Here’s a wonderful passage from E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End,
about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. A followup, more or less, to those Louis
Biancolli notes about the Sixth that I posted recently. Again we have
somebody describing music the way we might experience it, not historically, and
not analytically. A rare art, today, as many of you agree (if I can judge from
the enthusiastic e-mail I’ve been getting).
I’d love to know more literary passages that describe classical music this
wonderfully. I know a few: the famous passage about Lucia di Lammermoor
in Madame Bovary; a lovely short comment on a Walter Giesking concert in
a novel by Dawn Powell (forgot which); the description of a Die Walküre
performance in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. There are also
bracing — and lovable — evocations of jazz in Kerouac’s On the Road.
But I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things I’ve already read, and I know this short
list can only be a start. More, anybody?
It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most
sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and
conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap
surreptitiously when the tunes come–of course, not so as to disturb the
others–or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s
flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is
profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his
knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time
that Beethoven is echt Deutsch; or like Fraulein Mosebach’s young man, who
can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your
life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is
cheap at two shillings. It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen’s
Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade
Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so
that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is
"Whom is Margaret talking to?" said Mrs. Munt, at the conclusion of the
first movement. She was again in London on a visit to Wickham Place.
Helen looked down the long line of their party, and said that she did not
"Would it be some young man or other whom she takes an interest in?"
"I expect so," Helen replied. Music enwrapped her, and she could not enter
into the distinction that divides young men whom one takes an interest in
from young men whom one knows.
"You girls are so wonderful in always having–Oh dear! one mustn’t talk."
For the Andante had begun–very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to
all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen’s
mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement
from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once,
and then her attention wandered, and she gazed at the audience, or the
organ, or the architecture. Much did she censure the attenuated Cupids who
encircle the ceiling of the Queen’s Hall, inclining each to each with vapid
gesture, and clad in sallow pantaloons, on which the October sunlight
struck. "How awful to marry a man like those Cupids!" thought Helen. Here
Beethoven started decorating his tune, so she heard him through once more,
and then she smiled at her Cousin Frieda. But Frieda, listening to Classical
Music, could not respond. Herr Liesecke, too, looked as if wild horses could
not make him inattentive; there were lines across his forehead, his lips
were parted, his pince-nez at right angles to his nose, and he had laid a
thick, white hand on either knee. And next to her was Aunt Juley, so
British, and wanting to tap. How interesting that row of people was! What
diverse influences had gone to the making! Here Beethoven, after humming and
hawing with great sweetness, said "Heigho," and the Andante came to an end.
Applause, and a round of "wunderschoning" and pracht volleying from the
German contingent. Margaret started talking to her new young man; Helen said
to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins,
and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company
generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.
"On the what, dear?"
"On the drum, Aunt Juley."
"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins
and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin
walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him.
They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible
to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as
splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing,
they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not
contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had
seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and
emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the
transitional passage on the drum.
For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and
made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little
push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and
then–he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour,
gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance
broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death!
Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved
hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable;
conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost
And the goblins–they had not really been there at all? They were only the
phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel
them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes.
Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might
return–and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and
waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous
note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the
universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the
flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right
in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second
time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of
splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death,
and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to
its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said
so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other