Arioso dolente

Beethoven, Sonata in A-flat major op. 110, from the third movement (Viennese edition, 1822), recorded with a digitized 1810? Schöffstos piano

Music Representing Music

The Arioso dolente (Klagender Gesang) from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 110 in A-flat major represents what the words written over it indicate: a mournful song, or vocal lament. The listener will easily recognize its quasi-vocal qualities without help from the score.

(Many have noted the arioso’s similarity with Es ist vollbracht from Bach’s St. John’s Passion. Both rely on a common melodic-harmonic schema which is found also in Beethoven’s Cello Sonata op. 69. Such schemas, however, abound in the 17th-19th-century tradition).

Instrumental music that represents vocal music: like a picture of a picture, it may include some, many or most of the properties of its hypothetical, imaginary original. We could ask a soprano to sing the vocal line. She might have some trouble with the longest phrases, and definitely would not be able produce the pitches that are in the piano’s upper register. On the other hand, the piano’s percussive, rapidly decreasing sound can only suggest, not truly realize the melodic arcs. As a ‘picture’ of vocal music, the arioso is not quite realistic.

The Silent Text

Before making her attempt, our unfortunate soprano would no doubt have asked: what are the words?

Understanding the arioso as a representation of vocal music entails the notion of a text, even if no thought of it has crossed the listener’s mind. Quasi-vocal music like this arioso most obviously demonstrates the linguistic qualities which are pervasively present in the classical-romantic tradition: poetic phrase building, vocal inflections and contours, the dynamics of expressive declamation.

It is remarkable how listeners have grown used to textless instrumental ‘song’, even though vocal music is nearly always bound to words. We are able to feel, sympathetically, the kind of thoughts and feelings that are musically communicated without the help of words. Clearly enough, Beethoven’s arioso is a heart-breaking and tender lament. And even in vocal music with text we are usually more interested in the underlying feelings and attitudes, and the nuances of their expression, than in the strictly semantic level of meaning.

The Musical Persona

These are uncontroversial, maybe even trivial ideas. From these, two further thoughts seem to follow quite plausibly, which nevertheless are much less agreed upon. The first has been the subject of a somewhat abstruse philosophical-musicological debate since the 1970’s. The second has been less frequently discussed.

The first idea is that any discourse or vocal-verbal utterance is somebody’s utterance. It implies a human being who is communicating, no matter how abstract or vaguely defined that human being may be. In poetry, there is a ‘voice’ or ‘poetic I’ implied in the very act of expressing anything poetically. If there is an explicit first-person I, literary orthodoxy holds (rightly, I think) that this should not be identified with the poet herself; it is a ‘persona’ created by the author, who may have lent many, or few, or none of her own qualities to that persona.

The implication would be that any music that has quasi-linguistic, discursive features contains a similar nameless, implied agent. That is the much debated issue of the ‘musical persona’, in favour of which, I think, more can be said (some other time).

Music as Fiction

The second, less common idea is that music which has representational content – including most instrumental ‘concert’ or ‘art music’ – can be categorized as fiction, along with literary genres such as novels, short stories, drama, and much lyrical poetry.

‘Fiction’ is a term typically applied to certain forms of verbal discourse; it is uncommon, and maybe pointless, to speak of pictures as ‘fiction’ (though what they represent may be non-existent, or ‘fictitious’).

But unlike pictures, and due mainly to its quasi-linguistic features, music may have discursive qualities. If we think of a text as the product and representation of human action, speech acts, other kinds of acts may enter discourse along with them; primarily, gestural acts.

In Beethoven’s sonata movement, the arioso is preceded by a recitativo. It borrows standard operatic devices which are both vocal-declamatory and, in the slowly striding introduction, gestural. When the following arioso comes to an inconclusively subdued halt, the contour of this closing gesture (C-flat, B-flat, E-flat, A-flat) is surprisingly inverted (A-flat, D-flat, B-flat, E-flat) to become a new beginning, the subject of a three-part fugue. At this moment, the music (‘the music’? ‘the musical I’?) seems to move into a more abstract domain. The fugue genre is at once abstract (a kind of tone-game, ‘counterpoint’) and quasi-vocal; though nobody would presumably think of the three ‘voices’ as a trio of vocalists.

An old-school, hard-core formalist might be tempted to classify the recitativo-arioso as a prelude to the fugue (and recitative elements are frequently found in J.S. Bach’s preludes). That schema, non-explanatory as it is, breaks down when the fugue is interrupted, in a strikingly dramatic manner, by a reprise of the arioso. We cannot make sense of this by reference to any formal model that predetermines the course of events. But we may feel that there is a kind of expressive-dramatic logic at work, a logic of action and mental processes rather than of form. It allows the musical persona (if we believe in that entity) not only to wilfully transcend any formal convention, but also to move across different domains of representation: in this case, vocal music, gesture, and polyphonic forms. Describing this process in detail will make it sound more complex, arbitrary and illogical than the music appears to us. But that’s what happens when we try to explain explicitly what we grasp intuitively. If the music seems to make sense musically, it is above all because it is imbued with a sense of action, volition, intention, human agency and thought.

But this is represented, imaginary action and thought. And as such, it belongs to fiction. We may follow the course of musical events as a kind of audio play, or music for a silent and invisible film, where all the events have been absorbed in the musical medium: a kind of cinematography avant le cinéma.

The Music that Ate the Movie – it could be an interesting script.


This is a modified excerpt from my Fiction, Truth, and Lies: The Nonassertion Theory of Fiction, Quotation, and Music as Fiction.