Beethoven: The Last Phase

Music critic of the London Sunday Times and Britain’s outstanding musicologist, ERNEST NEWMAN is well known for his studies of Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Liszt and for his definitive life of Richard Wagner. This paper in which he describes the sublimation of Beethoven’s technique in its final phase is the sixth in our series of biographical essays dealing with the turning points in the lives of famous men.



THE object of the series of which this article forms a part is the study of some great thinker or man of action in a period of crisis that made an obvious dividing line in his life. To achieve anything of this kind in the case of a composer, however, is peculiarly difficult, by reason, to put it paradoxically, of the immaterial nature of the material in which the musical creator works. Music is simply air in motion; and though the sound-symbols written down by the composer at a particular time may have taken the form and color they did because of some volcanic experience of his in the outer world, or of some psychological change within himself at that or some earlier time, it is always dangerous to try to read into the notes an expression of the experience. In the case of the poet or the prose writer there is as a rule no such difficulty; what we know him to have experienced is plainly visible in, or inferrible from, something he has said, even if it be only in his letters. But in the case of the composer we have to be very cautious in arguing from his life to his work, or vice versa: that way psychological dilettantism lies, the superficial blending of romantic biography with sentimental aesthetic of which musical criticism presents us with too many dubious examples,

We may have the best of reasons for believing that a certain experience of eye and ear on the road to Damascus led to a Saul being transmuted into a Paul; but only the sentimentalist ignorant of the prefounder psychological processes of a composer can persuade himself that Mathilde Wesendonk “inspired” Wagner to write Tristan and Isolde. A view of the matter more consistent with modern psychics would be not that Wagner wrote Tristan because he was in love with the lady, but that he was in love with the lady simply and solely because he was afire just then with Tristan; something of the glory that transfigured the universe for him while he was under that influence happened to catch the golden head of Frau Wesendonk and surround it with an aureole; but when the artistic fire within him had died down he soon saw that pretty head for the quite commonplace thing it really was, and the aureole faded in the light of common day.

In the same way, knowing as much as we now do about the subconscious functioning of the musical master minds, we must beware of attributing, as the romantic biographers have been prone to do, too direct an influence upon Beethoven’s music of his deafness, his frustrations in love, the cares brought upon him by his nephew, and so on. Some impress upon him, of course, these things must have made; but may it not be arguable that the peculiar quality of the music of Beethoven’s final phase — which is the special subject for inquiry in the present article — would have been very much the same had the circumstances of his worldly life been quite different ? May not the change in him that finds such marvelous expression in the music of his last few years be traceable to something in his very being as an artist that had been silently developing in him according to its own laws for many years, independently of, even if to some extent parallel with, the circumstances of his outer life?

The reader will be familiar with the traditional division of Beethoven’s lifework into three “styles.” It would indeed be astonishing if some such division were not observable. The work of every artist of great brain power who has had a fairly long life shows as a matter of course a first period of struggle between his dawning individuality and a transmitted routine, a second period in which he achieves a happy compromise between the two, a complete solution of all his problems of expression and form, and a third period in which an expansion of his imagination and subtilization of his craftsmanship draw him on into regions hardly explored until then, in which new and more difficult problems call for new solutions.

A process of this sort is obvious in Beethoven’s case. It is true that the works of his final period are still, to a large extent, an enigma that has baffled the most ardent of his students: true also that when the critics come down to actualities they differ from each other as to which works mark the passage from the first style to the second and which from the second to the third. On one point, however, everyone is agreed — that in the works unmistakably of his third period, of which the last two piano sonatas and the last five quartets (with the Great Fugue) constitute a definite unity, a territory with a spiritual climate and a flora and fauna entirely its own, we are confronted with what seems to be virtually a new Beethoven: such music had never been heard in the world before, and we may doubt whether its like will ever be heard again. All who have fallen under its spell agree that here music explores the profoundest depths of the spirit and soars to the loftiest mystical heights. But I would join issue with the doctrine that this “third" style can be marked off at all sharply, either in chronology or in substance, from the two that preceded it. On the contrary — and this is the thesis I shall try to establish — the third period seems to be merely the full realization of impulses and the sublimation of technical procedures that had been subconscious controlling forces in Beethoven’s musical nature from the beginning. Undoubtedly the works of the last period point to a “crisis" in his mental life; but that crisis, I would urge, came about neither through any pressure on him from the outer world nor from a conscious quest on his part for new expressions and new forms.


FOR a thesis of this kind to have any real validity it must be demonstrated in terms of the man’s music alone, without any resort, for support to romantic biography — with its arbitrary tracing of musical effects to nonmusical causes — or to the equally arbitrary reading of poetic “programs” into purely instrumental works. It must be shown — or at all events some evidence must be tabled — that certain procedures of melody, of rhythm, of phrase structure, of form, and so on, which are regarded as peculiar to the works of Beethoven’s last phase are to be found also in abundance in earlier works of his, thus suggesting the lifelong persistence in him of essentially the same moods, the same idioms, a partiality for the same psychological adventures.

This necessitates my saying a preparatory word or two on the subject of what I have elsewhere called a composer’s fingerprints — basic formulae of expression, personal to him, that recur constantly in a man’s music, though sometimes in shapes so subtilized by the circumstances of the moment that they may escape our detection for a long time. The skepticism in some quarters as to the existence of these fingerprints in composition, or of their value to criticism, would be less confident if the skeptics were aware how searchingly, and with what illuminative results, the same phenomenon has been studied in poetry and prose for something like a century.

The dominant style-elements of many writers from Cicero onwards have been brought to light by style-analysis. Émile Hennequin demonstrated long ago Flaubert’s unconscious tendency to follow a certain pattern of construction, from word to phrase, from phrase to sentence, from sentence to paragraph, from paragraph to chapter, from chapter to book; while in a brilliant essay he laid bare the verbal elements that constitute the style, and therefore give us clues to the thinking, of Victor Hugo. More recently Alphonse Le Dû has shown in minute detail Hugo’s unconscious proneness to certain rhythmical patterns in both his poetry and his prose. W. F. Jackson Knight has subjected Virgil’s accentual symmetries to a similar analysis; and more than one writer has demonstrated the curious ways in which a verbal image in Shakespeare will not only beget a cognate image but call up from the depths of his subconscious, by some strange unforeseen compulsion of its own, a side-line of thought which had certainly not been part of the poet’s conscious purpose when he began.

Undoubtedly there exist in the composer also definite irresistible biases towards certain basic formulae personal to him. In some cases the fingerprint exists as a mere tic or mannerism of speech, occurring on every page he writes but not bound up in his subconscious with any particular psychological state. It is the easiest matter in the world to show the existence of a harmless tic of this sort in Puccini. Weber has a marked bias towards a certain formula of melodic structure, and in his case it often stands in the way of truth of dramatic expression, for the composer’s unconscious use of it on all sorts of occasions is apt to give much the same musical physiognomy to dramatic characters differing very much from each other in themselves and in their milieu.

As a rule these basic individual formulae of speech persist throughout a composer’s lifetime; but occasionally one makes a fleeting appearance fairly late in his career — that is to say, the time of its taking possession of him, and the duration of its spell over him, can be more or less definitely fixed. Frank Walker has recently drawn our attention to a case in point in connection with Hugo Wolf, a certain melodic-rhythmical formula being so specifically associated with his work during a particular brief period that, as Mr. Walker says, “if an unknown song of his were discovered in which this ‘fingerprint ‘ occurred, we should be able at once to surmise the year, and almost the month, of its composition.” Our Greek scholars, we may remind ourselves, long ago employed this method of “stylometry,” as it has come to be called in literary circles — in which, as Professor Grube has put it, “special attention is paid to the frequency of certain expressions and particles which any writer uses all but unconsciously” — to determine the chronological order of the composition of Plato’s Dialogues; for “some turns of phrase that occur in the early works gradually disappear, and vice versa.”


OF ALL the composers whose work I have studied from the stylometric point of view, I have found Beethoven the easiest to systematize, the one in whom the unconscious inclination towards typical melodic-rhythmical formulae is most marked — a fact which of itself, considering the towering greatness of the man, should dispose of the innocent notion in some quarters that to demonstrate these biases in a composer is to lower him in some way in our estimation, There is probably some subtle organic reason for the formation and fixation of these unconscious biases in an artist; possibly they represent a subsurface effort at economy on the part of the artistic faculty, the establishment of broad, smooth, charted highways, as it were, in his thinking that enable him the better to concentrate on the intellectual adventures he will seek and find on the road.

Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that Beethoven shows an irresistible tendency to express essentially the same moods, and conflicts of moods, in much the same way from the beginning of his career to the end. This statement can be proved only by plentiful citations, which are impossible in the present article. I can only ask the reader to accept the statement provisionally as part of the working hypothesis upon which the present article proceeds. He will no doubt know that Pirro and Schweitzer have proved conclusively that Bach has a sort of musical “language” of his own, in virtue of which he more or less unconsciously employs, in one work after another, the same musical symbol to express the same mood or define the same external image.

To prove a similar psychical process in the case of the purely instrumental music of a composer is necessarily more difficult, but I believe it can be done in Beethoven’s case. He has a certain rhythmic type-formula, for example, for impressive statements in four-four time, and another for similar statements in three-four time: the type is modified in this work or that, but basically the ad hoc formula remains the same. The critics have all seen in certain movements of the final quartets and piano sonatas an expression of something that we may call joy, or contentment, or ecstasy. But I think the essential point has remained unperceived — that in his musical “language” various types of joy or happiness are inseparably associated by him with definite type-constructions of notes. His use of the trill for certain expressions of mystical ecstasy could alone be made the subject of a whole long essay.

The point towards which I am working—with some difficulty because of my inability to make use here of musical citations — is that there is fundamentally nothing new, for Beethoven, in the incomparable works of his last phase, which are only the approfondissement of psychological elements and the subtilization of technical procedures that had constituted the substance of his music from the beginning. These last great works of his are the product not of a crisis in his actual life but rather of his emergence from an internal crisis that had been piling up steadily within the artist in him for many years. What then was the nature of that crisis?

In his latter years, when he was completely deaf, friends used to write out what they had to say to him, while he, of course, replied viva voce. The “Conversation Books” that have survived therefore record only his interlocutors’ remarks, leaving us to guess as best we can at Beethoven’s. It is rather like overhearing only one side of a telephone conversation, and necessarily the full tenor of the talk often evades us. But there is a page in a Conversation Book of the winter of 1823 that seems to have a bearing on the subject that is now engaging us. Schindler has said to him, “Do you remember how I had to play you a few years ago the sonata Op. 14? Now it is all clear.”His next remark, in answer to something Beethoven had said, is of no importance to our inquiry. But after that we find him writing, “Two principles also in the middle movement of the Pathétique”; and after having, one surmises, gained the composer’s assent to this, Schindler continues, “Thousands don’t grasp that.”

Schindler seems to have been drawing the Master’s attention to a recurrent feature that had struck him in his music — that of a system of thought and construction based primarily upon “two principles” posed in apposition; and Beethoven agreed with him, for Schindler tells us elsewhere, apropos of the piano sonata Op. 14, No. 2 that “in the second sonata this dialogue and its import are more pregnantly expressed, and the apposition of the two main voices [i.e., the two “principles’] is more palpable than in the first. Beethoven called these two principles ‘the pleading and the resisting. . . .‘”

Though Schindler did not realize it, he was on the way towards a perception that is vital now for the full understanding of Beethoven’s mind and work. A certain principle of polarity can be seen to underlie all his thinking, a tendency to conceive and manipulate things in antitheses. We can trace this tendency from its cell form to its full organic growth. It reveals itself first of all in a bias towards an antithesis within the narrow limits of a phrase, then in an antithesis within the sentence, then in the dramatic antithesis of leading themes indicative of a conflict of psychological “principles” — and so on to the total work as a purposeful antithesis of movements.

And my thesis here is that in the wonderful music of his final phase he merely transplants to another psychical plane his lifelong impulse to achieve a balanced unity in terms of this polarity. And the crisis, the great dividing line, came not through the stresses of his outer life but from the natural evolution of his innermost being as an artist. The whole of his more significant work had been one attempt after another, in the most protean forms, to balance forces in the world of ideas and emotions which he felt to be locked in an inveterate struggle; and all he does now, in the last phase, is to transfer the polar conflict from the outer to the inner world; the drama is henceforth wholly internal.


AT THIS point it becomes necessary to say a word about Bettina von Arnim, the remarkable girl who made Beethoven’s acquaintance in Vienna in 1810. For the authenticity of two of the composer’s letters to her few would now go bail; but I see no reason to doubt the essential veracity of the account she gave Goethe of Beethoven’s conversation with her. She makes him speak of his sense of loneliness in the world of men: “I have not a single friend; I must live alone in myself. But well I know that God is nearer to me than to the others of my craft; I consort with him without fear; I have always recognised and understood him, and I have no fear for my music — it can meet no evil fate. To grasp it is to be freed from all the misery that others drag about with them.” (This, be it observed, in 1810, more than a decade before the composition of the great works to which this description by Beethoven himself of the inmost nature of his music is peculiarly applicable.) “When I open my eyes I must sigh,” Bettina makes him say, “. . . for I must despise the world which has no inkling of the fact that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy; it is the wine which inspires one to new engenderings, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. When they have become sober again they have fished up all manner of things which they can bring with them to dry land.”

To realize the full truth of this self-analysis we have to go to the works of his last phase, not to those he had produced by 1810, when he was only forty — for by that time he had got no further than the sixth symphony, the fifth piano concerto, the E flat major quartet, Op. 74, and the F minor quartet, Op. 95. Several of the mightiest works of all, among them the Ninth Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106, the last two piano sonatas, and the last, five quartets, were still in the womb of time. As regards Bettina, then, we must decide either that Beethoven really did talk to her, half reminiscently, half prophetically, very much as she represents him as having done, or, if she were romancing, that this young woman of twenty-five had an insight into the essential but as yet imperfectly revealed Beethoven that placed her head and shoulders above not only all the critics of her day and his but most of those of the next half-century.

For it was undoubtedly as an outpouring of bacchic exultation that Beethoven regarded some of the music of his middle phase, with the more reflective moments of a work figuring as a reaction against this mood, an antithesis or counterpoise to it. In 1818, at the time when he was engaged on the mighty Hammerklavier sonata, we find him not only making sketches for the Ninth Symphony but laying out the ground plan for a tenth, the principle of which was to be the contrast of “a Bacchus festival (allegro)" and ”a devout canticle (adagio) . . . the text to be a Greek mythos.”The specifically dionysiac mood had found its most exuberant expression for the time being in the wild finale of the Seventh Symphony (1812), and was to work itself out later in the Hammerklavier sonata and the second and final movements of the Ninth Symphony. With the completion of this and of the Missa Solemnis, in 1823, Beethoven rang the curtain down on a struggle (between the two cardinal principles of his artistic being) to which there is no parallel in the life of any other composer: we have evidence in plenty of the titanic strain under which not only his imagination but his physical powers labored in the effort to say all that was within him.

But the Greeks knew not only the dionysiac frenzy but the no less valued aftermath of this — what they called the dionysiac silence, when the spirit of the worshiper, at once exhausted, purged, and refreshed, luxuriated in a new illumination, that of ecstatic quietude. It is in this inner field of the dionysiac silence that the works of Beethoven’s latest phase live and move and have their being. The old polarity of “two principles” still survives in them as the basic pattern of his thinking.

IIow deeply rooted that pattern was in his artistic nature can be seen by a comparison of the piano sonata quasi una fantasia in E flat major, Op. 27, No. 1, which dates from 1801, and the sonata in A major, Op. 101, which belongs to 1816. Paul Bekker has pointed out that the principle of construction is the same in both works — because the imaginative principle underlying them is the same. As Bekker remarks, if Beethoven does not expressly characterize the later sonata, as he has done the earlier one, as “quasi una fantasia,” that is only because for him this was too self-evident to call for mention. In their mood-sequences, their mood-antitheses, the polarity of the “two principles” that are played off against each other, the two sonatas are the same. The vital difference between them is in the greater depth, the greater inwardness of the feeling in the later work, which comes from a period in which Beethoven was well on his way towards the dionysiac silence that possessed him in his final phase.

The crisis was a purely internal one, arising from an organic change in the nature of the artist, not from anything in the outer life of the man; and, like all great natural changes, it proceeded slowly. It was a psychical metamorphosis in him which may be compared to a geological “shift,”a slow subsidence which, while leaving the basic rock structure as it was, brings with it a new surface conformation, a new climate, a new flora and fauna. The climate of Beethoven’s mind decidedly changed. The old extremes of temperature no longer exist — there is no such difference of that kind between the fast and the slow movements of the final quartets as there is between those of the great works of his middle period. ‘The polarity is still operative, but the poles are not so far apart now as of old: the antitheses are now less violent, less obvious, rather in the nature of nuances of one pervading emotion. The interaction of the contending forces no longer takes place on the external but on an internal plane. He does not need now, for his pattern of opposition and reconciliation, of tension and release, the boldly defined, brightly lit, starkly opposed “subjects” of the older kind, still less the concretization of the spiritual struggle in human characters such as Egmont, Coriolanus, Leonora-Pizarro. The drama is now played out entirely in the composer’s own rapt, self-absorbed soul.

The old academic attempts to “analyze” the final works in terms of “expanded” or “modified” “sonata form,” “variation form,” and all the other quaint old formulae of nineteenth century pedagogy will some day have to be abandoned. Beethoven no longer thinks in terms of these forms, superficially as his procedures may resemble them here and there. He now spins outward in all directions from the center of the insulating web he has woven round his spirit; it is this procedure, infinite in its possibilities, that accounts for the great lengths to which some of his latest movements run. Wagner, in a conversation with his intimates at Wahnfried, drew attention to this capacity for endless proliferation from the nuclear cell of a movement. “You see,” he said, “Beethoven, if he had liked, could have stopped here, or here, or here.”That is true; but Wagner might have gone further and pointed out that the composer could in many eases equally well have begun here, or here, or here. The “subjects” of the opening allegro movements of the E flat and A minor quartets, for instance, are not “subjects” in the old technical sense of that term, begetters of the form and texture that follow; rather do they strike us, from their very beginning, as moments in a train of thought that had already been going on for some time in the subconscious of the composer before he decided to take up pen and paper: what is on the page may begin at this point, but what was in the mind of Beethoven had begun long before then; the “ theme,”at its first statement, is only a milestone on a road that stretches as far back as it does forward.

The incomparable slow movements, again, are not “variations on a theme” but long-drawn-out variations on a mood; Beethoven’s texture and procedure are quite different here from what they are when he is writing variations for variation’s sake. And by means of stylometrie analysis we can trace the underlying currents of his thought throughout a whole work, and show the predominance now of this, now of that aspect of joy — the quiet joy that almost immobilizes motion, innocent joy that finds expression in one dance form or another, artless spontaneous joy that springs into physical being out of its own innermost nature, a profounder joy that needs for the uncoiling of its deep-lying spring a previous coiling of forces rooted in the profoundest tenebrae of the soul, and so on. And always there is the polarity that was the very basis of Beethoven’s thinking, because it was the basis of his nature, He saw the world, without and within him, as a series of antinomies that had somehow to be resolved; but the great distinction between the earlier works and the latest resides in the fact that in the latter the contending forces now operate entirely in the innermost being of the man, requiring no reference to externalities.

Of all the mystics of art, the Beethoven of the last few years is the greatest: one has to go back to the thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi to find his parallel, and we can only be grateful for the tremendous inner change, whatever its hidden origins may have been, that took place in him in his final years. But he was hardly more than fifty-six when he died; and inevitably we ask ourselves what his next phase might have been. Is a “next phase” conceivable? He could hardly have traveled further along the mystical road than he had done already; and we may ask ourselves whether, on the other hand, it was within the bounds of human possibility for him to have gone back once more to the outer world. Has any born mystic ever made that backward journey after

. . . he on honey-dew hath fed And drunk the milk of Paradise?

Must we not be driven, after the contemplation of these most marvelous of musical works, to agree with Hugo Wolf’s dark oracular saying that no man is taken away until he has done his work?