Beethoven and Dickens

by Sara Bitlloch

our mutual friendI am currently obsessed with Charles Dickens. I’ve only discovered him relatively recently and I’m slowly working my way through his novels. It’s a bit of a revelation for me! As we’re working on op.132, I’m about half way through Great Expectations, and I’ve been thinking that discovering a Beethoven quartet is very much like discovering a Dickens novel…


Entering a Dickens novel or a Beethoven quartet is like starting on a journey whose final destination is totally unknown at the start, yet from the first word/note there is an underlying pull so powerful that we’re immediately “hooked”. The plot is completely unpredictable yet has a perfect inner logic that takes us to places both unexpected and miraculous. In every case, a world is created that is immensely rich, profound, and complete. Take the visionary opening of op.131, followed by some of Beethoven’s most tender, exciting, funny music, only to then launch into the most desperate and heart wrenching of last movements: however unexpected all the changes, there is an inevitability about everything, which we only discover in retrospect. The “universal” opening sequence of A Tale of Two Cities could have laid the ground for just about any story, or so it seems as we read it; but the last lines of the novel, in the mind of a man about to die, could not be more personal and intimate, (and one of the most moving endings of all time..) and everything leading up to them becomes a kind of long journey inward through the novel.

Just as in Dickens each sentence is a small perfect entity, with its own internal rhythm and dimensions, and which often needs to be read, re-read and pondered in order to savour fully all its layers of meaning, humour and beauty, so in a Beethoven quartet, every phrase or gesture has its own specific character, rhythm and dimensions which might translate into an emotion, an image, a taste, a smell. I’m thinking for example of the opening of op.59 no2, a striking juxtaposition of contrasting gestures, separated by silence: the first two chords set the uncompromising tone and leave the music open to the incredibly tense silence that follows, then comes an enigmatic phrase that seems to close in on itself, and then an almost exact replica a semi-tone higher which increases the mystery, and finally some violent but suppressed cries of anxiety, all in the space of 10 bars, and with a huge emotional impact. Or this in David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”

Dickens’s characters are always incredibly vivid, interesting, unique, lovable, and as the story progresses one can’t help but become attached to them. Beethoven’s themes are similarly diverse, wonderfully characterized, and as they travel and evolve through the piece they become familiar so that we find ourselves expecting and hoping for them. Both undergo any number of transformations in the course of the novel/quartet, sometimes radical to the point of becoming almost unrecognisable (think of Bella’s metamorphosis from a perfectly spoilt little brat when we first meet her in Our Mutual Friend, to one of Dickens’s most endearing creations by the end of the story; or the way in which the theme of the slow movement of op.127 becomes completely transfigured through the variations). These changes might happen through circumstances, self- inspection, love; motivic development, different “lighting” (harmonies, dynamics, registers, articulations, etc..), all the while participating in the broader unfolding of the novel/quartet as a whole.

Both Dickens and Beethoven can be down to earth, unafraid of being extremely funny at times; yet they can also reach the sublime and move the reader/listener to tears, sometimes almost in the same breath, one extreme only enhancing the other. The extraordinary slow movement of op.132 touches something too deep or too high for words to describe; but immediately afterwards we’re brought back down to earth without transition with the lopsided, comical, drunken march of the 4th movement. And what of the “Ode to an Expiring Frog” in the Pickwick Papers! I’ve indulged in copying out one of my favourite sentences in Great Expectations: “Among this good company, I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of the pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain. No; I should not have minded that, if they had only left me alone (…)” Yet a few chapters later, Pip having just learnt of his unknown benefactor and his imminent separation from Joe: “The more I looked into the glowing coals, the more incapable I became of looking at Joe; the longer the silence lasted, the more unable I felt to speak.” And then, “(…) feeling it very sorrowful and strange that this first night of my bright fortunes should be the loneliest I had ever known.” And, in A Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Getting to the end of a Dickens novel/Beethoven quartet, and realising that every event, character, phrase, sentence, dynamic, rest, word, note of it was necessary to the end result, always leaves me in wonder at the genius that created it. The wisdom in every work is so beautiful, each dealing with different aspects of life and the human condition. They are universal and timeless, so that today any of their works has as much relevance and power as it always had, if not more. So, Beethoven and Dickens help me grow, each one of their works that I get to know (and each re-visiting too) brings about new discoveries and insights.


Apparently Rodin used to say that he wasn’t creating his sculptures, he was liberating what already existed in the stone. I wonder if the same could be said of a Beethoven quartet or a Dickens novel. Or any great piece of art. Is the act of creating a kind of uncovering of something that was always there somewhere (if only in the creator’s mind)? I’m always drawn to this idea when I think of the incredible transcendence of a Beethoven quartet (or a Dickens novel). There seems to be a point in the creative process at which the piece becomes governed by its own inner forces, where it takes on a life of its own. I suppose knowing whether that life came about gradually or was always there is not that important. But the fact that it is there at all is a kind of miracle.


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5 Responses to “Beethoven and Dickens”

  1. David Barnes says:

    The blog was very interesting and thoughtful, I must read more Dickens, especially as I live in an area lived for a large part of his life and where the scenes from Pip’s childhood are set.

    Saw that same concert with the Opus 18 No1 and Opus 29 at Wigmore Hall a couple of days ago and really enjoyed it. The First Quartet was more played with greater intensity than seems to usually be the case with the Opus 18 works and very much in the spirit of Beethoven. The cellist looked to be really happy in the first movement, but there were times it seemed she was likely to break into tears in the slow one.

    Thank you very much for a wonderful concert, really looking forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Paul Allen says:

    A sublime concert in Sheffield last night, with the rarely-played Quintet (two violas) and the five-movement Op 132. Who knew that Beethoven should be quite so skittish so much of the time and yet so self-questioning and humbly serious in giving thanks for his recovery from illness? ‘A conversation with God,’ you called it, Sara, and a question afterwards provoked the old and unresolved debate about how spiritual one can be without being religious … I had to conclude that this is a place Dickens doesn’t take us for all his brilliant emotional range and capacity for colourful characterisation. T S Eliot, quoted in last night’s programme notes, certainly does. But Beethoven’s his own man, isn’t he?

    • Sara Bitlloch says:

      Thanks Paul! Yes, that’s probably where the similarities end, though for me it’s more to do with how consistent Beethoven is , right from op.18/1 (or even further back, the op.1 piano trios) the music immediately has a depth to it that is overwhelming. Whereas one has to wait for the late works of Dickens (i haven’t read all his works so i don’t feel completely fair in saying this!) to get the full extent of his emotional range. But i suppose it’s ultimately futile to really try to compare geniuses, partly because it will always be subjective and also because their uniqueness is part of what makes them geniuses…

  3. Alan Marshall says:

    Sara,as a fellow Dickens fan have you spotted his only reference (Dombey & Son -Mr Morfin)to string quartets?
    “He was a great musical amateur in his way — after business; and had a paternal affection for his violoncello, which was once in every week transported from Islington, his place of abode, to a certain club-room where quartettes of the most tormenting and excruciating nature were executed every Wednesday evening by a private party.”

    See you @ Turner Sims!

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