Beethoven’s La malinconia (String Quartet op. 18 nr. 6)
Composers’ Self-Portraits as Melancholics
The long tradition of associating melancholy with genius may have been an incentive to some artists to think of themselves as melancholic, and to present themselves as such to their audiences.
I can think of very few cases before the romantic era in which a composer has explicitly made his own state of mind the subject, in some sense, of a composition. Not coincidentally, probably, these all involve melancholy. The melancholic temperament is most inclined to self-reflection.
As the authors of the 1964 classic Saturn and Melancholy put it:
What emerges here is the specifically “poetic” melancholy mood of the modern; a double-edged feeling constantly providing its own nourishment, in which the soul enjoys its own loneliness, but by this very pleasure becomes again more conscious of its solitude […]. This modern melancholy mood is essentially an enhanced self-awareness, since the ego is the pivot round which the sphere of joy and grief revolves; and it has also an intimate relationship with music, which is now made subservient to subjective emotions. (Klibansky et al. 2019: 231)
There is the well-known example of John Dowland, who made a pun on his name the title of one of his pavans, Semper Dowland semper dolens (“always grieving”, 1604). Dowland’s stylized melancholy suited a contemporary fashion among the English; which does not imply that it was insincere.
Johann Jacob Froberger, one of the most highly esteemed keyboard players and composers of the mid-seventeenth century, has left us three compositions in which the first pronoun figures in the title: Lament on the Event of My Having Been Robbed (Lamentation sur ce que j’ay été volé, from Suite nr. 14); Lament Composed in London to Dispel My Melancholy (Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la melancholie, Suite nr. 30), where the composer’s melancholy is caused by having been, again, robbed and maltreated; and finally, the Meditation on My Future Death (Meditation faite sur ma mort future, Suite 20), which contains a place and a date: Paris, 1 May 1660. Death was to come just over seven years later.
I have discussed Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s fantasia titled Bachs Empfindungen (1787?), which may be plausibly interpreted, too, as a meditation upon his impending death (which occurred in 1788). The first-person pronoun figures in the title of the rondo in e minor, Farewell to My Silbermann Clavichord (Abschied von meinem Silbermannischen Claviere, 1781), which he wrote on the occasion of selling that instrument. One might have expected it to be sentimentally-humorous, but its sweet melancholy does not contain a hint of irony.
His younger contemporary Georg Anton (or Jiří Antonín) Benda chose to voice his thoughts on old age in a more public genre, that of a cantata for solo voice (soprano) and ensemble or chamber orchestra (1792). The title Benda’s Lamentations (Benda’s Klagen) again makes the composer a ‘character’ in his own music. Unlike Bachs Empfindungen, it has a subtitle which clearly states the autobiographical context and intention: A Cantata with Which the Author Ended His Musical Career at 70 Years of Age. The libretto that makes his thoughts almost embarrassingly explicit was written in prose by the composer, and adapted by an unknown versifier (Anonymus 1791: 29; Wald-Fuhrmann 2013: 296).
Embarrassingly, because what is lamented is not impending death or infirmity, but the loss of youth, and specifically, the composer’s inability to win the favours of (younger) women:
It is gone – my blossom’s spring!
When with jests and the sound of strings
I tried to please the fair for sweet reward!
In matters of self-awareness and subjectivity as a source of musical creation, the dominating figure is no doubt Beethoven. Whether we should count him too among the self-styled melancholics is a bit more complicated. ‘Melancholy’ may not be one of the terms most typically used to characterize his personality. But that may be because in present day understanding, melancholy is mostly of the sweetly nostalgic kind.
The opening sentence of his most poignant self-revelation, the so-called Heiligenstädter Testament (1802), expounds the conflict between the composer’s self-perception and the way he thinks he is being perceived by others.
O you men who think or say that I am hostile, stubborn or misanthropic, how you wrong me: you do not know the secret cause of that appearance. From childhood on, my heart and mind have always been inclined to the tender feeling of benevolence, even to great accomplishments […]. (My transl.)
The “secret cause” of his antisocial image are, of course, the hearing troubles which seem to have begun in his late 20’s.
The hypochondriac features that Beethoven ascribes to himself-seen-from-the-outside fall within the broad spectrum of melancholy that was still current in his day. He takes pains to explain that this hypochondria does not accord with his natural disposition or “temperament”, which he describes as “fiery, lively” and sociable:
[…] born with a fiery, lively temperament, susceptible even to the diversions of society, I had to isolate myself early, spend my life alone […].
These two words are paraphrased as “sanguine to choleric” by Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann (2010: 191), whose study of “melancholy in instrumental music around 1800” is the most voluminous source devoted to melancholy and music generally. If “sanguine-choleric” defines his temperament, in contemporary terms, his melancholy was an acquired melancholy. He may have seen this as alien to himself, but nevertheless made it part of his public persona – according to Wald-Fuhrmann, wilfully. Not content with fictionalizing his persona in his music, Beethoven chose to embody a literary character in real life, a type of “melancholic musical genius […] which previously had only existed as literary fiction”.
Beethoven has apparently managed to actively control perception by designing a consistent persona, the melancholic sides of which should refer to the underlying genius. (Wald-Furhmann 2010: 188, 197; my transl.)
Put in this way, it almost sounds as if Beethoven voluntarily engineered this persona, and with it the legend of biographical tradition. But evidently, Beethoven was not responsible for most of his misfortunes (such as childhood abuse, illness and loss of hearing). It is more plausible that by accepting his condition as an inalterably tragic one, Beethoven made a choice that defined the framework within which he could be creative.
Thus do I take my leave of thee – sadly – of thee, my beloved Hope […] – she must now abandon me completely, as the autumn leaves fall, withered, thus she has become shrivelled to me. (Heiligenstädter Testament)
It is clear that with this stylized, metaphorically enriched cri de coeur Beethoven contributed to an image that he created for himself and for posterity; an image that may have derived much of its charisma from the traditional association of melancholy with genius, and from the melancholic’s particular sensitivity to the sublime (which is prominent in the ‘heroic’ works of the early 1800’s).
With one exception, Beethoven’s works contain no explicit reference to melancholy by title or expression mark. There are, of course, many shades of sadness to be found, and they may be ‘melancholic’ in some of its many senses: from the heroic sublime of the funeral marches to the grieving tenderness of the Hammerklavier’s Adagio sostenuto. ‘Joy of grief’, the Ossianic catchphrase, may apply to many of these (Beethoven’s predilection for Ossian is documented by a letter of August 8, 1809, where he mentions the fictitious bard together with Homer, Goethe, and Schiller).
The exception is the finale of the string quartet op. 18 nr. 6 (1800). The title La malinconia most obviously applies to the slow first section of this movement (Adagio), which by startling chromatic progressions departs from a simple, static and almost bland phrase built on the tonic B-flat. The temporary halt at the end of this phrase seems to open up a chasm of insecurity. What follows, a sequence that is oddly torn apart by abrupt contrasts of dynamics and register, sounds like a series of failed corrections, or questions and rejections; and what is first an ordinary empfindsam ornament (a turn) looses its gracefulness and turns into an ever heavier series of sighs. Passing through the remote key of e minor, the sequences wind back to a resigned closing formula in the minor mode of the main key.
It resolves, predictably, in major, with the Allegretto quasi Allegro. Modelled on the pattern of a popular dance (Deutsche), it lands us abruptly on the ground with its burlesque off-beat accents. It swirls on undisturbed until what is expected to be the closing section, where the Adagio unexpectedly re-enters. The Allegretto then briefly resumes, in the wrong key and wrong mode (A minor); after two more Adagio measures, first the mode is corrected (G major), then the tonic key is re-established for what may be interpreted as a lengthy coda. For a moment the dance itself slows down, as if threatening to relapse (poco Adagio), before swirling prestissimo to an end.
To judge from its long history of analysis and exegesis, the piece has posed its interpreters three problems.
(1) The title seems to cover the whole piece, but plausibly applies only to the Adagio sections, unless the whole piece is supposed to represent melancholy of a bipolar variety.
(2) How does the Adagio relate to the Allegretto? It has often been labelled ‘introduction’. Slow, harmonically confusing introductions belong to period conventions; but if an introduction serves to give greater effect to what follows, the listener may be disappointed with the light-weight, bumpy Allegretto (“intrinsically a very slight piece of work, for all its sparkle”, according to Kerman 1967: 82).
(3) It is far from obvious what kind of mental state the Adagio actually expresses or represents (and that distinction too is significant). Joseph Kerman again (1967: 76): “the mood of La Malinconia does not really seem to approach melancholy […]”. At least, not melancholy understood as a pleasant indulgence in mild grief.
The first problem can be easily solved by looking at the first edition in parts, the earliest source we have. Whereas most scores put the title over the staff, making it look as if it related to the whole, here it is placed with the tempo indication, Adagio. It seems reasonable to assume that both belong together. (Forchert (1983: 215-16) surprisingly draws from the same fact the opposite conclusion.)
As for problem 2, the formal status of the Adagio depends more on how we interpret the movement as a whole (problem 3), than on a priori formal considerations.
Expression and Representation
What does the Adagio reveal to us about melancholy? Most interpreters have found it enigmatic; it seems to be lacking in emotional expression. Kerman (1967: 82) calls it “an emotional sphinx, dealing with pathos entirely from the outside, revealing an almost heartless preoccupation with its own harmonic meditations over those of the poor melancholic”.
It may be significant that the Adagio is titled La malinconia, instead of being simply marked Adagio malinconico. Rather than being the expression of a melancholic’s feelings, it constitutes an emblematic representation of melancholy as such, somewhat like Dürer’s allegorical and enigmatic, indeed somewhat sphinx-like winged figure.
The distinction between expression and representation is evidently not simple, clear-cut: there can be no representation of mind-states without expressive elements. But most critics agree that, as a somewhat detached (though gripping) representation of melancholy, it would be a mistake to interpret it as a reflection of the composer’s own state of mind.
One music historian, however, has recently found occasion to interpret La malinconia as alluding to Beethoven’s own most urgent concern, his loss of hearing (Sisman 2015; followed by Kramer 2011: 136). Elaine Sisman’s argument rests on the concept of the labyrinth, and its various metaphorical applications. First, as a literary and pictorial emblem for the melancholic’s frustrations and sense of being trapped (citing, however, no source except Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy). Second, musically, for wanderings through the harmonic system (most famously, in the Kleines harmonisches Labyrinth, doubtfully ascribed to J.S. Bach). Sisman also interprets C.P.E. Bach’s Abschied rondo as a labyrinth, something I find hard to reconcile with the rondo principle of returning several times to the main key.
These two are mutually independent: musical labyrinths are not usually linked to melancholy. The third metaphor is the description of part of the inner ear as ‘membranous labyrinth’ by the anatomist Antonio Scarpa in a work of 1789. It is likely to have been known to one of the physicists Beethoven consulted about his hearing troubles, and through that channel might have become known to the composer.
One may find this conflation of metaphors either fascinating or forced, according to one’s taste. But as the revelation of a kind of hidden programme it entirely depends on the word ‘labyrinth’, that nobody seems to have used to describe La malinconia prior to Joseph Kerman (1967, 76; not cited by Sisman). And Kerman had only the second metaphor in mind, the harmonic labyrinth.
The Adagio does not stand alone, and can be adequately understood only in its relation to the Allegretto. Most likely, as two states of one mind; and in this way ‘the poor melancholic’ comes into the picture again, as the hypothetical subject to whom it all occurs. One contemporary reviewer at least had no difficulty in feeling sympathy:
Aesthetically true, and therefore masterly is Beethoven’s depiction of the melancholic: how, sunk in gloomy melancholy, scarcely capable of coherent ideas, he rises up to momentary cheerfulness, soon sinking back into his previous torpor; – I am gripped with compassion for the state of mind that is being depicted, as often as Beethoven’s tone poem presents this image to my soul. (v. Weiler 1828: 48; my transl.)
What is striking in this straightforward and maybe naïve response is the ease with which it is accepted that balancing moods within one mind are represented with very different means. The Adagio can plausibly be heard as a kind of analogy of the melancholic’s mental processes (searching, disjointed, tortuous); but it is not so clear what the dance-like Allegretto is to his mind. A tune in his head? An accompaniment to his extraverted behaviour? A mere indicator of mood? The fact that such questions are rarely asked is significant for the way listeners have learned (subconsciously) to deal with musical representation, which abounds in inconsistencies. (Inconsistencies that have made some philosophers very distrustful of musical representation.)
Maybe both moods are interrelated not only as two states of one mind, but as the manifestation of one condition. That this accorded with the composer’s idea of melancholy is not unlikely. It certainly is part of its medical and cultural history, including its particular association with genius (Klibansky et al. 2019: 247).
The pseudo-Aristotelian Problems tell us that…
[…] if black bile, being cold by nature and not superficially so, is in the stated condition, it can induce paralysis or torpor or depression or anxiety when it prevails in the body; but if it is overheated it produces cheerfulness, bursting into song, and ecstasies and the eruption of sores and the like. (Klibansky et al. 2019: 23)
And in Beethoven’s own day, Dr Pinel maintains that…
Nothing is more inexplicable, and yet nothing has been better observed than the two opposite forms that melancholy can take. Sometimes it is a puff of pride, and the illusion of possessing immense wealth or boundless power; at other times it is the most faint-hearted despondency, deep dismay, or even despair. (Pinel 1801: 142-43; my transl.)
Humours and Humour
That this interpretation fails to satisfy some critics is due to the supposed flimsiness of the Allegretto. As “a serious portrait of the manic-depressive personality, it [the music] might have done a more convincing job on the manic end than the blithely conventional Allegretto” (Kramer 1990: 191).
However, it can hardly have been Beethoven’s intention to illustrate a psychiatry textbook. It is more likely that we should relate La malinconia to the tradition of depicting contrasting ‘humours’ that existed alongside the medical tradition in the graphic arts. Usually these humours are individuated in different persons, such as the philosophers Heraclitus and Democritus, embodiments of the melancholy and sanguine temperaments (Lutz 1954). A late and isolated musical reference to this tradition is Charles Valentin Alkan’s Héraclite et Démocrite (Esquisses op. 63 nr. 39, 1861).
It is not clear what knowledge Beethoven may have had of this pictorial tradition. Musical examples in the same vein are on the whole surprisingly rare. C.P.E. Bach’s extraordinary trio sonata Gespräch zwischen einem Sanguineus und Melancholicus (1749) has frequently been mentioned in connection with La malinconia; here two characters are engaged in a wordless, but carefully explicated dialogue.
If we forget for a moment what Beethoven, being Beethoven, should have been doing (being serious), maybe we can accept the pedestrian exuberance of the dance as ironically undermining the recherché quality of the Adagio. There is something facile in La malinconia’s chromaticism, register displacements and twisted sequences. Rather than foreshadowing the complexities of his own late style, the composer seems to be looking back towards empfindsam fantasia style.
If this seems to rate the Adagio too low (after all, it should be played with the greatest delicacy), it should be remembered that in good comedy, unlike farce, characters are to be taken seriously. The overall humorous character of the movement is unmistakably revealed by the buffo crescendo and the curtain down signal of its final bars.
Even the humorous aspect can be accommodated within melancholy’s historical profile. The only music historian, to my knowledge, who has acknowledged the movement’s humorous nature (Braun 1989: 91), refers, again, to Saturn and Melancholy. An alliance between melancholy and humour has existed in poetry since the Baroque. The key element, the authors argue in a somewhat opaque paragraph, is an awareness of life’s finality and finiteness. In its melancholy aspect, this may inspire an acceptance of one’s sorrow as a condition that transcends the self, a universal suffering. The humorous approach exposes the discrepancy between human limitations and aspirations.
Hence it can be understood how in modern man “Humour”, with its sense of the limitation of the Self, developed alongside that Melancholy which had become a feeling of an enhanced Self. Nay, one could be humorous about Melancholy itself, and by so doing, bring out the tragic elements yet more strongly. (Klibansky et al. 2019: 235)
When it recurs in the midst of the Allegretto, the Adagio remains a temporary intrusion. According to the naive (but, I would suggest, adequate) interpretation, we observe the poor melancholic experiencing a temporary relapse in the midst of cheerfulness. It is overcome, somewhat forcibly maybe, with a frenzied reprise of the dance.
According to Karol Berger (2000, 2007), the Adagio’s return (TempoI) has the effect not of a relapse, but of a flashback that engulfs the subject: “the effect is that of a mind drawn from its present carefree state to a remembrance of the melancholy experienced in the past” (2000: 179; similarly, 2007: 309). He refers in this connection to Charles Rosen’s observation that has been my point of departure for previous explorations: the idea that Beethoven “is the first composer to represent the complex process of memory” (Rosen 1995: 166, relating to An die ferne Geliebte).
It is not obvious however why this should be melancholy remembered rather than re-experienced, and Berger gives us no reason (he repeatedly speaks of “the effect” being such-and-such, as if this were a listener’s automatic response). The difference may seem slight; a relapse would anyhow involve the recognition and hence recollection of the earlier state. One may find the idea attractive because it seems to add a dimension to the poor melancholic’s psychology (the musical persona or “protagonist” figures prominently in Berger’s descriptions).
How could we tell that the Tempo I represents melancholy remembered, rather than re-experienced? The composer does not have the film director’s beloved colour filter (if it’s yellowish or black-and-white, we know it’s a flashback). He does have, however, distancing or framing devices. The idea that the intrusion is contained within or framed by the Allegretto (and therefore, maybe, is less ‘actually happening’), is supported by the fact that the Adagio enters on a tonic 6/4, as if it were a cadenza. In the overall form, it initially seems to be a moment of stand-still, a kind of parenthesis. However, this ‘cadenza’ also includes the following very deliberate attempts to resume the dance. There is no ‘framing’ that signals: this is remembrance. Moreover, the intrusion is prepared within the Allegretto itself: leading up to the 6/4, a ff diminished chord conventionally announces the appearance of something different, more dramatic.
In the later of the two publications (2007), Berger relates La malinconia to a series of works with somewhat similar intrusions, or “spells of absentmindedness” (301). At the most superficial level, these are slower sections embedded within faster movements (there are notable precedents in Haydn). These all involve “shifts of ontological level” (306), from actuality to recollection, imagination, daydreaming, or contemplation.
Following Berger, we might after all tentatively identify the poor melancholic as the composer himself: Beethoven’s fascination with this musical procedure can be explained, at least in part, by the isolation he felt as a consequence of his deafness. They all show “a composer’s preoccupation with representing a mind that threatens to lose, or even does lose, its grip on the world at hand as it becomes absorbed in some other order of being” (329).
In a second interpretative move, Berger suggests that the significance of these absentminded moments should be sought beyond the private sphere in a contemporary intellectual climate of “soft Kantianism” (337). In this (Schopenhauerian rather than Kantian) perspective, what Beethoven’s absentminded spells allowed him and the listener was in fact a glimpse of the world beyond the phenomena: the noumena, Platonic ideas or Kantian thing-in-itself, the world as it is, beyond human categories of understanding.
I doubt however that the attempt to listen to these fascinating passages as an exercise in poeticized metaphysics brings us deeper into the composer’s world. Every phrase written by Beethoven belongs to human experience, superficial or profound, extraverted or introverted, exuberant or heroic or sad.
Berger, Karol. 2000. A Theory of Art. (New York: Oxford University Press).
———. 2007. Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity. (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Braun, Werner. 1989. “Melancholie als musikalisches Thema.” In Jobst Fricke (ed). Die Sprache der Musik: Festschrift Klaus Wolfgang Niemöller zum 60. Geburtstag am 21. Juli 1989. (Regensburg: Bosse), 81-98.
Forchert, Arno. 1983. “Die Darstellung der Melancholie in Beethovens Op. 18,6.” In Ludwig Finscher (ed). Ludwig van Beethoven. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft), 212-239.
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———. 2011. Interpreting Music. (Berkeley: University of California Press).
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Lutz, Cora E. 1954. “Democritus and Heraclitus.” The Classical Journal 49 (7): 309–314.
Pinel, Philippe. 1801. Traité médico-philosophique sur l’aliénation mentale ou la manie. (Paris: Richard, Caille et Ravier).
Rosen, Charles. 1995. The Romantic Generation. (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press).
Sisman, Elaine. 2015. “Music and the Labyrinth of Melancholy: Traditions and Paradoxes in C. P. E. Bach and Beethoven.” In Blake Howe et al. (ed). The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 590-617.
v. Weiler. 1828. “Ueber den Geist und das Auffassen der Beethoven’schen Musik.” Caecilia 9: 45–50.
Wald-Fuhrmann, Melanie. 2010. “Ein Mittel wider sich selbst”: Melancholie in der Instrumentalmusik um 1800. (Kassel: Bärenreiter.)
———. 2013. “Musik Und Subjektivität.” In Michele Calella et al. (eds). Historische Musikwissenschaft : Grundlagen Und Perspektiven. (Stuttgart : J.B. Metzler : J.B. Metzler), 289–306.