Some ado about nothing

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The November 1934 number of Musical opinion carried a substantial bock review, under the title ‘Beethoven in a new guise’, of Beethoven in neuer Deutung by one Arnold Schering (Leipzig, CF Kahnt Verlag). Though unsigned, we know from his references in various issues of ‘La main gauche’ that HB was the reviewer. Schering advanced the notion that most of Beethoven’s major works were illustrative of concealed literary programmes, an idea that interested Brian greatly, though he was sceptical of Schering’s reasoning. Below are some extracts from the review.

Knowing German preoccupation with Shakespeare, we are not surprised to find the Bard accused of inspiring five String Quartets (from the Eb major op 74 onward to op 131) and eight Piano Sonatas; but the big Hammerklavier Sonata goes to Schiller, which is rather a blow to our national pride. Schering knows Shakespeare as thoroughly as he knows Beethoven, and hence it is possible for him to effect some remarkable reconciliations: he has no doubts, calling the Quartets opp 74, 95, 127, 130 and 131 the Shakespeare String Quartets; and the Piano Sonatas opp26 (Nos 1 and 2), 28, 31 (Nos 1 and 2), 54, 56 and 111 the Shakespeare Piano Sonatas. Czerny seems to have been somewhat similarly impressed, for he declared that Beethoven’s finest works were evidently inspired by incidents or pictures; and Liszt, writing to George Sand, said that certain works concealed secret soul pictures.

Anton Schindler tells us that when describing to Beethoven how deeply he had been moved by Sonatas in D minor (op 31) and F minor (op 57), he was advised to read Shakespeare’s Tempest: he would find it all there. Dr Schering himself associates the Sonata in F minor (Appassionata) with Macbeth. Beethoven, however, in his sketch book of 1808, left it to the hearer to discover the situations for himself…

According to Schering, Beethoven returned to Romeo and Juliet after many days, when he composed the great String Quartet in Eb major. The suggestions of portrayal are plausible enough, but something seems to go wrong from bar 205 of the first movement onwards, where the music becomes static, almost silent. Schering thinks that here Juliet is sleeping. The lovely opening theme of the second movement is thought to represent Juliet saying ‘Wilt thou go already? It is not yet day’; and the Ab minor episode, bars 25-30, illustrates Romeo’s reply, ‘But I must go and live’.

Romeo remains, and his stay is described by a decorative variation. The song-like theme is heard on the G string of the first violin amidst a fluttering in the second violin and harp arpeggios on the violas. And so it goes on, the whole reminding us of a broadcast talk, ‘to be found in tomorrow’s issue of The Listener’. Reconciliation between Beethoven and Shakespeare is not easy, if indeed possible, because the tremendous issues of tragedy are unrealisable through a quartet of strings.

Had Beethoven thought of translating Shakespeare into music he presumably would have done so on the lines he pursued in his Coriolan and Prometheus. Shakespeare needs a big orchestra, and not four string instruments.

The trouble with this type of book or lecture is that willy-nilly we are all caught up with some suggestion or other, and soon we are immersed in the alleged analogies of the piano Sonata Appassionata in F minor and Macbeth. Following the appeal of the writer, every finger of the glove seems to fit: but then, what of it? We do not understand the tragedy more, nor the music less. It is impossible to play the Sonata in C minor (op 27, no 2) without experiencing the feeling that accompanies tragedy, and that, and no more, may have been in the mind of Beethoven.

An unfortunate remark by Rellstab about the Adagio in the Moonlight Sonata is said to have led to that appellation; but others prefer to drag in the spurned love offered to the countess, though the hissing and cursing of the arpeggios in the Finale do not suggest a dejected lover. Schering, on Shakespeare bent, drags in King Lear, which seems a better fit: he whose one compensation in a vile world, with every hand against him, was his love for his youngest daughter Cordelia. The plot thickens: and in the Presto Agitato Schering sees the demented King carrying the corpse of his daughter Cordelia in his arms, - and then his death! But what other tragedy - Shakespeare, Lessing or Goethe - would this Finale not complement?

Musical opinion, November 1934, pp. 121–122