Halfway through Gergely Boganyi’s piano concert at the One & Only Ballroom this weekend, I was reminded of a scene from a beloved book, EM Forster’s Howards End.
It was probably during one of the exquisite impromptus just before recess; I closed my eyes, and a series of images flitted by. I’m not sure what I saw, it was just a hazy montage of beautiful images, possibly even my favourite impressionist art, but it immediately sparked this memory of Helen Schlegel’s response to Beethoven’s Fifth.
“The Andante had begun – very beautiful, but bearing a family likeness to all the other beautiful Andantes that Beethoven has written, and, to Helen’s mind, rather disconnecting the heroes and shipwrecks of the first movement from the heroes and goblins of the third. She heard the tune through once, and then her attention wandered … and the Andante came to an end… Helen said to her aunt: `Now comes the wonderful movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing,’ and Tibby implored the company generally to look out for the the transitional passage on the drum…
No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,’ breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right.
Her brother raised his finger : it was the transitional passage on the drum. For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent death! […] Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.
And the goblins – they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them. Men like the Wilcoxes, or President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return – and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall.
Beethoven chose to make it all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But 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.”