It was an idle conversation with an old friend in ministry, essentially. We both spend a fair amount of time at our desks and so we chat most days, mainly about triviality and absurdity. It keeps me going on the days when I don’t actually speak to a soul for hours on end, and I like to think it does him good, too.
We often turn to matters of music, literature, and the arts generally, not least because both of us have been sustained by them in life’s dark valleys. So earlier this week, Beethoven’s late string quartets (Op. 127, 130-133, 135, written between 1825 and 1826) came up. They were his last major works. They were misunderstood and neglected at the time, but their posthumous reputation has been astonishing, with scholars and performers alike hailing them as high watermarks of human achievement. My friend said that these pieces kept him going during a time of acute family crisis.
I’d listened to them before, and even heard one or two in concert. But in all honesty, I don’t think I’d ever actually heard them. I certainly couldn’t appreciate exactly why they had been such lifesavers. So I’ve started listening to them again, but properly this time.
Picture the context: Beethoven is in his mid fifties, but since his thirties had become increasingly aware of weakened hearing. By 1820 he was profoundly deaf, though there is some debate about the extent. We do know that regular social interaction was now impossible, so everything would be written in his “conversation books.” He was also troubled by various serious medical complaints. None of this curtailed composition, of course, but it did slow him down. Still, in his now silent, final years, he completed such aural miracles as his Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the last piano sonatas. As well as the late quartets.
Now I love great swaths of chamber music—for me, that of Schubert, Brahms, and Dvorak (with some of Mozart) are my mainstays. I particularly love pieces in which the quartet partners with a solo instrument, such as clarinet or piano. But string quartets, the purest expression of the form, have often floated over my head, feeling too ivory-towered, arid, or inaccessible.
So I asked my friend what it was about these pieces in particular that helped him. This is what he came back with:
It’s such involving music, an objective correlative for the knotted muscles and compound fractures of the soul, the confused and chaotic journeys.
But it has its own knots and U-turns too, the emotional-musical architecture of another universe, a different set of journeys. So it draws you out of yourself in its own insistence: “Stop listening to yourself! Listen to my story, feel my mountains and chasms. You’ll have to stop hearing your own whispers if you are going to get mine!”
And where Ludwig scores so high is that his are both real and beautiful.
So in summary, Beethoven’s saying, “Listen to the way I can make patterns out of my pain and end up in peace.”
I was stunned. Those thoughts have rattled around my cranium ever since.
What we need is art that looks horror in the face. What we yearn for is redemption from that horror. The problem is that our world has despaired of ever finding it. But Christian hope has proven itself resilient in the face of horror again and again.Mark Meynell
If there is a section in these quartets that clearly corresponds to that culminating peace, it must surely be third, central movement of the Fifteenth String Quartet (Op. 132). That alone can last nearly twenty minutes (almost half the length of the whole piece), and it was written after Beethoven was confined to his bed by an illness that he feared would finish him off. So he described this movement as “a holy song of thanks (Heiliger Dankgesang) to the divinity, from one made well.”
Words cannot do justice to it—which is presumably why he expressed himself in music rather than poetry. But it is ineffably sublime. As it happens, he would succumb finally to illness in the following year. And the rest of this quartet, as well as the others, do express all the inevitable fears, confusions, and puzzles of our mortality.
But that movement was my way in. I was beginning to “get it.”
After the twentieth century’s accumulated horrors, artists in all media have found it impossible to be real without eschewing beauty. Sometimes ugliness renders beauty inadmissible, even offensive. As Theodor Adorno famously claimed, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (though please do read this helpful post on what he was getting at in that misunderstood phrase, and how he later refined the idea).
What we need is art that looks horror in the face. What we yearn for is redemption from that horror. The problem is that our world has despaired of ever finding it. But Christian hope has proven itself resilient in the face of horror again and again. And I suspect the reason these late quartets exert such a majestic influence is that they are both “real and beautiful.” They “make patterns out of my pain and end up in peace.”
Which naturally made me think of Jackson Pollock’s (in)famous “drip paintings.” London’s Royal Academy put on a remarkable exhibition in 2016, gathering in one place a host of works from the Abstract Expressionism movement that flourished mainly in 1950s New York. Rothko, de Kooning, Krasner—they were all there, as were many others. And of course, so was Pollock. I’d never seen him live before. It was an unexpectedly visceral experience. I had previously assumed his works were random, accidental, somehow artless. How ignorant!
My standout was his vast 1952 work, Blue Poles. It is nearly fifteen feet wide. Yet, despite its scale, it is surprisingly intricate and complex. What’s more, it felt alive and dynamic (which is an incongruous thing to say of hardened oil paint fixed into two-dimensional place decades previously). Yes, Pollock was dripping or spattering paint from tins to make it, but precious little of it was random. Here was astonishing design that was only perceptible by stepping back. It was fractal-like. Get too close, it is impossible to discern how that fractal pattern expands and multiplies.
“What is it of, though?” I hear some complain. Well, Pollock tells us: blue poles. Eight of them, in fact. But I think he’s playing with us a little. “You need a name? Ok, I’ll give you one.” But it doesn’t really get us very far. They might be poles, but they’re only gestures towards something pole-like. The painting is more like an invitation to an intricately woven but lively choreography. There are many layers of paintwork, many different dimensions to this dance, many separate patterns. But here’s the point: patterns do exist at the heart of this apparent randomness. And yet there are times when it seems confusing, uncompromising, and even ugly. A hideous beauty, perhaps.
The day before my friend and I were conversing, I came across some extreme magnifications of butterfly wings on the internet. They are mesmerizingly beautiful: such intricate order and clarity even when it is so tiny that distances need to be measured in microns. There is order and wonder here. In these images we are privy to sights that the naked eye of previous generations could never imagine, but which have been present since the dawn of time in their God-given order.
Musical patterns woven out of unimaginable pain; vast patterns blazing out of the apparent chaos of oil-paint dripped onto a warehouse floor; microscopic patterns invisible but God-given all along. Is it any wonder that we long for a context for the elements of our stories, a sense of purpose and place? That is how the world was made. And the greatest art seems to reflect that in the most surprising ways. This is not to be mistaken for rigidity or dehumanizing order (perhaps epitomized by the modernist extremes of Mondrian in his numbered Compositions).
So perhaps this is one place where the arts and sciences can at last be reconciled again. Didn’t the great astronomer Johannes Kepler once say that he was “merely thinking God’s thoughts after him?” Perhaps artists can seek to do the same.
Photo by Chris Perani