Goethe, The Fifth Symphony, And The Hammerklavier
J W N Sullivan put it beautifully when he wrote about the Hammerklavier Sonata: “The Hammerklavier stands alone between the second and the third Periods… not belonging to either… it is the Expression of a Man who has lost all Hope and relies purely on his internal Energies… expressing the Will to survive… with no Reason to guide that Will …” or something very similar. I think he repeats it once again, rather sentimentally: “The Hammerklavier stands alone.”
That captured in Words some of what I felt about the Sonata, but the actual Idea of “standing alone between the second and third Periods” hadn’t occurred to me.
Why I mention that is in Connection with the following. I had read a long time ago that Goethe had said about the Fifth Symphony that it was “subversive to Civilisation.” I’d thought about that for a long Time. Neither did I manage to dig out the Context in which it was said, nor did I manage to find a Reference to it in Eckermann’s Conversations, and nor did I find anyone else who had a Clue as to why he said that, what he meant. No Expansion, just the one Sentence: “The Fifth Symphony is subversive to Civilisation.”
Now, starting with the wondering about the Meaning of that, I go on to something else. Why great Music, especially Beethoven’s, has such Power over me, and burns Impressions down onto my inmost Core, is something I have thought about a lot.
It’s not merely Delight. It’s not merely a Message, a Message of the sort that can be carried by Prose or Verse. It’s not merely the Submission — my personal Submission — to what I feel is True Greatness. It’s not merely the Escape into a World far larger than my own, or infinitely more beautiful. It’s not merely the Impression of “the perfect State,” due to the physical and psychical Nature of Music. It’s not merely sublimated sensual Pleasure.
And neither is it a combination of all these Elements, which definitely are Elements that go into the Phenomenon of certain Pieces of Music holding such Awe and Power over this Person that he is led to say “there is nothing greater than the Appassionata” or that “the entire rest of the Universe pales when compared with Opus 131.”
After much Thought, I realised what it is, more or less: much of Music (especially that belonging to the German classical/romantic Tradition, or “Teutonic-Romantic” as I like to call it) is the expression of either a Will, or a profound Feeling, and due to the Nature of Music (Music takes place “within” the Listener, and therefore the Listener is himself the staging Ground for all that goes on during the Piece), the Listener believes that he accomplishes what the Piece accomplishes, or that he sees what the Composer saw.
That is reasonable enough, but a more drastic Revelation of my Insight was that wherever there is an Expression of Will in Music, the Listener is actually deluded into believing that he holds the Power to express the same Will, although in the rest of Reality he does not.
This Phenomenon is not true, in general, of the Master’s Late Quartets, since there the Master simply gives us his Vision. In the Late Quartets, therefore, we have to altogether give up what I have just mentioned (of Music being able to make the Listener believe that he holds the Power to Will the same as the Composer). The Late Quartets are in another Dimension.
But back to the Music that does fall within the Bounds of the Will-Concept: the Fifth Symphony not only falls within those Bounds, it also exemplifies that Concept.
We now add the third Element to this Discussion, which will lead to the Conclusion. And that is, that I have often wondered whether my “Mind” (or whatever you may wish to call it) has been permanently shaped by the Fifth Symphony, and altered in a negative Way.
The Fifth Symphony was the first piece of Music that I listened to in its Entirety, and I listened to it an average of once a Day for a few Years after that. It is quite possible that all other Music that I have experienced since then has been subjected to a subconscious Comparison with the Perfection of the Fifth Symphony, which may explain why I never listen to Composers who are not of the German classical/romantic Tradition, like, say, Chopin, Ravel, or Offenbach.
And, it is possible that several of my internal Conflicts are due to the Dichotomy of my believing that I possessed such Power and Grandeur as we see in the Fifth Symphony, and the realisation that I do not. For, analyse it as you will, musicologically or otherwise, Power, Grandeur, Will, Fate, and Triumph are the essential Ingredients of that Master Composition.
The Conclusion therefore is that perhaps that is what Goethe was talking about. Perhaps.
Which then leads me to what I began with, and which is the Reason I am writing this: the Hammerklavier.
Often, at life’s Twists and Turns, and especially when an Act of Will is required, the Fifth Symphony is a crutch I use, mentally playing back, as required, the Resignation of the End of the first Movement, the dreamy Analysis of the second, the return to the four-note Motif by the third, the icy Bridge between the third and the fourth, or the perfect Victory of the climax. (The tympani!)
And then I think, that this, what I do so often, is “not a good Thing.”
And if I must resort to thinking in terms of Music, I tell myself that it is not in Terms of the Victory of the Fifth Symphony that I should think; not in terms of the infinite Sadness in Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet or in the third Movement of op. 59 no. 1; but possibly in terms of the mad, unguided Energy of the Hammerklavier repeatedly affirming the blind Will to survive. If I need a Crutch at this Point, that is the one.