Friday, August 17, 2007

A Translation of "Beethovens Instrumentalmusik" by E. T. A. Hoffmann

(For a PDF version of this translation, go to The Worldview Annex).

Beethoven's Instrumental Music

In considering the subject of music as a self-contained art, ought one not to confine oneself to instrumental music; given that the latter, in disdaining any admixture of that other art known as poetry, expresses the peculiar, the uniquely intuitive, essence of this art? Music is the most romantic of all the arts; one might, indeed, almost call it the only truly romantic art, for it takes the infinite itself as its sole theme. Orpheus's lyre opened the gates of Hades. Music discloses to man an uncharted realm: a world that has absolutely nothing in common with the external, empirical world, a world that comprehensively encircles its empirical counterpart, a world to which the latter abandons all distinct sensations for the sake of surrendering itself to an inexpressible yearning.

Doubtless you, too--you long-suffering instrumental compositions, who take such great pains to depict distinct sentiments (and what is more, actual events)--have at least dimly surmised this peculiar essence? How, then, did it ever occur to you to busy yourself so materially with the materials of an art so frankly at odds with this essence? Your sunrises, your thunderstorms, your batailles des trois empereurs, etc., were, to be sure, quite laughable aberrations and have been deservedly consigned to utter oblivion.

In vocal music, wherein poetry verbally intimates distinct emotional states, the magical power of music acts like a marvelous melodic elixir, the merest few drops of which render each and every draft immeasurably more exquisite and delicious. Music clothes every passion supplied to us by the opera--love, hate, rage, despair, etc.--in the purple luster of romanticism, and, by way of the transient sensations of life itself, leads us out of life and into the realm of the infinite.

Such is the ever-crescent power of music's enchantment, that it needs must have rent asunder all fetters imposed on it by any other art.

To be sure, it is owing not merely to the facilitation of their means of expression (i.e., technical improvements in the instruments, greater virtuosity of the part of the players), but also to their deeper, more intimate perception of the peculiar essence of music, that certain composers of genius have raised instrumental music to its present heights.

Mozart and Haydn, the creators of modern instrumental music, were the first to exhibit the art to us in its full glory; he who first beheld it with undivided love and penetrated its innermost essence is: Beethoven! The instrumental works of all three masters are imbued with a single romantic spirit, wherein resides a correspondingly singular, intimate understanding of the peculiar essence of this art; nonetheless, each master's oeuvre is markedly different in character from those of the other two. In Haydn's compositions, the expressive idiom of a serenely childlike soul holds sway. His symphonies lead us into a boundless sylvan grove, into a merry, colorful, tumultuous throng of happy people. Round-dance formations of swains and maids flit past; laughing children eavesdrop from behind trees and rose bushes and playfully bury themselves in flowers. A life of untrammeled love and bliss, a prelapsarian life of eternal youth; no sorrows, no pain: only a bittersweet longing for the beloved form that hovers off in the distance, in the twilit glow of the sunset, and that neither draws nearer nor disappears; and while that form remains there, inasmuch as it constitutes in itself that very sunset by which the hill and the grove are so tenderly illuminated, night will never fall. Mozart leads us into the depths of the spiritual realm. Here terror surrounds us, but in the absence of its attendant torments, it is more of a presentiment of the Infinite.

Here, love and sadness resound in winsome spiritual concords; night ascends in lovely shades of iridescent purple, and, with an inexpressible yearning, we chase after a succession of forms that genially beckon us onwards as they fly through the clouds in the eternal dance of the spheres. (See Mozart's Symphony in E-flat major, also known as the "Swan-song" symphony.)1

Beethoven's music, on the other hand, discloses to us the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable. 
Beams of incandescent light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become conscious of enormous shadows; shadows that, in the ponderous weight of their alternating ebb and flow, ever-more-narrowly constrain, and, ultimately, annihilate us--without, however, annihilating that pain of infinite yearning upon which each and every pleasure that has fleetingly come into its own in the exultation of melody founders and then perishes, and it is only in virtue of this pain—this pain of mingled love, hope, and joy that is intrinsically consumptive but not destructive, this pain that strives to tear our breast asunder in a full-voiced concord of all the passions—that we survive the ordeal as enraptured communicants with the great beyond!

The romantic temperament is rare enough, but rarer still is romantic talent; hence it comes that there are so few proficient players of that lyre whose sound discloses the marvelous realm of the romantic.

Haydn conceives of the humanity in human life romantically; he is, for the most part, more intelligible and comprehensible.

Mozart lays a greater claim to the superhuman, the marvelous, that dwells in the inner spirit. Beethoven's music turns the handle of terror, tremulousness, dread, and pain and awakens that infinite yearning that is the very essence of romanticism. Hence he is a romantic composer through and through; and hence may we not account for his comparative paucity of achievement in the genres of vocal music, which genres will perforce have no truck with the vague yearning that is perceived and depicted in the realm of the infinite, but only with such distinct emotional states as are expressible in words?

Beethoven's mighty genius crushes the music-loving rabble; the latter's wishful protests against it are in vain. But as for those arbiters of taste who prudently survey their surroundings with a superior mien, for reassurance's sake--one cannot but take them at their word that they are men of great understanding and profound insight--such a fertile and active imagination has not fallen to B's share but that he knows well enough not to curb it! For any mere selection and molding of ideas is quite beside the point in his case; to the contrary: he has overtaken the so-called creative method to such a degree that he is instantaneously inspired by the fiery workings of his imagination. But how is it that the profound coherence of every Beethoven composition has eluded your purblind gaze (for you have only yourselves to blame if you cannot comprehend the master's consecratedly intelligible language, if the gate of his inner sanctum remains shut to you)? In truth, and by way of fully comparing him to Haydn and Mozart in point of presence of mind, the master separates his ego from the interior realm of sounds and rules over the latter like an absolute monarch. Aesthetic geometricians have long bemoaned the lack of inner coherence and inner unity in Shakespeare's works, wherein the more searching gaze discerns the beauteous maturation of a tree whose leaves, sap and fruit have all sprouted from a single seed; in like manner, it is only after one has delved as deeply as possible into Beethoven's instrumental music that it evinces that superior presence of mind that is inseparable from true genius and that can be gleaned only from a proper study of art. None of Beethoven's instrumental works corroborates all of the above more affirmatively than does the incomparably excellent, meditative Symphony in C minor.2 Oh, how this wonderful composition urges the listener onwards and upwards, along an ever-rising slope leading to a single climax, into the spiritual realm of the infinite! Nothing could be simpler than the opening Allegro's two-measure-long principal motif, which, in its initial unison appearance, does not even grant a sense of key to the listener. The character of restless, uneasy longing that this movement bears within itself is rendered still clearer by its lyrical second theme! The heart, oppressed and alarmed by menacing forebodings of monstrosity and annihilation, seems to have willingly cast its lot with the atmosphere of vigorous, strident sonorities; but now comes along this genial, iridescent form that illuminates the deep, gray-cast night. (The lovely theme in G major, first touched on by the E flat French horn.)3 How simple--let it be said again--is the theme that the master lays down as a foundation for the whole, but how wonderfully the accompanying and transitional phrases, in virtue of their rhythmic proportionality, successively conjoin and utterly subordinate themselves thereto; such that they come to evince the fundamental character of the allegro, to which this principal theme is but an allusion. All of the phrases are short--consisting almost entirely of two or three measure-long units--and, moreover, divided in constant alternation between the winds and the strings; one would have supposed that only a collection of unintelligible fragments could emerge from such elements; whereas, to the contrary, it is precisely by way of this disposition of the whole, along with the constant, consecutive reiteration of phrases and individual chords, that the sense of ineffable longing attains the highest intensity. Quite apart from the fact that the treatment of counterpoint bespeaks a profound understanding of that art, the transitional passages, the continual allusions to the principal theme, also show how the master has conceived and planned the whole with a view to each and every one of the soul's passionate lineaments. But here, too, treads that terrible spirit that so ineluctably harried the heart in the Allegro, now menacing us from behind cover of the storm-cloud into which it vanished, a cloud whose lightning-flashes put to flight the genial forms by which we were previously encircled. What shall I say of the minuet? Hearken to the peculiar modulations, to the cadences closing on chords in the dominant major, which the bass adopts as the tonic of the ensuing theme in the minor mode--yes, that selfsame theme, constantly extending itself a few measures at a time! Are you not once again overcome by that restless, ineffable longing, that foreboding of the marvelous spiritual realm over which the master rules? But oh, how the splendid theme of the finale radiates blinding sunlight in the exultant jubilation of the full orchestra. Here, again, what marvelous contrapuntal intricacies are woven into the fabric of the whole. For many people, all of this will simply rush past like an ingeniously contrived rhapsody; but the soul of the thoughtful listener will doubtless be seized in its innermost depths by a feeling that constitutes the very essence of that ominously ineffable longing, and right on through to the final cadence--nay, even after that selfsame moment--he will be incapable of extricating himself from that spiritual realm wherein he is surrounded by sorrow and joy made palpably manifest in pure sound. The intensive organization of the individual movements, their execution, their instrumentation, the manner in which each one succeeds its predecessor, everything converges on a single point; but above all it is the intimate interrelationship of the themes that begets that unity that alone is capable of arresting the listener in a single frame of mind. Often this interrelationship is made clear to the listener if he follows the transition from one passage to the next or discerns that two passages share a common bass-line, but a more profound interrelationship, such as cannot be divulged in this fashion, is communicated only from soul to soul, and it is precisely this interrelationship that reigns sub rosa in the two allegros and in the minuet, and proclaims the genius of the master in its full glory.

But oh, great master! How deeply have thy piano works impressed themselves upon my heart; how commonplace and insignificant does everything belonging neither to thee, nor to the ingenious Mozart, nor to the mighty Sebastian Bach now seem to me! With what delight did I first acquaint myself with the score of your Opus 70, of those two splendid trios, knowing full well as I did what splendors--pending a few rehearsal sessions--awaited my ears! And, indeed how felicitous it is that as of this evening I remain like one who, having wandered into some fantastic park, finds himself plunging ever deeper into its maze woven out of all manner of rare trees, plants and flowers; so incapable am I of abstracting myself from the wonderful turns and intricacies of your trios. The enchanting sirens' voices of your melodic phrases, in their variegated multiplicity, lure me ever deeper and onwards. The intelligent lady who earlier today played so splendidly for me, Kappellmeister Kreisler, in especial honor of your Trio No. 1, and at whose piano I am still sitting even as I write, allowed me plainly to perceive how one must value only what is imparted by the spirit, the remainder being positively harmful. At this very moment I have just played through by heart a few striking modulations from both trios. It of course remains the case that the piano (i.e., the pianoforte, as against the harpsichord4) is a much more useful instrument for the articulation of harmony than for that of melody. The subtlest expression of which this instrument is capable does not impart to the melodic line those myriad expressive nuances that the violin-bow and the wind-player's breath manage to differentiate with such agility and vitality. In vain, the performer wrestles with the insuperable difficulties presented to him by its mechanism, which sets the strings vibrating and resonating at a single touch. On the other hand, there is no certainly no other instrument (apart from the even more expressively-straitened harp) that, by way of fully-manipulable chords, circumscribes the realm of harmony and yields up its treasures to the connoisseur in such marvelous shapes and forms. If the master's fancy conceives a full-fledged tone-painting composed of an abundance of figures, brilliant shafts of light and deep gradations of color, he can can bring this painting to life at the keyboard of his piano, such that it emerges from his inner world in all of its original iridescent brilliance. The orchestral score, that veritable book of musical charms in whose symbols is preserved the whole miracle of music, the mysterious choir of manifold instruments, comes to life at the piano under the master's hands; and one may perhaps liken this miniature of the full score comprising all of the latter's instrumental voices to a well-executed copperplate reproduction of a large painting. Hence the piano is preeminently suited to improvisation, to sight-reading, to solo sonatas, to chords, etc.; secondarily, such genres as the trio, the quartet, the quintet, etc., to which the conventional string instruments contribute, likewise assuredly belong entirely to the realm of piano composition, inasmuch as they are actually composed in four parts, five parts, etc., such that here it is entirely a question of harmonic development, which is automatically precluded by conspicuously florid passage-work on the part of any of the individual instruments.

I harbor a savage animus against all proper piano concertos. (Mozart's and Beethoven's are not so much concertos as symphonies with piano obbligatos.) Here, the virtuosity of the soloist, in the execution of passages and in the expression of the melody, is bound to assert itself; the best player on the finest of instruments futilely strains after that which the violinist in Beethoven achieves with the most negligible exertion. Every solo sounds stiff and feeble after the full tutti of fiddles and winds, and one marvels at the fleetness of the finger-work, and so on and so forth, while one's heart remains utterly untouched.

But how thoroughly the master has apprehended the unique spirit of the instrument, and what correspondingly especial pains has he taken on its behalf!

A simple, singable--albeit fecund--theme, amenable to the most diverse contrapuntal turns, abbreviations, etc., constitutes the foundation of every movement; and all residual accompanying voices and figures are related to this principal theme, such that everything, courtesy of each and every instrument, is ultimately intertwined and arranged in the service of a perfect unity. Such is the structure of the whole; but within this artificial edifice the most marvelous images alternate in restless flight; and by way of this alternation joy and pain, sadness and bliss, consecutively and interpenetratively present themselves. Strange shapes commence an ethereal dance, in the course of which they now soar convergently up to a focal point, now scatter in brilliant coruscation, and pursue each other in manifold combinations; and in the midst of this newly-revealed spiritual realm the enraptured soul eavesdrops on an unfamiliar language and understands all of the most mysterious presentiments by which it is moved.

Only the composer has truly, thoroughly penetrated the mystery of harmony by means of which the human heart can be influenced; to him alone have been vouchsafed the numerical proportions--which to the ungifted grammarian remain but so many fixed, lifeless arithmetical templates--those magical chemical compounds out of which the enchanted world can arise.

Notwithstanding the good nature that is especially prevalent in the first trio--its wistful Largo not excepted--Beethoven's genius retains its essentially serious and solemn character. It is as if the master is suggesting that even when one's spirit feels itself raised to a pitch of merriment, one cannot discourse on matters profound and mysterious with which one is intimately familiar in the vernacular, but only in noble, lapidary utterance; the musical accompaniment of the dance of the high priest of Isis can only be a hymn of celebration in the high style.

Accordingly, instrumental music must exert its effects only qua music; it ought not to subordinate itself at hazard to any distinct dramaturgical design or have any truck with trivial clowning and trifling lazzi. It plumbs the depths of the soul in search of such intimations of ecstasy--such visitors from an unknown country, fairer and more glorious than anything hailing from this straitened world--as arouse a life of inner bliss in one's breast; in search of a more exalted expression than that of mere words, which vouchsafe only terrestrial pleasures. To be sure, in virtue of its seriousness, the whole of Beethoven's instrumental and pianistic oeuvre forswears all of those neck-breaking, two-handed ascending and descending passages, all of those bizarre leaps, those droll capriccios, those sky-scraping high notes with bass complements five or six strokes below the staff, which abound in piano compositions of the most up-to-date sort. In point of sheer digital dexterity--those little runs, triplet figures, etc. that every expert player must have ready to hand--the compositions of the master present no especial difficulties; hence the quite severe difficulties presented by their execution. Many a so-called virtuoso has dismissed the master's piano compositions, protesting, first, All too difficult! and then adding, And all too pointless to boot! The difficulty involved in achieving a faithful, suitable rendition of a Beethoven composition amounts to nothing less than this: that one must penetrate the core of its essence, that one must boldly venture to step into the circle of magical phenomena called forth by its mighty incantation, in full consciousness of one's preordained privilege to do so. He who does not feel this sense of pre-ordination in his bones, who regards this sacred music as nothing but a childish pastime fit only for the whiling away of an idle hour, or the momentary entertainment of tin ears, or the display of his instrumental prowess, should let it well enough alone. Such a person alone is within his rights to protest, Supremely pointless to boot!

The authentic artist lives only in the works, which he has comprehended in the mind of the master and now brings to their realization. He scorns to assert his personality in any way whatsoever, and all of his efforts are directed solely towards summoning up in a thousand iridescent colors, and in their full vitality, all of the sweetly glorious images and phenomena that the master with his magic powers has concealed in his oeuvre; such that these images and phenomena enfold his fellow men and women in luminous, coruscating circles and bear him aloft--his heart of hearts and his fancy alike quickening all the while--in speedy flight towards the far-off spiritual realm of sounds.


1. Presumably No. 39, K. 543, hardly a "swan-song" given that it was followed by two further symphonic opuses, three operas, and numerous chamber works, most of these being of comparable or surpassing stature.

2. The famous No. 5, Op. 67.

3. I. mm. 59-62. In fact, this horn motif is transparently derived from the principal theme and serves as a transition to the second theme proper, which is introduced by the strings in mm. 63-66.

4. In this parenthesis, Hoffmann does not explicitly mention the harpsichord: rather, he merely specifies the instrument at hand as the "Flügel-Pianoforte"; thereby forestalling any construable application of his remarks to a keyboard instrument incapable of dynamics (i.e. more than e.g., at this point in history, the harpsichord).