Held in Check
by William Kinderman
Charles Rosen. Beethoven's
Piano Sonatas: A Short Companion. New Haven and London: Yale University
Press, 2002. xii, 256pp. Contains CD with musical illustrations at the
In approaching Charles Rosen's new book Beethoven's Piano
Sonatas: A Short Companion, it makes sense to begin at the end, with the
very last sentence. In his comments on Beethoven's last sonata,
op.111, Rosen concludes that "the modesty of the final chord is
significant" (p.249). The ending of this sonata is understated and
suggestive, and the rapport of sound with silence is tantamount, as various
commentators have observed. In Rosen's view, however, a notion of
modesty or restraint extends as well to the kind of discourse about the
music that he finds appropriate. In his preface he writes that I have
always despised the writing about music that tries to substitute for the
music a kind of pseudo-poetry or, even worse, the sort of facile philosophical
speculation that leads readers to believe that they will be engaged in
an exalted activity when listening to Beethoven—or are already so
exalted merely by reading about it. There is no question, of course, that
the music of Beethoven often made a claim to reach the sublime, and that
he believed that the experience of great music transcended the day-to-day
experience of our ordinary lives. Translating this transcendence into
words does not, however, make it more accessible, only more commonplace.
The ecstasy provided by music arrives above all through the kind of unselfconscious
attention to listening and playing that makes us, for a moment, lose ourselves
in the work (pp.xi–xii).
The warning against "pseudo-poetry" or "philosophical
speculation," so strongly put, takes on a kind of Wittgensteinian
aura. "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence"—with
that sentence Ludwig Wittgenstein concluded his famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,
the influential book from 1921 that captivated the Logical Positivists
of the 1920s and 1930s. In this sense, Rosen's "Short Companion"
or "Practical Guide" to the Beethoven sonatas, which is not
so short in its sheer length, does seem consciously delimited in its concern
to draw boundaries, as if to avoid at all costs any such misguided "translation"
of the transcendent into the commonplace.