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Review

Volume 11 • Number 1

Spring 2004


 

 

Observations 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 piano.

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.

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