JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 557
Dark is the present that denies change, or misunderstands it, or ignores it. I was thinking about this last night watching Ed Harris in an odd movie about Ludwig van Beethoven (“Copying Beethoven”, made I think in 2006)—more precisely it was about Beethoven’s time from 1824 to his death in 1827. The movie introduced a woman who was sent as his score copyist as the Maestro worked the final days of the 9th symphony. (There were copyists of course but not women; I couldn’t imagine a woman filling that role for Beethoven, and I’m not sure what was added to the general knowledge of the man by supplying a fictional character in a general grand biopic. Seems to me that we would have all been better served if the movie was told from B’s point of view and that the copyist was a creation in his own mind, a fragmentary muse.) It was an offhandedly annoying film, except when it touched on the Grosse Fugue, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned in any movie that I’ve ever seen.
The Grosse Fugue was supposed to be the last movement in his String Quartet No. 13 (opus 130), but it was so difficult to perform, and it was so incredibly unlike anything else and so completely insistent in its originality that he was persuaded to replace the movement with another work, allowing the Grosse Fugue to survive in its own (opus 133) as a titanic single movement composition. The music was very hard and demanding—in the movie, the completely-deaf Beethoven sat facing the musicians at the front of the audience, and slowly but steadily as the piece was played the audience left, until at the end almost no one remained. Ed Harris’ Beethoven was overjoyed that the musicians played the piece successfully, and then was shocked to see that there was almost no one left who had been listening—no one “got it.” It was seen as a beastly piece of music from a beautiful beast who had lost touch—it remained so for a long time, too. (The great Louis Spohr, along with almost everyone else in the 19th century, found it “an uncorrected horror.”) Anyway I liked the idea of tossing the Fugue into this mix—surprised, really, to see someone deal with the thing.
But as with many visionaries, their insight into the future can be largely solitary—Beethoven’s visions lasted longer than most.
Johannes Kepler, in the midst of finally overthrowing the Aristotilean concept of the universe in his Harmonies of the World, writes to Urania, one of the nine Muses, the Muse of Astronomy (and also the favorite of John Milton in Paradise Lost):
“But now, Urania, there is need for a louder sound while I climb along the harmonic scale of the celestial movements to higher things where the true archetype of the fabric of the world is kept hidden. Follow after, ye modern musicians, and judge the thing according to your arts, which were unknown to antiquity. Nature, which is never not lavish of herself, after a lying-in of two thousand years, has finally brought you forth in these last generations, the finest true images of the universe. By means of your concord of various voices, and through your ears, she has whispered to the human mind, the favorite daughter of God the Creator, how she exists in her immortal bosom.” It seems as though he could’ve been writing about a lot of things, not the least of which could’ve been our immortal Ludwig van.
Beethoven’s Fugue, like some of the other late quartets would have to wait, unappreciated, not understood, for a hundred years, a little piece of the future swathed in black. A Dickensian-black, a Victorian mourning-black, when black in mourning (for women, anyway) was deeply black. Bombazine black (a lusterless, lightless black material that ensured nothing but black). Arnold Sommerfeld’s B-1 bomber black.
And then somewhere in the earlyish 20th century
it wasn’t a figment of bad imagination anymore; the Fugue was recognized as a
piece of modern music written hundred years too early. To top it all of Igor
Stravinsky said that the Fugue was a piece of contemporary music that would always
be contemporary. Except of course when
it was written as a piece of the future in a dim past.