Adornover Beethoven

The 'Galitzin' Quartets of Beethoven
April 4, 1997

No one can accuse Daniel K.L Chua's lively, eloquent and provocative book of not making its position clear or of not following that position through with a positively classical consistency. For Chua, the Beethoven of Opp. 1, 130 and 132 is a composer who takes what he has inherited "to dangerous extremes, for implicit in this language ... is a tendency towards self-destruction ... Thus Beethoven's quartets become increasingly paradoxical, representing both an extension and a negation of the classical language''.

In pursuing this theme of interdependent extension and negation, Chua owes much to the great philosopher of post-Enlightenment modernity, T. W. Adorno, and the book will communicate most immediately to readers who know something of this background. As Chua puts it, he is attempting "to bridge the gap - keenly felt by Adorno in his own work - between the sheer inadequacy of traditional theory and the works themselves''. But what these "inadequacies'' are needs to be demonstrated, not simply asserted, and, in grasping the Adornian nettle of a "simultaneous existence of opposites that define and distort each other - unity and disunity'', Chua tends to give "disunity'' the lion's share of space.

Time and again, as the analyses unfold, Chua describes and interprets in terms that seem designed to claim Beethoven for the kind of modernism that Adorno sought to promote, and he consistently steps aside from any possibility of balancing his own "deconstructive'' readings with fully fledged formalist demonstrations. In a final flight he reminds his readers not only that it is possible to read late Beethoven in more than one way, but that "there is no stability in any of the readings - just possibilities, and tensions between them''. By then, however, he hardly needs to point out that his own readings of the three quartets are offered not as the first serious attempt to weigh up the different and complementary claims of "unity'' and "disunity'', but rather "as a corrective to commentaries ... that merely seek to impute a unity to them or assert their retrospective classicism''. That "merely'' is a little rich, given Chua's failure to provide convincing demonstrations that such analyses are really as defective as he evidently needs them to be.

Schenkerian analysis is the principal way of "testing for unity'' in tonal music but the full, proper use of Schenkerian methods is a time-consuming, space-consuming business. Chua does not ignore Schenker, yet, like many scholars today, he pays lip-service to the theorist in graphs that raise more questions than they answer, mainly because they are designed specifically to serve Chua's modernist cause, rather than to test or demonstrate Schenker's full range of procedures. Early on, Chua warns us that "Schenker graphs will 'warp' under the strain of demonstrating motivic structures'', as well they might - even when no reference to made to the recent ground-breaking work of Richard Cohn on this topic. But in pursuing his thesis that - as in the first movement of Op. 132 - "the entire structure, at the deepest level, is governed by ... motivic motion'' Chua leaves the possible relevance of traditional voice-leading, especially at the foreground level, well to one side. The interpretative scales are permanently tilted.

Yet it is Chua's treatment of wider stylistic considerations - often highly resourceful in his own terms - that gives the greatest cause for thought. Simply because his more general descriptions of late Beethoven could usually be transferred with little amendment to post-tonal modernists such as Peter Maxwell Davies or Elliott Carter, I feel he has lost sight of the simple fact that Beethoven remained a tonal composer, for whom the consonance/dissonance polarity was a fundamental fact of musical life. Like Adorno before him, Chua projects back on to a tonal composer attitudes and procedures that belong more properly to the post-tonal world. For example, writing of the third movement of Op. 132, Chua claims that "if time congeals into autonomous objects and space, then music has to be organised spatially according to juxtapositions and proportions, rather than temporally, according to the linear energy of tonality''. But such "either/or" formulations, like the talk of "fissure'' in the first movement of Op. 1, and of a "tonal rift'' in the Cavatina of Op. 130, simply unbalance the argument. Why not consider the possibility of a Schenkerian Urstaz for the Cavatina? After all, even if Beethoven is "tampering with the syntax of tonality'', he is doing so from within the tonal system, rather than from outside it, like the later Stravinsky, or Tippett. But Chua's fiery language, engaging though it is, prompts him to read collage and confusion, destruction and distortion in place of the ambiguous interactions that his own Adornian credo should lead him to promote.

Arnold Whittall is emeritus professor of musical theory and analysis, King's College, London.

The 'Galitzin' Quartets of Beethoven

Author - Daniel K. L. Chua
ISBN - 0 691 04403 1
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £32.50
Pages - 286

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