Thursday, July 20, 2006

"A goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end"

"It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it."

So opens chapter 5 of E.M. Forster's Howards End, which finds Margaret and Helen Schlegel at the symphony.

A few lines later, conversation in the audience ceases:

For the Andante had begun--very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven had written, and, to Helen's mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered, and she gazed at the audience, or the organ, or the architecture. Much did she censure the attenuated Cupids who encircle the ceiling of the Queen's Hall, inclining each to each with vapid gesture, and clad in sallow pantaloons, on which the October sunlight struck. "How awful to marry a man like those Cupids!" thought Helen. Here Beethoven started decorating his tune, so she heard him through once more, and then she smiled at her Cousin Frieda. But Frieda, listening to Classical Music, could not respond. Herr Liesecke, too, looked as if wild horses could not make him inattentive; there were lines across his forehead, his lips were parted, his pince-nez at right angles to his nose, and he had laid a thick, white hand on either knee. And next to her was Aunt Juley, so British, and wanting to tap. How interesting that row of people was! What diverse influences had gone to the making! Here Beethoven, after humming and hawing with great sweetness, said "Heigho," and the Andante came to an end. Applause, and a round of "wunderschoning" and pracht volleying from the German contingent. Margaret started talking to her new young man; Helen said to her aunt: "Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing"; and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the transitional passage on the drum.

"On the what, dear?"

"On the drum, Aunt Juley."

"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.

For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.

And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.

Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone. The music had summed up to her all that had happened or could happen in her career.

Pardon the extended quote, but I find irresistible all that stuff about goblins and elephants in Beethoven's Fifth.

The inspiration to post it here comes from an interesting item in The Independent by the debut novelist Jessica Duchen. She picked a few favorite works in which writers captured the intangible power of music in words.

In addition to Howards End and a few other works, old and new--click here to read the entire list--she selected one of my favorite contemporary novels, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Duchen writes:
During a house concert by a famous American soprano in a Latin American banana republic, terrorists besiege the building and make hostages of all within. But matters don't proceed as one might expect. The difference is made by the singer, Roxanne, whose voice and personal radiance command respect from everybody and the power of whose music lifts captors and captives alike towards a higher plane of existence. Isolated inside the house, the terrorists and their prisoners of many nationalities have only one language in common: music, especially Roxanne's singing. They are gradually inspired by this to evolve a startling modus vivendi based on co-operation and mutual support. Of course, confronting the real world, such bizarre symbiosis can't last. The idealistic story has the power of a fable, almost a myth; and it's a direct tribute to the transformative power of music.
Click here to read about Duchen's other favorite works that express the power of music in words.

Jessica Duchen's novel Rites of Spring is available in the U.K. but not (yet?) in the U.S. Click here to reach her classical music blog.

Howards End is available online here and elsewhere.

Click here for a previous blog post about Bel Canto.

--Marshal Zeringue