatible with objective/subjective, just as it does not match the scientific/expressive or traditional/personal pairs. According to Kretzschmar, Beethoven reached the peak of his personal expression as he melted all conventions, formulas, and musical flourishes in his "subjective dynamics," including subjectivity itself. Whereas middle Beethoven was, in his opinion, subjective in the full sense of the word, it was late Beethoven who was more forgiving and sympathetic toward the formulas of musical tradition: “Untouched, untransformed by the subjective, the conventional often emerged in the late works with a baldness—as if blown wide open, so to speak—with an ego-abandonment that, in turn, had an effect more terrifyingly majestic than any personal indiscretion” [p. 57].

This is not self-evident, as in the middle and late periods Beethoven exceeded conventions and extended the boundaries of musical language. Nevertheless,  middle Beethoven exceeded the conventions within the framework of convention, namely within the framework that was regarded by his generation not only legitimate but obligatory and expected of a genius: expansion of boundaries, radicalization of means (such as unexpected modulatory turns and use of unusual tonal relations), radicalization of the outlines of the thematic profile alongside enhanced distinctness of each and every work, construction of musical intensification to unheard climaxes, and so on. In the later period, Beethoven was already above and beyond all this; at this stage “the subjective entered into a new relationship with the conventional, a relationship defined by death” [p. 57].

Beethoven’s “objective” reconciliation with conventions is expressed here in the overtly simplistic Arietta, both in its melodic gestures and its elementary harmony, but it is a monastic simplicity that creates a sense of purification, especially owing to the slow tempo. The originality stems from the voluntary restraint of sophisticated means available in the compositional tradition that Beethoven himself contributed greatly to develop. But we are dealing not merely with austerity. The originality of the theme is expressed in musical parameters that have not yet received much attention: the extreme registration (an abyss between the hands), the condensed intervals in the low register (which clouds their clarity), the rhythmic timing of cadences (blurring the lines between musical divisions), the open ending of the Arietta’s melody (not on the tonic in the soprano)—all this in the theme alone. Originality and eccentricity cannot help but be perceived as subjective, so the dialectic ping-pong continues until the final smelting of the opposites into one mythical entity in which the personal becomes collective: “Where greatness and death came together, he declared, there arose a sovereign objectivity amenable to convention and leaving arrogant subjectivity behind, because in it the exclusively personal—which after all had been the surmounting of a tradition carried to its peak—once again outgrew itself by entering, grand and ghostlike, into the mythic and collective” [p. 57].

Music that soars or music that dives?

Despite the resemblances, the two writers, Mann and Kundera, perceive the work in opposite ways. For both, the music soars beyond itself, but whereas in Kundera the scene is microcosmic, in Mann (or more precisely, in Kretzschmar) it is macrocosmic. Whereas Kundera's microscope shapes Beethoven’s journey to the "small infinity," Kretzschmar’s Beethoven seeks the "big infinity:" “that movement’s theme, moving through a hundred vicissitudes, a hundred worlds of rhythmic contrast, outgrows itself and finally loses itself in dizzying heights that could be called otherworldly” [p. 57]. Kundera’s symphonic Beethoven becomes the Beethoven of the variations in Thomas Mann, going on and on from one thing to another and from one world to another.

Here lies the answer to the question in the title of Kretzschmar’s lecture: “Why didn’t Beethoven write a third movement for his last piano sonata, Opus 111?” [p. 55] In the beginning of his talk, Kretzschmar ruled out the mere circumstantial answer, and at the end of his remarks he returns to it: “What had happened was that the sonata had found its ending in its second, enormous movement, had ended never to return. And when he said, ‘the sonata,’ he did not mean just this one, in C minor, but he meant the sonata per se, as a genre, as a traditional art form—it had been brought to an end, to its end, had fulfilled its destiny, reached a goal beyond which it could not go; cancelling and resolving itself, it had taken its farewell…” [p. 60].[17] This assertive paragraph puts an end to additional hundred years of sonata writing, setting the stage for the great leap from Beethoven into musical modernity. Charles Rosen offered a more moderate view, arguing that with the death of Beethoven and Schubert, sonata form ceased to exist as a flexible and dynamic playing arena, assuming a rigid formal shape. One may disagree with this opinion as well, but I do not intend to open a musicological Pandora's box. Even if from the vantage point of musicology the last quotation from Kretzschmar’s words is controversial, there is no question that formally it provides a perfect rhetorical end to the entire lecture:  “And with that Kretzschmar departed, accompanied by sparse, but prolonged applause, and we departed as well…”  [p. 60].

(Translation: Tamara Balter)

[1] The following citations are all taken from Chapter 7, "The Angels," the sixth part of Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, tr. Aaron Asher (Perennial Classics, 1994).

[2]  Most likely, Kundera referred here to Baudelaire’s poem “Invitation au voyage,” but the translations into English and Hebrew missed the reference and translated the title (Tamara Balter).

[3]  A similar situation prevails in science-fiction movies where journeys to outer space are commonplace, whereas sailing into the world of the microscopic are much rarer. An example of the latter is the film in which people are minimized, placed into a microscopic vehicle, and injected into the blood stream of a human to save him from an acute illness.

[4] Indeed, Kundera could have contrasted the variation with any other genre. He preferred the symphony for several reasons: contrasting piano variations with symphonic music leaves us inside the Beethovenian spectrum. Because of its orchestral hues, the symphony is more suitable for the image of macrocosmic space. Beethoven’s symphonic spirit, especially when it passes through the revolutionary prism and manifesto writing of Richard Wagner, is consistent with the musical epic image that is publicly exposed for all to see.

[5] Tamina is the heroine of the story, whereas the discussion of Opus 111 is merely an auxiliary story that sheds light on the main one. For the purpose of the present study, however, we may ignore Tamina. We return to the father later.

[6] This liquidation process at different level is reminiscent of the rhythmic organization in the 14th century isorhythmic motet. Each level enabled perfect (tripartite) division or imperfect (binary) division.

[7] All this is a simplification of a complex of interpretative issues that arises from Beethoven’s notation, who changes the meter in the course of the movement from 9/16 (three dotted eighths), in the theme and first variation, to 6/16 (three eighth notes) in the second variation, to 16/32 in the third variation. The question is, what do these changes signify: Is the eighth of the second variation equal in duration with the dotted eighth of the first variation, or is it shorter?  Tovey argues that Beethoven was not precise in his notation so as not to burden the sight-reading of the score. See: Donald Francis Tovey, ‎A companion to Beethoven’s pianoforte sonatas:  complete analyses, London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

[8] Schenker provides a simple arithmetic calculation for the increase of tones per beat (from 3 to 9, to 12, to 24). See Heinrich Schenker, Die letzten fuenf Sonaten von Beethoven, Wien: "Universal Edition", 1913.

[9] Studies have shown that the preferred duration of beat ranges from 600 to 800 ms. It is likely that if the music provides distinct rhythmic units that fall within such range, the listener may adopt these as beats even if the composer and the performer intended to present them as sub-beats, namely, as contained in longer beats.

[10] Michaelangelo Antonioni, Close-up (MGM 1967).

[11] Beethoven moves farthest away from the theme of the Arietta between the fourth and fifth variations (mm. 99-131). This is a complex intermezzo of sorts, during which Beethoven recalls the Arietta but simply avoids adhering to it. It is unlikely that Kundera’s words about the last variation refer to these bars.

[12] In my article "Fatal Music: The Too Musical Death of Attorney Jacobi," I dealt with the use of professional jargon in literary descriptions of music (Iton 77, Issue 325 (November 2007): 18-21).

[13] Another of my articles based on this novel appears in TAV +, Issue 11 (July 2008), entitled "The short life of Dodecaphony Kingdom."

[14] All the quotations below are taken from Chapter 8 of Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, translation: John E. Woods, New York: Vintage International, 1999.

[15]  The last three sonatas, Opp. 109, 110, 111.

[16]  The mathematical aspect of Op. 111, reflected in the calculation of rhythmic values and their splitting, can be seen as paralleling the mathematical aspect of dodecaphony of Schoenberg’s school.

[17] In contrast with Schubert’s two-movement “unfinished” symphony, which some have attempted to complete, Beethoven’s Opus 111 has never gained the title "Unfinished Sonata."


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