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August 2, 2012

Late T. S. Eliot, Late Beethoven


When BMInt publisher Lee Eiseman asked me to review the Electric Earth Concert of Beethoven and T. S. Eliot, I regretted a scheduling conflict. In a pinch, improvise: Lee then suggested I write about Eliot while he would review the music performed. An imperfect compromise, but I have more of a background in poetry than BMInt’s Polymath Publisher, so here are my thoughts on this pairing.

George D. Gopen, professor emeritus of the Practice of Rhetoric at Duke University, has written about Eliot’s poems, and more broadly about Eliot and music, by way of a program note for this concert. These are intended as a prelude to the second half of the concert, when he reads these poems aloud. Lieder-recitals combine music and poetry, of course; but this event pairs instrumental (non-vocal) music with unaccompanied poetry readings – more like a literary salon. It is a captivating performance model that returns, cyclically: performance art happenings, poetry slams, jazz poetry (words, no music), or rap music (especially solo performances that are beat-box-plus-words, delivered rhythmically). Gopen marshals a good selection of quotations from Eliot’s other writings, making explicit the connection between Beethoven and Eliot. Each of Eliot’s Four Quartets is structured in five parts, like Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130. Eliot’s poetics relies on repetition of words, much like Beethoven’s use of musical themes that vary in development and repeat in recapitulation. There are modulations in tempo and register in both Beethoven and Eliot, as well as theme-and-variation structures. These are some of the “musications” Gopen finds in Eliot’s Four Quartets. But I would add the elaborate and precise use of rhythm and dynamic in Beethoven, which finds a parallel in Eliot. I re-read Eliot’s poems in light of Gopen’s comments and found much food for thought.

So far, so good; here is where I start scratching my head. Beethoven, especially in his op. 130 Quartet with the op. 133 Große Fuge (as the Chiara Quartet performed it) is expansive – lengthy, what some detractors call bombastic. I would say rather, that this string quartet, taken as a whole, is sublime, but elaborately so. This is not music of light delicacy (although it has such moments) but full-bodied, at times full-throttled, conturbations on a musical idea. Eliot’s Four Quartets could also be described as elaborate conturbations, but with a difference: unlike Eliot, Beethoven maintains a longer, more linear trajectory in his themes and phrases before shifting registers or modulating; Eliot is more a fan of introspection, and Four Quartets are full of conditional and modal constructions. Consider two examples: the fourth and fifth lines of Burnt Norton, the first Quartet: “If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable”; and the conclusion of Little Gidding, the fourth: “Quick now, here, now, always– / A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.”

The end of Little Gidding also points up an eclecticism that marks much of T. S. Eliot’s thought: Julian of Norwich (late Medieval English mystic ) rubs shoulders with Buddhism, Hinduism, perhaps even continental European phenomenology. In this respect, Eliot, who died in 1965, is unabashedly Modernist. The condensation and fragmentation of The Waste Land we now know to be the editing work of Ezra Pound (“il miglior fabbrio” —“the better fabricator” — of the dedication, and this itself is a learned allusion, since it cites Dante’s praise of Arnaut Daniel). Eliot never truly escaped this breakthrough, and his late poetics retains a sense of the rupture or breakage of a fragment (the attenuated idea, the thought announced yet unexplained, as the narrative voice passes on to further considerations). By contrast, Beethoven, especially in his late style, is marked more by an idea of elaboration and finitude, even as he (like Eliot) continues to break new artistic ground.

All periodization is inherently suspect and commits more scholarly atrocities than it resolves; that said, it is also inescapable when one tries to speak more broadly about historical trends in cultural productions or broach the Germanic idea of Zeitgeist (even if explored under other names). So it is not a definitive criticism to say that Beethoven represents Romanticism and Eliot represents Modernism. Still, this points to some fundamental differences between these two artists. Yes, both lived through periods of intense upheaval (Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic Wars; two World Wars and the genocides the 20th century unleashed on the world stage). Romanticism — especially the poetics of British Romanticism, but this also holds true for Beethoven’s Germanic musical equivalent — tried to articulate a non-empirical response to the world and prioritize nature over machine. Modernism (less so than Futurism, of course) embraced machines and the artificiality of mechanization as well as the globalism they wrought. The wealth of Eliot’s references alone would be hard to imagine a century earlier, let alone his peripatetic life on both sides of the Atlantic. As well, what Eliot captures of the North American landscape (in Dry Salvages), as well as the corners of the British topography he explores (in Little Gidding, Burnt Norton, and East Coker – the other three Quartets) were terra incognita to Beethoven. In the cultural realm, Romanticism retained a love for lengthy cogitation; the Modern world (increasingly) favors brevity. I find these to be fundamental differences between Ludwig van Beethoven and T. S. Eliot, and so find the announced program to be more a study in contrasts than in conjuncts.

In The Boston Globe on Sunday, April 15, 2012, Jeremy Eichler wrote about Beethoven and Proust. He argued that Beethoven’s op. 130 quartet, with the original op. 133 Große Fuge finale, undergirds Marcel Proust’s writing on music in A la recherche du temps perdu, especially the “little phrase” which marks Marcel’s love for Albertine and for the music of Vinteuil more generally. I find the connections between late Beethoven and Proust to be stronger, more obvious, less conflicted.”

Again, I regret that I was unable to attend this concert so I could sort out myself my own issues with this programmed pairing. I look forward to Lee Eiseman’s review of the music and the reading.

See related review here.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

1 Comment

  1. Indeed, it is the Op132 Quarter in A Minor, and NOT the Op 130, which is generally seen as inspiring Four Quartets. A famous letter was written by Eliot Eliot to the poet Stephen Spender in which he says that he is listening to the Op 132, and mentions the “heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety” of that particular work. “I should like to get something of that into verse before I die,” he wrote. A few years later, he began work on “Four Quartets.”

    The TS Eliot Society UK

    Comment by Tiresias — August 6, 2012 at 3:52 am

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