Forster on Beethoven

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?

Forster:

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 still cheap.

“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 know.

“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 stars.

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 things.

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