Paul Griffiths' Mr. Beethoven

Paul Griffiths' Mr. Beethoven

17 November 2021 / William Anderson / How to Talk about Music

I do best when I sprint. Revisions can lead to sprawl.

Beethoven is on a ship to Boston, commissioned by the Handel & Haydn Society.

We are asked to entertain the hypothetical together; the reader is consulted with regard to some particulars.

Our objections are anticipated, even conjured and then used as a lever.

Beethoven the deaf composer is a lovely step toward Beethoven the ghost, the legacy.

To be of interest to Puritans Beethoven has to be mistaken for someone capable of something like Handel’s Messiah.

The Handel & Haydn Society musicalizes our Anglo-American sectarian schisms. I hope to explain this carefully. This is timely as our evangelicals today are supporting an autocrat.

A Unitarian is writing the libretto.

There was sectarian strife in Germanic lands no less than in England & the Colonies/USA. But the Amish & Mennonites were driven out — driven to Pennsylvania, only to appear later in Mann’s Dr. Faustus.

The German sectarian battles are annexed in Pennsylvania (and other Amish extensions further west) to the Anglo-American sectarian battles.

For me, the sectarian value crises is noise. Perhaps it is noise for anyone who sees the naturalist time line, the rising naturalist or Deist tendencies—the naturalistic forest as opposed to the sectarian trees—

St Francis—Aquinas/Maimonides/Avicenna—Spinoza—Jacob Boehme—Goethe—Wordsworth—Emerson—Whitman

When we read Augustine do we feel some raw St. Francis in the making? I do.

St. Augustine—St Francis—Aquinas/Maimonides/Avicenna—Spinoza—Jacob Boehme—Goethe—Wordsworth—Emerson—Whitman

This plays out in music, especially one accepts my suggestion that Bach & Boehme are protonaturalists. Ronald D. Gray’s book, *Goethe the Alchemist* suggests that Boehme’s metaphorical flower influenced Goethe’s Urpflanze. I suggest Boehme is Spinozan enough and it gets to JS Bach, through the Pietists.

I suggested this to an early music person, Mark Rimple. Marc is also an excellent composer. Rimple senses in Bach a Medieval mind. No doubt when can see that. I suggest “Bach the progressive.”

I am recording my sensations, my impressions. I say that to preempt accusation of historicism. As a musician my impressions are formed by all the music that I know. What does music tell us about how we respond collectively to our sectarian strife? There is sectarian strife among atheists and among atheist composers. It’s no longer solely a religious matter.

*Mr. Beethoven* strikes me as an elaboration of music’s role in shaping our impressions.

Quincy, walking with Beethoven, speaks like Emerson here, anticipating Cage & Christian Wolfe. Beethoven’s deafness is transformed into Emerson’s Aeolian Harp—

“…unspoiled Nature gives us a fairer prospect than does agriculture. Rather the irregular geometry of the beneficent goddess than rectangular fields and rows of plantings. I know you are with me. Besides, what would become of my warblers? Listen. Oh, pray forgive me. But if only you could, my dear friend. Mind the ditch there. What a symphony they treat us to! Oh, and if only such music could be given out by the instruments of an orchestra, presenting us with a composition from the hand of Nature herself—and, yes, incorporating the shrieks of these gulls, too! How might we portray them? With clarinets, played in some raw fashion, as if by beginners?”

Here Quincy brushes against Goethe’s Urpflanze or the harmonic “seeds” in JK Mertz’ “Lied Ohne Worte”, or Strauss Metamorphosen—

“The seeds of grasses I find endlessly fascinating. Note the delicacy of these, weighing down the stem that supports them, so that it describes a graceful curve. Or am I still talking about my children? There are so many of them, and yet how few, the ground here being already packed with such a congregation, will be able to germinate, spring forth, and in due time become graceful stems with seeds of their own. That signal I think will be the ferry from Plymouth. I am not sure I can quite make out which of all these ships it must be. Of course, it is satisfying to see the evidence of how well our nation thrives, but I used sometimes to come here very early of a summer’s morning in order to see the sea stretch out empty, soundless. One can feel oneself alone in all the world at such a time, with only the birds for company, alone at a point when all of human history has passed, or before it has begun. Perhaps we could do that, you and I, before you leave us. I would like that, to be walking with you in eternal silence.”

That passage reminds me of Thomas Mann’s *Lotte in Weimar*. Mann was a great channeler, and so is Griffiths, whose premise grows stronger and stronger. Both works are ekphrasitc.

Thinking also of Melville’s priceless *Israel Potter*, particularly when we consider Beethoven’s van/von business. The van/von is properly novelistic in the French/English/American tradition of the novelistic identity crisis. Who are we when we are no longer hierarchized under a king? Germans novellas are less about that question, but Beethoven’s music is an outlier. Does Griffiths dramatize the rift between Beethoven and Mann’s defense of the non-democratic Germany order in his Reflections of a Non-political Man? Who are we? We are what we do. Israel Potter becomes a brick kiln. Composing is a bizarre and terribly rich feedback loop.

What we feel initially as an effortful contrivance starts to become *plentifully determined*

Thankful teaches Beethoven sign language to help him communicate with the Americans.

“…perhaps the word should indeed be “amanuensis,” as hands, after all, were what Thankful was using—“

Beethoven is being embodied, bizarrely transformed, in Thankful’s hands.

I mentioned the Timeline Toward Naturalism

Augustine—St Francis—Aquinas/Maimonides/Avicenna—Spinoza—Jacob Boehme—Goethe—Wordsworth—Emerson—Whitman

Goethe did not understand Beethoven, but Beethoven understood Goethe.

Another timeline—

Heroic, ekphrastic-heroic & mock-heroic:

Non-toxic Postmodernism—
Tristram Shandy—Walser—Bruno Schulz(?)—Joyce—Borges—Calvino—

Classical Music Timelines

Griffiths describes an Anglo-American musical ekphrasis. Long after Purcell, the English curatorial mode left Germans in charge of composing music, left the English in charge of judging it. In my mind Charles Burney is exemplary of the musical connoisseurship that prevailed between Purcell & Holst.

Griffiths suggests a musical ekphrasis in Boston’s Handel & Haydn Society. It is the American encircling analogous to Burney. The British and American ekphrases created classical music as we know it.

Read Burney; you will find him tiresome beyond belief.

Now, there are a couple post WWI & WWII ekphrases. As Handel & Haydn became exemplars, the German refugees began to contend with the French composers who dominated music in the Western Hemisphere—Boulanger & Dukas.

For me and many, we saw French music thumbing its nose at Germany. It felt like an unraveling into Poulenc & finally Claude Bolling. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, but some of us found the German refugees Hindemith, Krenek, Schoenberg, Wolpe and their American students building something with a strong, sturdy foundation.

Babbitt’s discussion of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron *feels like* solid food for centuries of music making, without resorting to any of Schoenberg’s historicizing. (!) and Babbitt’s music, likewise, gives us that intuitive feeling that we have rich soil for a century or two of musical fruition. And we really do.

We had to Americanize it. And we didn’t quite get to that before there was much awkward American expressionism, but when Babbitt gave up August Stramm & worked instead with Hollander, that went a long way toward *on-shoring* the German musical modalities.

Prior to that American music was Jazz with French encouragement. It felt to us, to many of us, I propose, like excrescences, sometimes wonderful.

The result is seen bizarrely in Villa-Lobos, Manuel Ponce, Meyer Kupferman & Agustin Barrios.

Bach seen from an ocean away becomes the bizarre pastiches of V-L, Ponce, Barrios, Kupf.

They all have their native folk or jazz influences. And the have their modernisms—

Kupferman’s Infinities Row (German influence)
Villa-Lobos’ jungle music
Ginastera & Brouwer’s texture music
Ponce’s polytonality

The German composer refugees in the US transplanted their vine-stock. They say some of the best French grapes survive in California.

Mr. Beethoven helps organize our impressions of ongoing musical ekphrasis.

Wuorinen, Dawe, and Mandelbrot were fractal naturalists. “The universe is fractal”, said Wuorinen at one point. That’s to say it exhibits recursivity, self-similarities on different scales, etc. Wuorinen claimed that even bad music is fractal.

Another timeline–


Let us recall the saying of Plato, taken up later by the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: ‘What is perceptible to the senses is the reflection of what is intelligible to the mind’; and echoed in the Tabula Smaragdina: ‘What is below is like what is above; what is above is like what is below’, and also in the remark of Goethe: ‘What is within is also without.’

(I wrote this and taped it to my wall in the 90s.)


“The universe is fractal.”


If you want fractal music, go to Jonathan Dawe. I am interested in the relationship between big things and small things.