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12 - “So Here I Am, in the Middle Way”: The Autograph of the “Harp” Quartet and the Expressive Domain of Beethoven’s Second Maturity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

Descriptions of Beethoven's second maturity have broadly resisted the generalizations that fit more easily onto the Classicism of his early period and the enigmatic writing of his late period. Often, the work of the composer's middle period has been divided into the heroic style and “other.” This “other” stands in contrast to the heroic and is often itself considered dualistically. The tendency is to describe Beethoven's middle-period works that do not fit neatly into the heroic style of this period either as an echo of his early Classicism or as prefiguring the revered late style. The poet T. S. Eliot eloquently addressed this special difficulty of being in an artistic middle. “So here I am, in the middle way,” wrote Eliot in 1940,

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it.

It is thus that we encounter Beethoven in 1809 in the midst of his second maturity. Composed in the middle of this year, the String Quartet, op. 74, known as the “Harp,” has been problematic for critics and scholars. Nicholas Marston has observed and chronicled the “twofold mutation in its perception” from its being regarded as part of the innovation of the three op. 59 String Quartets to its being more aligned with the Classical approachability of the earlier op. 18 Quartets. In short, the placement of opus 74 within this dichotomy of the “other middle style” has proven challenging over the work's two-hundred-year history. The attempt to apply the soothing constraints of a duality is perhaps a natural critical response to the confusion of the thing that Eliot was describing—the struggle of creating new things with old tools. This is the inherent quality of middle-ness.

In this essay, I suggest that the expressive variety found in the String Quartet, op. 74, belongs to a poetic aesthetic of the middle period that is both inward and retrospective, although not retrogressive.

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The New Beethoven
Evolution, Analysis, Interpretation
, pp. 261 - 273
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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