Chapter 37 of Aldous Huxley’s 1928 novel contains an often quoted description of the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in a minor, op.132. Like Thomas Mann’s lyrical passage on the final movement and final measures of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, op.111, Huxley invokes Beethoven’s music as a metaphor for larger thematic issues in his novel. Unlike Mann, who enlisted the help of the noted German theorist Theodore Adorno in preparing his analysis, Huxley, seemingly on his own, gets it wrong where the actual music is concerned.
Thirty slow bars had built up heaven, when the character of the music suddenly changed. From being remotely archaic, it became modern. The Lydian harmonies were replaced by those of the corresponding major key. The time quickened. A new melody leapt and bounded, but over earthly mountains, not among those of paradise…
‘The Lydian part begins again on the other side,’ he explained, as he wound up the machine. ‘Then there’s more of this lively stuff in A Major. The it’s Lydian to the end, getting better and better all the time.’
To anyone familiar with op. 132, the mistakes here are obvious. In the context of the rapturous prose that surrounds them, they are especially disturbing. Because the Adagio has no sharps or flats, it does not mean that it shares the a minor key of the Quartet. Rather, the Lydian Mode is built on the note F. When Huxley’s Spandrell speaks of the corresponding major key, it is clear from a reading of the end of the above passage that he has mistakenly placed the Neue Kraft fühlend section into A Major, not D Major, which is the correct key of this section.
Paradoxically, getting it right would have supported the spiritual argument much more convincingly. The basic motive of op. 132, and one which it shares with op.130 and 131, is the combination of four notes: G#, A, F, and E.
G#, the leading tone, and A also define the a minor tonality of movements 1 and 5, and the A major tonality of movements 2 and 4. The middle of the arch is the F, the basis for the Lydian Mode. The power of the Neue Kraft fühlend sections in the third, central movement is enhanced by their being in the key of D Major, the subdominant of A. Its plagal relationship , (that is the 1-4-1 cadence) with the main key, is like a large-scale amen cadence which lends a spiritual radiance to the entire work. It is interesting to observe the prevalence of the tones F-E in the finale. Not only do they complete the form of the initial four notes, (G#, A, F, E,) of the piece, but their presence in the approach to the coda of the work lends the final A Major a feeling of exultant triumph.
So, is Huxley demeaning his character Spandrell by giving him the chance to express himself on the subject of op.132, getting the mood, tone and spirit of the work correct, but erring on the observable structure in such a simple way as getting the key wrong? Or did he lack what Thomas Mann did not, a competent musical theorist at his disposal?
Musical notation courtesy of Motoshi Kato.