Turbulent Music, Turbulent Life

Ludwig van Beethoven; portrait by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815

Adam Kirsch in The New York Review of Books:

Early in E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For Helen, the flighty younger sister, the music functions as the soundtrack to a story unfolding in her mind. She identifies the symphony’s themes with characters and events—heroes, shipwrecks, elephants dancing. Most important is the third movement, the Scherzo, whose main theme represents “a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end.” The goblin theme insinuates to Helen that there is “no such thing as splendor or heroism in the world,” and the movement represents Beethoven’s struggle to vanquish this nihilistic thought. It is seemingly overcome by a new theme, a heroic recasting of the symphony’s opening four-note call, but then the goblin theme returns for a last, ghostly repetition, which Helen sees as Beethoven’s acknowledgment that evil and despair can never be permanently overcome. “Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall,” Forster writes. “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.”

The novel goes on to prove the point: when Helen rushes out of the hall, overcome by emotion, she accidentally takes an umbrella belonging to Leonard Bast, setting in motion a chain of events that will end in his ruin and death. Forster seems to be suggesting that Helen’s way of listening to Beethoven reveals the same character flaws that will lead her to destroy Leonard. She is a romantic egoist, more interested in the fantasy she creates about the Fifth Symphony than in the music itself. Whereas the wiser Margaret Schlegel, Forster says, “can only see the music,” just as she sees the reality of other people’s lives.

More here.