Schopenhauer on Beethoven

The Danish String Quartet. Photo: James Estrin for the New York Times.

In seeking some solace over the past few days, I’ve been dipping into a little music now and again, specifically Wagner and more specifically Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Opus 132. The quartet is rather famously that to which T.S. Eliot felt a strong affinity as he was composing his own Four Quartets, and I find its third movement especially a source of wonder in its surprising dissonances and resolutions.

I’ve also been dipping into a little philosophy, specifically Schopenhauer, where I often turn when I need that solace. In the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer discusses the metaphysical qualities of Beethoven’s symphonic work, although these apply as well to the late quartets, I believe:

Now if we cast a glance at purely instrumental music, a symphony of Beethoven presents us with the greatest confusion which yet has the most perfect order as its foundation; with the most vehement conflict which is transformed the next moment into the most beautiful harmony. It is rerum concordia discors [the discordant concord of the world], a true and complete picture of the nature of the world, which rolls on in the boundless confusion of innumerable forms, and maintains itself by constant destruction. But at the same time, all the human passions and emotions speak from this symphony: joy, grief, love, hatred, terror, hope, and so on in innumerable shades, yet all, as it were, only in the abstract and without any particularization; it is their mere form without the material, like a mere spirit world without matter. We certainly have an inclination to realize it while we listen, to clothe it in the imagination with flesh and bone, and to see in it all the different scenes of life and nature. On the whole, however, this does not promote an understanding or enjoyment of it, but rather gives it a strange and arbitrary addition. It is therefore better to interpret it purely and in its immediacy.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Volume 2, p. 450 (Payne translation)

I admit that, at my age and with my temperament, I’m less drawn to art that explores anything other than these transcendent qualities; that based in or speaking to race or gender or identity, politics, society, culture, or the “world” as we have it, is leaving me colder and colder. No doubt, my loss. But there’s no solace in it, at least for me.

Below, the Danish String Quartet performs the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15. This is chamber music, not orchestral music, and I’m taken by the Danish String Quartet’s setting in a domestic chamber — a room in a home, rather than a concert hall or an auditorium, with lamps, pictures on the wall, a rug. Perhaps a nod, I think, to the strong likelihood that Beethoven’s late quartets received their first premieres not in public but in private, domestic settings. It is, too, where I hear it today.