Sheltered listening (Beethoven’s “Archduke Trio” under quarantine)

Why did classical music first, among all the artistic genres, respond with enthusiasm and generosity to the current quarantine, making large quantities of its resources freely and globally available?  Even though it is among the least popular genres, why did it feel immediately that it had a major contribution to make under conditions of “shelter in place”?


Here is a reason that inheres in the very function of the genre itself.  As I have argued before in this blog, classical music is a highly refined practice of middle-class soul searching.  It establishes its own domain where the modern subject withdraws for disinterested self-examination.  In a domain that appears to escape all biopolitical control, listeners exercise their sophisticated techniques of inward contemplation to carve new depths for their private identity.  During a period of mandatory seclusion like the current one, such techniques of the self can make isolation bearable, even meaningful.

Let’s take a very short but highly indicative example, the opening of the 3rd movement, Andante cantabile ma però con moto. Poco piu adagio, of Beethoven’s piano trio op. 97 (1811), the “Archduke Trio,” a movement consisting of an original theme and four variations.  These remarkable three minutes of music do not offer a melody or song, do not launch an exploration.  They articulate a hymn-like theme which, instead of growing, it just changes chords.  It is not static but it is not moving either.  If you are not allowed to go anywhere, they make you believe that you do not need to.

“Because the music cannot be heard as moving along a line toward a goal and then arriving at the goal, it cannot present the image of a publicly manifest event happening in response to its past and actualizing the deciding self.  It is as though the motion implied by the process of intensification were inward instead of forward; although the theme begins as if it were an image of moving horizontally to a publicly manifest event, it imperceptibly changes into an image of penetrating deeper and deeper into a single point.  The image does not suggest that we are moving closer and closer to a point (that way of describing the process implies a kind of linear motion which the phrases refuse to suggest), but rather that we feel more and more the presence and force of this point” (David B. Greene:  Temporal Processes in Beethoven’s Music, 1982, 30-1).

Although written to launch four variations, the three-minute theme* sounds as if it is generated internally, works autonomously, and moves inwardly.  The opening eight-bar piano phrase enunciates a speaking voice that begins to test the limits of expression.  Focusing on the piano, which dominates the movement, we can hear the richly harmonized voice of a self who is pursuing internal understanding through deepening self-differentiation.  The harmony of subjectivity struggles to emerge out of its own resources and seeks a cantabile actualization of inner depth by exerting itself against recalcitrant limits.  At the very end of the movement, following the transformation of self into four variations and the return of the theme, prayer turns into song, and stasis into a dialectic as the speaking voice/piano splits internally, over pulsing triplets, into a rapt duet of the two strings.

Listening to this theme makes reflection feel like self-discovery.  Practicing musical attention under conditions of confinement functions like salutary introspection, working on intensification rather than an impossible move outward/outside.  As subjects are confined at home and cannot assemble their freedom in public, they may at least go inward.  As soon as the middle classes last month found themselves sequestered, not only did classical music become the soundtrack of their state-imposed isolation but it also made the biopolitical discipline to which they have been subjected feel like an opportunity for better self-mastery (such as Kant’s autonomous obedience).

Since then, aesthetic conduct, such as listening to Beethoven, has been delivering the consolations of private/bourgeois freedom under constraints of political necessity that remain unchallenged.  This muffles collaborative practices, such as listening to a friend or a comrade listening with you.  (Meantime, the piano playing of Pantelis Polychronidis, my other self, is growing restless.)

* I selected this particular performance because I felt that it suits my argument very well.

2 April 2020


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