The Unconscious Beethoven by Ernest Newman




Ernest Newman's book, reissued on the centenary of his birth, was first published on the centenary of Beethoven's death, with the avowed intention of seeing its subject as he really was.

    Part I (The Man) explains that Beethoven has been over-romanticized; point (a). He was really rather stupid, dishonest, arrogant, syphilitic and sex-obsessed; points (b)-(f). Part II (The Composer) reveals another obsession (g); not with sex, but with “a certain little figure”, which evokes “a feeling of uplift or tension” (h). It “kept recurring when he was in his most emotional mood”, and may well have “had an occasional overflow, as it were”. He uses it where the “upward urge is manifest”, to “create the impression of working up to something”, or “to depict a hero rising in his majesty”. It may be prominent, or hidden, eg “in the inner and lower parts at the climax”. It is “a figure of three ascending notes in conjunct motion” (ie rising by step) “that generally come in about the same place”, namely “at the climactic point” (i). This happens instinctively; for although Beethoven may sometimes seem “to be consciously and coolly manipulating his material”, his creative acts were in fact performed subconsciously (j); and in them he “began, in some curious way, with the whole, and then worked back to the particular” (k).

    Or so we are told. Sir Neville Cardus, in his introduction, feels that “the probing principle of Newman's is at work” in such passages. But if these ideas were fathered by (not just on) the unconscious mind of Beethoven, then surely his two obsessions would have been sex-linked; or at least the two parts, whether of man or music, would have had some occasional connection?

Not a bit of it. “Beethoven's music has probably fewer sex-connotations than that of any other composer, except Bach's.” The fingerprint has nothing to do with the guilt. Beethoven has the best of all alibis; his mind was elsewhere at the time. His works were written not by him at all, but by, “the spirit of music”. Such mystic flights seem to go rather far. At times they disappear into the cloud of unknowing. For example, Beethoven, although just an unconscious instrument (pp. 71, 148, and passim), was never just an unconscious instrument (pp. 103, 139, etc). Again there is a spirited defence: Beethoven was in such a state that even his conscious was largely unconscious (pp. 142-3). QED.

    His suspected syphilis gets the same mercurial treatment. It's no use consulting the doctors; they all disagree. One of them actually argues that we can't judge without the evidence, if you can credit that. He fails to see that it is the absence of evidence which is so decisive. For, according to Thayer, Dr Bertolini once confessed to having destroyed some compromising papers to which he had access as Beethoven's physician. What could be more con­clusive? It follows that Beethoven had some dis­creditable secret, which must have been a physical affliction; which must have been a venereal disease, which must have been syphilis, which must have been acquired, which must have been in 1796, which must have been why he hated his sister-in-law in 1818. “The fact of Beethoven's malady [sic] seems then to be beyond dispute”.

    The other themes are also more notable for recapitulation than development. Point (a) is made 14 times; (b)-(f), 30; (g)-(i), 40; (j), 12; (k), 22. However, the example of someone “specially given to the unconscious repetition of the same formulae” is Beethoven.

    These idiosyncrasies may be thought rewarding as well as revealing. Plainly Ernest Newman on Beethoven is no scholarly Emily Anderson, no intellectual J. W. N. Sullivan. He offers instead what has been called his “emotional disposition to music” in a genre which has been called the adven­tures of the soul among masterpieces - though perhaps “psyche” would be apter. He writes like a creative artist, by the same process as he attributes to Beethoven, and thus (mutatis mutandis) confirms his own thesis for what it is worth.

    About such a mirror of music one can only ask­ - are its images real, its angles original, its reflections true? No doubt many of them are. For example if one seeks medical advice on the question of syphilis, which does after all seem advisable, one can find some confirmation [note 1: see eg Dr Dieter Kerner, Krankheiten grosser Musiker (1963) p.78ff] of Newman's conjectures. No doubt too the little fingerprint here recorded from all angles (obtuse as well as acute) is evidence which could prove helpful in apprehending the music. Moreover the idea itself is arresting, and anticipates much modern detective work. I think it might also point the way to even more interesting and scientific investigations and deductions. Thus if the three-note theme really has a quasi-verbal meaning, then it might be found in significant conjunction with relevant words or ideas. At first glance the results are promising; it appears as a symbol of manly activity, with typical dotted rhythm, inDer Mann vom Wort, and as a symbol of yearning inAn die ferne Geliebte. Again, one might study other seman­tic aspects of Beethoven's musical expression; for example his feeling-tone which links the tonalities of F and D, giving the impression of a key so alert and confident that even its relative minor can shortly be promoted major (eg in op 10 no 2, 1 and III; op 33 no 3; op 68, I and III; etc).

    Further, one might consider how far the onset of a grave disorder might turn the music sombre with intimations of mortality, much as Keats defined the second period of artistic development. This would seem apt enough for Beethoven and many others, and indeed relevant to the whole question of the mental and physical bases of creative art.

    In such ways, Ernest Newman's book, which despite obvious weaknesses was outstanding in its day, could again become seminal because of this new issue. A reader receptive to its ideas, and on guard against possible misconceptions, would find it quite acceptable at 30s, with nearly as many musical illustrations (126) as there are pages.


The Musical Times, Jan. 1969 © the estate of eric sams