Beethoven’s Musical Characters

Each sonata by Beethoven has its own particular character. But is this really anything more than a platitude? Should we still be clinging to such concepts as “character” and “atmosphere”? Aren’t the musical cognoscenti interested primarily in understanding “structure,” leaving something as vague as “poetic associations” to amateurs? And haven’t the poststructuralists long since exposed “character” as a mere illusion?

Arnold Schoenberg, whom no one would accuse of being an amateur, recommended that

in composing even the smallest exercises, the student should never fail to keep in mind a special character. A poem, a story, a play or a moving picture may provide the stimulus to express definite moods. The pieces which he composes should differ widely.

When the concept of character first began to emerge in writings about music around 1795, it was intended as a corrective to Kant’s relative deprecation of instrumental music. In his Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant had declared that music took “the lowest place among the fine arts,” because “it plays merely with sensations.” Music, according to Kant, was an agreeable (angenehm) rather than a fine art. Writers like Christian Gottfried Körner and Christian Friedrich Michaelis subsequently came to the aid of music and in the process consistently drew on the sonata to support their arguments.

Eighteenth-century listeners perceived the sonata as a remarkably private genre, in comparison with the Baroque suite. In place of a succession of more or less formal dances, sonatas now appeared to be “like studies of the various attitudes and passions of man.” Even the minuet—the only one of the suite movements to find its way routinely into the symphony, string quartet, and sonata—was capable of taking on a variety of characters, whether gracious or impetuous, solemn or humorous. This distinctive element of what could be called the humane, the personal, or the individual characterizes the sonata more aptly than the presence of any so-called “sonata-form movement.” After all, there are plenty of sonatas without even a single such movement.

From works on aesthetics written just before 1800, we know that musical character was perceived as consisting of “psychological” and “moral” components, and as mediating between these two supposedly contrasting spheres. Körner’s essay “On the Representation of Character in Music,” which appeared in 1795 in Schiller’s journal, Die Horen, goes beyond this to speak of what amounts to a masculine and feminine Ideal.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.