Saturday, 7 June 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 4 The Faith Healer (3)

In central Liège I sent a postcard to Adèle, full of a tenderness and affection which I hoped masked the underlying disappointment of the failed tryst at Ostend. I hoped we might yet meet in Cologne: would she write to me poste restante at the Head Post Office? I put the card in an envelope, lest her parents should have too easy a sight of it, and sent it off to her home in the Rhineland. George, practical as ever, annoyed me calculating that it probably wouldn't arrive at Adèle's house until the following Monday (today was Friday), and if she wrote back at once her reply wouldn't arrive at the Cologne Hauptpostamt until Tuesday at the earliest. We were a day away from Cologne: he really didn't want to hang about in Cologne over the weekend and well into the next week for what might well turn out to be nothing, given Adèle's past form.

I didn't want to know this, and fell into a silent sulk on the tram out of Liège.

The Beethoven song, Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, played itself endlessly in my head, its rhythm chiming occasionally with the tram wheels rattling over expansion joints in the rails. As a piece of music it was soundly constructed in a ternary form that was already well established as a basic compositional framework by Beethoven's time: roughly ABA, with A representing an arresting, declamatory first section and B a softer, more reflective middle section, before repeating some of the first section A and bringing it to a triumphant close. Beethoven had made the change of key, needed to point the contrast between A and B, in a characteristically revolutionary way: a direct plunge into the flat submediant, a tonal device for which I can only think of very rare examples in all the work of Mozart and Haydn, Beethoven's older contemporaries. It's a magical transition. You can judge the raw effect on the keyboard, by playing several chords of C major increasingly loud, pausing for a moment and then playing softly a few chords of A flat major. It's like the sun coming out on a storm-lashed landscape, like calm harbour waters reached after navigating rough seas. Some would liken it to arriving, after scaling the heights, at the plateau of orgasm: others, more superficially, to something like lemon mousse after vindaloo. I preferred - the realisation of any of these similes seeming unlikely in the immediate future - to liken it to someone you love passionately but believe to be far away appearing unexpectedly at your side and slipping an arm round your waist; the flat submediant effect Adèle might have created if she'd been waiting for me in Cologne station.

(It's not an effect to squander: do it too often, and it spoils. Skilled harmonic practitioners can use it very subtly, though, by what they call - all practitioners tend to further cloak their mysteries in impenetrable jargon - the cycle of flat submediants, moving from C major to A flat, as above, and thence to E major and back 'home' to C major.)

The verse was very curious. Although vast in its initial sweep, it didn't lead very far, it came to no conclusion, it seemed truncated:

Die Himmel rühmen des Ewigen Ehre
Ihr Schall pflanzt seinen Namen fort.
Ihn rühmt der Erdkreis, ihn preisen die Meere,
Vernimm', O Mensch, ihr göttlich Wort!

Wer trägt des Himmels unzählbare Sterne?
Wer führt die Sonn' aus ihrem Zelt?
Sie kommt und leuchtet und lacht uns von ferne
Und läuft den Weg, als wie ein Held.

The heavens announce the glory of the Eternal,
Their sound perpetuates his name.
The earth proclaims him, the oceans praise him,
O man, accept their godlike word!

Who bears the innumerable stars of the heavens?
Who draws forth the sun from his canopy?
He [i.e. the sun] comes and shines and greets us with laughter from afar
And, like a hero, runs his course.

(My translation). Later enquiry showed that in the original there are indeed four other verses, building to an arresting climax in which 'the Eternal' claims, as our creator, our love and invites us to share in his joy. The poem, an extract from Geistlichen Oden und Lieder (Spiritual Odes and Songs, 1757) is by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, who died in Leipzig in 1769, the year before Beethoven was born. Beethoven set six of these poems for soprano and piano in 1803, the year of the very fine Horneman miniature portrait described a few pages back.

Why did Beethoven stop at the second verse? Maybe it's something to do with the evocation of a hero, a giant of existence beyond morality, representing a spirit of boundless creative energy unconfined by the dimensions of the universe, whose chief characteristic is joy. Beethoven found this concept compelling enough to express it much more fully 20 years later, as the culmination of a long-held project, in the final movement of his 9th symphony through some lines from Friedrich Schiller's An die Freude (Ode to Joy, 1785). Here, after the most massive flat submediant plunge in the history of music to the words vor Gott (before God), there's an awed silence for a moment; then, little by little, magically, bassoons and bass drum, clarinets, horns and flutes and most un-Beethovenian cymbals and triangle (known as 'Turkish music' and very popular in the Vienna of his day) and finally oboes and trumpets fall in to produce a sparkling military march, to which Beethoven sets Schiller's words, slightly adapted to fit his jaunty, irrepressible tune:

Froh wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Durch des Himmel's prächt'gen Plan,
Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Freudig wie ein Held zum Siegen.

As joyfully as his [i.e. God's] suns fly
Though the splendid design of the universe,
Run your course, brothers,
With the exultation of a victorious hero.

(My translation.) I hadn't expected these insights into Beethoven's spiritual development to flow from the goings-on in M. Kula's church, nor to realise what an embryonic precursor of much greater things Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur was. Neither George nor I could be said to have enjoyed the Liège experience very much, but at least his ankle was now rested and back to normal. As for me, I derived a certain modest, but hardly celestial, joy from occasionally patting the wad of Belgian banknotes in my back pocket.

A succession of short lifts that afternoon took us to the German frontier.

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