The Unutterable

It is as hard to imagine music without late Beethoven as to understand why they were so cherished when I was younger. My tastes in fine art appreciation, in retrospective, seem to follow a similar route. Late Beethoven has forlorn the grandeur discourse and exceptional prowess, instead he expressed a sense of instability that roots deep in everyone’s heart and a yearning for something so tangible that words fail to describe yet so indisputable that no one will fail to associate it with his own memory. The music itself migrates from dramatic, theatrical and developmental to relational, parallel and digressive, thus there is a greater sense of freedom in both forms and material that liberates minds from rules and convention.
In the second movement of his 12th string quartet, Op 127 in E-flat major, the variations of two different themes – one thoroughly sober and earnest, the other with a touch of folksong lightness – eventually bring the two seemingly irreconcilable melodies together. It has never failed to touch me, but strangely each listening seems to recall some remote memory and emotion totally differently. To me it encompasses such tremendous human feelings that by flowing through one to another the music triggers the most profound responses from listeners. 

Beethoven was especially fond of variation in his late period. Through variations, he has found a limitless ways of exploring music elements and personal moods aesthetically and intellectually. The way regular sonatas work, by emphasizing contrasts between fast and slow, heroic and serene, although effective in immediately captivating and familiarizing audiences, fails to provide an infinite degrees of subtleties in human feelings.

These, by far, can also reflect how I view the advancement from Hudson River School to Tonalism in the second half of 19th century in America. The tonalism school painters abandoned the ideas that paintings as a another medium for moral rhetoric or intellectual prowess. The landscape should not be idealized for the sake of grandeur; similarly the technique should not be polished to eliminate traces of human labor. Above all, they focused on expressing the utmost deep emotions for themselves. They accepted the brush strokes as a way of earnest yearning for something unattainable by just imaging or portraying the likeness. If Frederic Church, in his magnificent canvas, showed what god sees America, tonalism painters humbly yet non-hesitatingly told how they felt of the surroundings themselves.

It is said Beethoven composed his middle period string quartets with the ideal listeners in his mind; but his late quartets, with extreme forms, sonority and harmony, were written for his own silent world. Upon the manuscript of his Missa Solemnis in D major, he wrote the following words: From the heart! May it go back to the heart!

Thus, I feel a kind of intimacy in front of small paintings by those Barbizon and Tonalism painters even though they may be dark toned, even toned or indistinct, for I know these are the treasured memories from the hearts. After all, no matter how splendid the landscape may be, it only lasts emotionally in one’s heart.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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