Volume 47 - Issue 3
A Late Review of a Late Sonata in Late ModernityBy Daniel Strange
I know, I know. From this Brit, you might have been hoping for some incisive theological analysis and comment on the cultural phenomenon that has been the reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II including that ‘one last magnificent porous day’1 of her funeral. But so much has already been said and more eloquently than I ever could. I would like to do a review, somewhat belatedly, of another event that took place on a much less grand scale. No pomp, no circumstance.
On the fourteenth of March 2020, I made the journey from my home in North London over the river Thames to St Luke’s Church Battersea to attend what was probably one of the very last musical events in the UK before we starting shutting stuff down: the pianist Steven Osborne playing the triptych that are Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas—Op. 109, 110 and 111—in a series of events to mark the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s birth. I’ve had a fascination (bordering on obsession) with these late sonatas for many years, listening to, and owning, a multitude of interpretations. Osborne’s 2016 recording of these works on the Hyperion label has been critically acclaimed, and so the chance to hear him live was a real treat.
Of course, back then none of us knew the practice, let alone the term ‘social distancing’, and yet as I arrived, the atmosphere was a little awkward as we squashed in cheek by jowl along hard wooden pews. Rumours of COVID (and maybe the virus itself!) were swirling around. As a result, more than once I witnessed old friends meeting and chuckling nervously at the novelty of elbow bumping only after they’d realised they shouldn’t have shaken hands. Should the recital be going ahead? Should we be attending, especially given the average age of the couple of hundred attending must have been well over fifty? Was I imagining it, or was that a tickle at the back of my throat? As the recital was about to start, and the lights dimmed, Osborne walked onto the stage to make an announcement. There would be no encores that evening, but this was nothing to do with a COVID restriction. Osborne never plays encores for this particular programme. After these three sonatas he has no more to give, and there nothing more to say.
And so began over an hour of transcendental music played transcendentally. It would be a mistake to think that the value of an experience like this is about distraction or diversion. These occasions are not about escapism from the mundanities of real life and its frustrations and fears. Rather, music like this is a deep-dive into reality in all its ambiguity and mystery, an ever-moving narrative of tension and release, consonance and dissonance, comic and tragic, form and freedom. Of leaving, and yes, of homecoming. In these sonatas we encounter restless Beethoven, resigned Beethoven, resolved Beethoven. I know it sounds trite to say, but this music manages to contain and combine both the earthy and the heavenly.
Just recall the Op. 110, on balance my favourite of these last sonatas. The serene singing opening is followed by the almost bizarre Allegro which plays with two popular folk tunes of the day, ‘Our cat has had kittens’ and ‘I am down and out’. Then a drastic change of mood, an Adagio with a strange repeated right-hand hammering on the ‘A’ key which to my mind at least suggests someone banging their head against the wall in frustration. At this point in the recital I was worried that Osborne was going to break both the key and his finger. Then a plunge into pitch back and crushing despair of the Ariosa dolente (lamenting song) followed by the Fuga which starts in a determined manner before stuttering and collapsing back into the darkness. It’s marked ‘ermattet’ (exhausted), and the broken melody is undoubtedly the sound of sobbing. And then, the clock strikes ten and seemingly ex nihilo, the rebirth of the inverted fugue which starts so quietly but gradually grows and grows gaining ever more momentum as it comes back to life, going higher and higher in register, and ending in a chorale and a pealing climax of triumphant arpeggios, ‘a theme that leaps out of its own chasm of counterpoint, and when finally freed rings with a kind of joy which should be impossible after the arioso but somehow isn’t.’2 Osborne finished here with such a flourish that I thought he was about to take off in flight. Spine-tingling, tummy-wobbling moments. In the gloaming we tumbled out of that church on that fourteenth of March not knowing what was about to happen to our lives, but knowing we were not just existing but alive.
I love this music, but I’m no musicologist and only a very average trumpet player. Therefore, I was delighted a few years ago to discover that András Schiff’s celebrated Beethoven cycle of all thirty-two sonatas at the Wigmore Hall in London (and performed over a period between 2004 and 2006), had been preceded by the pianist’s series of eight lecture recitals covering every sonata. These lectures are freely available and a must listen, at once engaging, erudite, and humorous—not bad for a man who says he’s not very good with words, and for whom English is probably his fourth language.3 I return to these lectures frequently.
In his final lecture covering those last three sonatas (composed sometime between 1820 and 1822), Schiff is at pains for us to recognise the psychological, existential and metaphysical weight of these later works—‘this is no longer piano music’. Although each of these sonatas has its own opus numbers (signifying their significance), they were written simultaneously, and also at the same time as the Missa Solemnis, Beethoven’s version of the Mass. Back to the Op. 110 sonata I’ve already described above, Schiff is confident that the crushing despair of the Ariosa dolente (lamenting song) is confessional as Beethoven articulates the severe struggles he was facing in terms of his personal relationships, his deafness, and in particular a grave physical illness afflicting him. Conversely the triumphant end of the fugue is Beethoven overcoming this near-death experience.
However, there is another layer of association to be acknowledged. Although these piano sonatas are purely instrumental pieces with no text, Schiff notes that religious feeling is omnipresent and must be recognised. The theme of the Ariosa dolente is a straight quotation from an aria in Bach’s St John Passion with the words of Jesus on the cross—‘Es ist vollbracht’ (‘it is finished’). Schiff notes that if the Ariosa is the Agnus Dei, then the fugue is the Dona nobis pacem. In my view, yes, it’s about Beethoven own suffering and eventual healing, but it’s also a picture of the despair of stasis and death, and then miraculously the bursting triumph and momentum of resurrection. As Schiff notes rather drolly, having given a number of other religious allusions in these sonatas, ‘Not really the music of an atheist. So as a listener you are welcome to have whatever belief or a lack of belief, but I think as a performer and or even as a listener of Beethoven, we need to try and get on his wavelength.’
Discerning Beethoven’s own ‘spirituality’ and religious convictions remains a puzzle which has led to much scholarly speculation.4 There certainly appears to be an unorthodox anti-clericalism in his own practice, or rather, non-practice, which means some claim him as a deist in the fashion of Enlightenment humanistic freedom fighter, even though his background and environment were deeply religious and some of his closest friends were orthodox, devout Catholics.5 The contemporary Catholic composer Sir James McMillan makes a good case arguing for Beethoven’s Catholicism.6 What we do know, and the picture of the man caricatured in popular imagination, is that of the shaking fist of struggle—a struggle with life, a struggle with people, and a struggle with God. As Beethoven wrote to his confidant Karl Amend, ‘This Beethoven is living a most unfortunate life in conflict with nature and the Creator. Many times I cursed the latter for exposing his creatures with the smallest accident, so that in this way often the most beautiful blossom is broken and annihilated.’7 Commenting on this quotation, and presumably referring to Beethoven’s deafness, J. H. Bavinck notes, ‘Sometimes one hears in his sonatas the powerful, irascible resistance to the fate that had befallen him precisely in that part of his being to which he was most sensitive.’8
Having recognised this fight however, it’s worth returning to András Schiff’s lectures and his closing comments on the final bars of the final sonata, Op. 111, the Arietta, a movement famously philosophically rhapsodized by Thomas Mann in his novel Dr Faustus. As Schiff’s left hand moves down the keyboard and the right hand moves up so we hear the extremities of the keyboard, Schiff notes that time almost stops as Beethoven considers our place as human beings between the grounds and the heavens. And as we then move from the faraway land back towards a homecoming and resolution, Schiff concludes,
And indeed this wonderful thanksgiving returns in all majesty and all simplicity, and we can feel gratitude. If there are two words it’s ‘gratitude’ and ‘forgiving’—that’s what I feel when I listen to this music or when I have the privilege to play it. Because of a fantastic great genius who had really suffered more than anyone and still being able to write this music and transmitting gratitude and a deep profound and wholly religious feeling. A gratitude to God for being alive and for being able to write music like this.
As a Christian disciple, theologian and one interested in cultural apologetics, I am immediately encouraged to hear Schiff gesture towards an explanation of this music in these ‘religious’ terms with its allusions to more explicitly Christian liturgical resources, especially given our cultural context in the West, and even given the ambiguity of Beethoven’s own personal faith. In my mind it resonates with some of the themes of Jeremy Begbie’s extremely insightful and stimulating recent work, Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts,9 whose argument concludes with a plea and an invitation. The plea is that claims about transcendence in the arts (and he particularly focuses on the dimensions of ‘otherness’ and ‘uncontainability’), ‘make explicit and assess, the theology those claims presuppose. Every judgement we make about divine transcendence, even the outright denial of it, presupposes a belief about a deity (however inchoate) and the kind of relation that deity has (or does not have) with the finite world.’10 Begbie’s invitation is to enter into what he calls ‘a scriptural imagination’, ‘palpable in Christianity’s normative texts, and no less in the creedal traditions that resonate with them—we will discover a kind of transcendence that will not only recompose what we think divine transcendence to be, but also generate immense fruitfulness and explanatory power.’11 I would contend that even a misshapen fruit like Beethoven still conveys this scriptural imagination and power. Begbie begins his final chapter entitled ‘Redeeming Transcendence’ with a quotation from Charles Taylor: ‘There are certain works of art—…the list is endless—whose power seems inseparable from their epiphanic, transcendent reference. Here the challenge is to the unbeliever, to find a non-theistic register in which to respond to them, without impoverishment.’12 It’s back to familiar cultural apologetic tropes of ‘borrowed capital’, and the ‘air that we breathe’.
However, there is a ‘sting,’ or maybe better, a ‘sadness’ in the tail. Inspired by Schiff’s lectures, I was eager to read over the summer Schiff’s memoirs published in 2020, Music Comes out of Silence. Once again it’s a fascinating and edifying read, and yet in conversation Schiff is asked if he is a religious person:
That’s hard to say. In any case, I’m not an atheist—more of an agnostic. I can’t say that I believe in God. I experience my religion, religion, my religiosity, through art. That to me is evidence of some higher force, of a spirit and a soul. Life after death? Who knows? You can’t rule it out, and you also can’t prove the contrary. I find it hard to believe that every thought that ever came into the world simply dissolves into nothing. There’s a further life inherent in every note, every thought, perhaps in the cosmos. But I must stress one thing: I have a strong aversion to any kind of fundamentalism and dogmatism. The teaching of original sin is absurd. Of course, one makes mistakes in one’s life, and feels guilt. But to live in fear of punishment—that’s appalling. One can forgive, but certain things are unforgiveable and should never be forgotten.13
Schiff, the evangelist for recognising the religious and even ‘Christian’ in Beethoven, and moreover the pianist who has done so much to champion the much more explicitly Christian work of J. S Bach, is himself an agnostic with an ill-defined, vague and distinctively un-Christian notion of transcendence.
It’s this I don’t understand. It’s this I’m frustrated by. It’s this I wrestle with and want to bang my head against a wall, because isn’t it so clear, so obvious, so simple? Just look! Just listen! Just believe! But then, of course, as I calm down, I remember that while it is obvious, in another sense it’s not, as I recognise once again in my own life as well in those around me, the madness of unbelief, the monumental nature of a culture’s defeaters, the mysteriousness of the Spirit’s work who blows where He will, the miracle of grace in the gift of faith, and our continuing mission to continue to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have.
 Steve McAlpine, ‘One Last Magnificent Porous Day’, TGC Australia, 20 September 2022, https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/one-last-magnificent-porous-day/.
 A comment made by Ashish Xiangyi Kumar in his analysis of the sonata. See ‘Beethoven: Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110’, Youtube, 6 February 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3S8slvoHoU.
 ‘András Schiff Beethoven Lecture-Recitals’, Wigmore Hall, https://wigmore-hall.org.uk/podcasts/andras-schiff-beethoven-lecture-recitals.
 See, for example, J. W. N. Sullivan, Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (New York: Random House, 1960); Maynard Solomon, ‘Intimation of the Sacred’, in Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, ed. Maynard Solomon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 198–212; Lewis Lockwood, ‘The End of the Beginning’, in Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination, ed. Maynard Solomon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 14–23.
 One thinks of Beethoven’s greatest patron, friend and dedicatee of some of Beethoven’s greatest works, the Archduke Rudolph of Austria who became Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820.
 Listen to James MacMillan’s conversation with the journalist Damian Thompson about ‘Beethoven’s Spirituality’, The Spectator, 17 December 2020, https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/beethoven-s-spirituality-a-conversation-with-sir-james-macmillan.
 Karl Heim, Glaube und Leben: Gesammelte Aufsatze und Vortrage, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Furche, 1928), 421, quoted in John Bolt, James D. Bratt, and Paul Visser, ed., The J. H. Bavinck Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 198.
 Bolt, Bratt, and Visser, The J. H. Bavinck Reader, 198.
 Jeremy Begbie, Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts (London: SCM, 2018).
 Begbie, Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts, 184.
 Begbie, Redeeming Transcendence in the Arts, 185.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 607.
 András Schiff, Music Comes Out of Silence: A Memoir (London: Orion, 2021), 135.
Daniel Strange is director of Crosslands Forum, a centre for cultural engagement and missional innovation, and contributing editor of Themelios.
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