In his youth, as a starving young German in Paris, Richard Wagner would scrape together a few dollars as by composing gallops and potpourris, along with the occasional story and article published in the Gazette Musicale, which published his first piece about Beethoven, ‘Visit to Beethoven,’ in two installments in November and December 1840. He returned to the subject of his favorite composer in this appreciation and interpretation of the C-Sharp Minor String Quartet, published as part of the Beethoven Centenary in 1870.
If we wish to form a picture of a day in the life of our sacred genius, we can do no better than to derive it from one of his own marvelous compositions. But we must not deceive ourselves. We must hark back to what was said earlier, when referring the genesis of music as an art to the phenomenon of dreaming, and use simple analogy–not identify one thing with another. To illustrate such a typical day from Beethoven’s inner life, I will choose the great C-Sharp-Minor Quartet, and what can hardly be done while listening to it–for then we are forced to forgo all mechanical comparisons and give ourselves entirely to the direct revelation of another world–we can in a measure achieve by simply calling up this tone poem in our memory. Yes, even so, the reader’s fancy must add the living details of the picture to the bare outline I here offer.
The long, opening adagio, surely the saddest utterance ever made in notes, I should call the awakening on the dawn of a day which “in its whole long course shall not fulfill a single wish, not one.”1 It is at the same time a penitential prayer, a communing with God out of a firm belief in the Eternal Good. The mind’s eye then perceives the consoling vision (allegro 6/8), which it alone can decry, wherein the longing becomes a sweet and playful though plaintive daydream. The image of the dream takes waking form as the loveliest of memories. Then, with the short transitional passage (allegro moderato), it is as if the master, recalling his art, were settling down to practice its magic. Its power he summons afresh (andante 2/4) in order to conjure up one graceful figure, the blessed embodiment of native innocence, and he finds unending rapture in that figure’s ceaseless, unheard-of transformations under the prismatic lights which his immortal genius casts upon it.
Beethoven’s String Quartet C-Sharp Minor, as performed by the Afiara String Quartet in the Greene Space at WQXR in New York City, November 18, 2012
Then we seem to see him, profoundly happy by virtue of his own effort, direct his glowing vision upon the outer world (presto 2/2). Once more nature stands before him as in the Pastoral Symphony, radiant with his inner joy. It is as if he heard the native accents of the apparitions that dance before him in a rhythm now gay, now gross. He looks on life and seems to ponder (brief adagio ¾) how to fashion the tune for life itself to dance to–a short but gloomy spell of brooding, as if the master were sunk in the lowest depths of his dream. One look has shown him the essence of the world: he wakes anew and strikes the strings to sound a dance the like of which the world had never before heard (allegro finale). It is the whole world dancing: frenzied joy, the cry of pain, the transports of love, the acme of bliss, fury, riot, agony, infatuation, suffering. The lightning flickers and thunder growls, and above it the stupendous Performer who rules and moves it all, who leads us masterfully from whirlwind to cataract, to the edge of the abyss, smiles to himself, for to him the magic is child’s play. And now night beckons; his day is done.
–From Beethoven: A Centenary Essay (1870)
1From Goethe’s Faust