Thursday, May 12, 2016

Hoffmann on Beethoven: “The essence of romanticism”

My notes indicate that some time ago, during a conversation about music (including, apparently, Beethoven), I had sent these quotes to K:

“Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all precise feelings in order to embrace an inexpressible longing.”

and

“Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism. He is therefore a purely romantic composer.”

At the top, I had written in all caps one word: TRUTH.

I can’t recall the conversation, or what inspired me to find and send those snippets. In any case, their wisdom persists. Their origin, of course, is E.T.A. Hoffmann’s justly-famous review of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) was a prolific, broadly talented writer, composer. and critic; nowadays, he is probably best known as the author of the story that underlies Tchaikovsky’s ballet Nutcracker, or as the author of the stories that forms the libretto of Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann and inspired Delibes’ ballet Coppélia. Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, are his critical writings, especially his review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which was included in a longer exploration of Beethoven’s instrumental music (1810, revised 1813).

The review itself is penetrating and insightful, combining technical analysis with descriptions (predictions?) of the powerful response it would evoke in its hearers. Modern readers might be astonished to know that at the time he wrote his analysis, Hoffman had not heard a performance of the music; he was working entirely from the score.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the essay, wherein Hoffmann discusses the merits of pure (i.e., instrumental) music. His characterizations of the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven ring true.


“When music is spoken of as an independent art, does not the term properly apply only to instrumental music, which scorns all aid, all admixture of other arts (poetry), and gives pure expression to its own peculiar artistic nature? It is the most romantic of all arts, one might almost say the only one that is genuinely romantic, since its only subject-matter is infinity. Orpheus’ lyre opened the gates of Orcus. Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all precise feelings in order to embrace an inexpressible longing. . . .

“In singing, where the poetry suggests precise moods through words, the magical power of music acts like the philosopher’s miraculous elixir, a few drops of which make any drink so much more wonderfully delicious. Any passion -- love, hate, anger, despair, etc. -- presented to us in an opera is clothed by music in the purple shimmer of romanticism, so that even our mundane sensations take us out of the everyday into the realm of the infinite. Such is the power of music’s spell that it grows ever stronger and can only burst the fetters of any other art.

“It is certainly not merely an improvement in the means of expression (perfection of instruments, greater virtuosity of players), but also a deeper awareness of the peculiar nature of music, that has enabled great composers to raise instrumental music to its present level.

“Mozart and Haydn, the creators of modern instrumental music, first showed us the art in its full glory; but the one who regarded it with total devotion and penetrated to its innermost nature is Beethoven. The instrumental compositions of all three masters breathe the same romantic spirit for the very reason that they all intimately grasp the essential nature of the art; yet the character of their compositions is markedly different. . . .

“Haydn romantically apprehends the humanity in human life; he is more congenial, more comprehensible to the majority.

“Mozart takes more as his province the superhuman, magical quality residing in the inner self.

“Beethoven’s music sets in motion the machinery of awe, of fear, of terror, of pain, and awakens that infinite yearning which is the essence of romanticism. He is therefore a purely romantic composer. Might this not explain why his vocal music is less successful, since it does not permit a mood of vague yearning but can only depict from the realm of the infinite those feelings capable of being described in words?”


Source: Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (Leipzig), 1810, trans. Martyn Clarke. In David Charlton, ed., E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 96-7, 98.

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