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Preamble from the Heart

The question of forgiveness evolves from ethics. It is a question of morality, of right and wrong, of good and evil. Or is it? What does it mean – to forgive? Who should ask for forgiveness? If true forgiveness is only asked for the unforgivable, why bother?

Forgiveness as an illusion makes it difficult to know whom to forgive. Perhaps this is why more often than not the wrong person is asking for forgiveness. Jacques Derrida explains this as a kind of double secret that is present in forgiveness, a double constraint. “I don’t ask forgiveness for betraying, wounding, or doing harm to you … I ask forgiveness for loving you, for preferring you, for responding to you.”

Forgiveness functions as a pure gift. The root of the French word for forgiveness, pardonner, is don (gift). If we consider the nature of an absolute, pure gift, outside of calculation, we see that the object that is given, the very act of giving, cannot return to the giver. The gift is annulled in the presence of interdependence, exchange, or debt between two subjects. The giver cannot be aware of the act of giving, and the receiver cannot know that he or she has received it. A gift in this scenario may seem no more than a coincidence, but such is the paradox of the pure gift – it has to be completely removed from an economy, completely stripped of its status as a phenomenon. “On what condition does goodness exist beyond calculation? On the condition that goodness forget itself, that the movement is a movement of the gift that renounces itself, hence a movement of infinite love.” 

A gift must exist beyond calculation. Forgiveness must exist beyond calculation. In this case, forgiveness becomes doubly impossible – not possible when one asks for forgiveness, when it can no longer be a pure gift, and not possible in the absence of asking for forgiveness, because the victim has no control over the nature of the criminal who does not demand forgiveness. 

Nevertheless, this is where forgiveness begins, as a kind of divine anarchy, at the moment when it becomes impossible. It begins as simply as Beethoven’s d minor sonata.

beethoven - sonata in d minor, Op. 31 No. 2 . facsimile of autograph

beethoven - sonata in d minor, Op. 31 No. 2 . facsimile of autograph

Problema I

Beethoven’s 17th sonata, the center of his 32 sonatas, is his only sonata in d minor. It is at once three sonatas (each movement a sonata-allegro) and none at all. Beethoven, a master of the finale, chooses an abrupt, inconclusive end. Even more surprising is the equally vague beginning. The piece exists as an undivided whole – three interrelated, parallel universes evolving simultaneously. The unique form continues to elude traditional musical analysis with its features – unpredictable tempi, obscure themes, and a distinct recitative more suitable for theater. This sonata has little relationship to the universal definition of thematic and harmonic organization in music, form as structure. Instead, it offers itself as a compelling case for Plato’s theory of forms, form evolving from εἶδος (eidos), form as something that cannot be seen, intangible, form as a vision of the inner eye. The d minor sonata falls historically at the beginning of Beethoven’s “heroic” period, the period that would cement his reputation as the undisputed tragic hero of the Classical age.

It was the French poet and writer Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux who first described Classicism. Classicism was not formulated by German or Viennese musicians, but rather by writers and poets of 17th century France – Molière, Racine, and Corneille. The preference of nature and reason over individual expression, the fast, light, and “tight-knit” declaration of ideas, and most importantly, the choice of the heroic character over anything particular, singular, vulgar, negative, and weak, laid the foundation for normative aesthetics in works of art. The best of a kind had to be done in the best possible way to achieve status in the universal. Art could not be subjective – it’s objective was the Good, Noble, and Heroic. The tragic hero must sacrifice all personal interest for the sake of public duty. But what kind of heroism do we speak of when we speak of Beethoven? Is this really the typical heroism of the Classical period?

Kazimerz malevich - Black Square, 1915. image courtesy of tretyakov gallery, moscow

Kazimerz malevich - Black Square, 1915. image courtesy of tretyakov gallery, moscow

Problema II

Following the tragic events of 1917, Rachmaninoff often chose Beethoven’s d minor sonata for his concert programs in the West. The year 1917 for Rachmaninoff might as well be the year 1802 for Beethoven (the year of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and the d minor sonata). These years inevitably tie Rachmaninoff and Beethoven through the question of forgiveness.

Both artists were presented with an Event – an Ereignis, or event of revealing. The er- prefix of this German word implies a process resulting in a certain state. The state can be momentary, or in this case, finite – an inevitable encounter with purpose, a clash with the impossible. Events of such nature possess a kind of death, whether literal or symbolic, an absolutely singular experience of self. But what exactly does this moment of death hold? 

If we consider Dante’s Divina Commedia, it is no coincidence that the moment of death is examined much more closely than the everyday events for which those in Inferno have been condemned. Dante shows us that the dead exist outside of time - they are forever reflecting on life through the aperture of their moment of death. In this they reflect everyone that is living, for every moment is really a moment of death, a window to look back, as if for the last time. Without the past there is no future.

Rachmaninoff lived on the break of centuries, during a chaotic rise of all spiritual forces, angelic and demonic, in Eastern Europe. Caught in a whirlwind of a kind of Russian renaissance, he moved to the West only to endure an overwhelming modernist vogue in music. The early 20th century marked a turning point for Art as a whole. This was now the time of Futurism – a new perception of space and time, a completely new rhythm of motion.

Rachmaninoff’s contemporaries often labeled his work as backwards – many still consider him as no more than a romantic composer writing music for the wrong time. However, if one looks closely, it is much more appropriate to place Sergei Rachmaninoff alongside Kazimerz Malevich, Rachmaninoff’s contemporary in the visual arts. 

Malevich’s groundbreaking Black Square first appeared in 1913, the same year as Rachmaninoff’s second and final sonata. The Black Square was a formula, the start of a new alphabet in the visual arts, an alphabet based on the pure properties of color, the energies of color, color as an expression of content complete in itself, subject-less expression. Malevich achieved zero form. Malevich, already in the beginning of the 20th century, understood that the epoch of individual interpretation had ended. The 20th century would now become the age of mass culture.

Can zero form be achieved in music? In 1921, the 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School demonstrated that music no longer needed neither form nor harmony. Rachmaninoff approached zero form from the opposite direction. Instead of abolishing harmony and working in an atonal system, he began using tonality on such a level that the order of harmonies, or their syntax, became less and less important. He began arranging chords based on their individual aesthetic, psychological, and energetic properties, resulting in a cognitive effect where the order of harmony no longer mattered. Malevich replaced form in the visual arts with pure color. Rachmaninoff replaced the concept of form in music with pure harmony.

Was this not one of the primary goals of composers in the 20th century – the almost obsessive need to examine sound for individual properties, the need to arrange pitch in new ways? This challenge prompted most of Rachmaninoff’s contemporaries to abandon tonality. Rachmaninoff was able to achieve a solution by staying true to the development of harmony.

Was this not one of the primary musical goals of the 20th century – the examination of sound for individual properties, the goal to arrange pitch in new ways? No one examined the individual properties of harmony. No one modernized harmony like Rachmaninoff. His last few opuses, including a revised version of the second sonata in 1931, all testify to his newly evolved, complex style. Rachmaninoff, just like Ives Saint Laurent, understood that “fashion fades, but style is eternal.”

caravaggio - sacrifice of isaac, 1603. image courtesy of galleria degli uffizi, firenze

caravaggio - sacrifice of isaac, 1603. image courtesy of galleria degli uffizi, firenze

Problema III

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell thee of. – Genesis 22:2 We cannot understand Abraham and his impossible decision to sacrifice his own son. We cannot understand the feeling of Abraham, the “father of faith”, toward Isaac, Isaac being much more than just a son, Isaac as promise itself – the promise of a future. How then, is no one greater than Abraham? His glorious story is central to humanity, the starting point of all Abrahamic religions, of Western civilization. Nevertheless, Abraham exists outside the universal, outside of human reach. If Abraham were to be in the universal, he would be no more than a murderer. On the other hand, is not Abraham’s type of theatrical murder one of the most common, universal events in the world? Is not the “civilized” society that would condemn Abraham for murder the same society that passively gives death to millions by way of hunger and disease, hiding behind an excuse of higher purpose?  Abraham’s impossible situation is permeated by the impossible paradox of forgiveness. If Abraham were to ask forgiveness from God (for having obeyed him), or Isaac (for the sacrifice), or himself, would this be the type of forgiveness Beethoven asks in his Heiligenstadt Testament (for having abandoned society), the type of forgiveness Rachmaninoff sought in the West following the events of 1917  (for having abandoned his country), or the type of forgiveness needed when one person betrays another? Abraham sacrifices his personal interest of love for faith toward God. Does this make him a tragic hero? There is a fine difference between the tragic hero, and what Søren Kierkegaard calls the “knight of faith” – “The tragic hero renounces what he desires in order to accomplish his duty. For the knight of faith, wish and duty are also identical, but the knight of faith is required to give up both. The Knight of faith knows it gives inspiration to surrender oneself to the universal, that it takes courage to do so, but also that there is a certain security in it, just because it is for the universal – he knows it is glorious to be understood by every noble mind, and in such a way that even the beholder is thereby ennobled. The tragic hero is soon finished, his struggle is soon at an end; he makes the finite movement and is now safe in the universal. But the knight of faith is kept awake, for he is under constant trial and can turn back in repentance to the universal at any moment, and this possibility can just as well be a temptation as the truth.” Neither Abraham nor Beethoven belong in the universal. Their apparent heroism is deceptive – their life struggle becomes a question of the absurd, which can only be grasped through faith. As individuals, they have become higher than the universal. “A tragic hero can become a human being by his own strength, but not the knight of faith. When a person sets out on the tragic hero’s admittedly hard path there are many who could lend him advice; but he who walks the narrow path of faith no one can advise, no one understand.” Beethoven was never a tragic hero. This is why he is greater than them all.


Events of revealing do not align with traditional and formal analyses of music. Each musical creation is inevitably tied to the author by an event. With this in mind, any music can be successfully labeled nostalgic or autobiographical. The personal drama is forever immune to objectivity, thus becoming distorted - overemphasized or underemphasized, at the complete mercy of the scholar.

Glenn Gould shared this Heideggerian belief - each recording should be different, the only valid reason for its creation. Every recording, every performance must become an event according to Heidegger. This kind of event of interpretation could never be ascribed to the universal, and as such, it is in contradiction with the very nature of the music industry – universal music for everybody. Music, as such, cannot be universal. 

Derrida was misunderstood. He never meant for postmodernism to free everyone from responsibility. I think he intended the exact opposite – for people to seek absolute responsibility. He did not want people to abandon religion, but to understand the danger. Unlike the departure from religion in the 18th and 19th centuries, which happened by way of human rights and the idea that the common man was also a divine creation, the 20th century marked a departure not only from religion, but also from all of humanity for the demonic and orgiastic. Through indifference and boredom, technological civilization neutralized humanity. Such demonic elements have been foreshadowed hundreds of years in advance, by Bosch (The Garden of Earthly Delights), by Giotto (The Kiss of Judas), and in 1866 by Dostoevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov, from Crime and Punishment. Is Raskolnikov like Abraham – a “knight of faith” for his belief that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose? Absolutely not – he is a man who assumes and believes in superiority and authority over others, the exact situation that provides impetus for such terror as the Holocaust. Inevitably we must still face conflicts of this nature in the 21st century. 

The impossible cannot be ascribed to the universal, and beyond the universal is where we find forgiveness. Forgiveness has no place in society because forgiveness is not a place, nor a location where good and evil must inevitably meet. It exists outside of good and evil, outside of ethics. If forgiveness is possible, it needs a cyclical form – a form such as Alexander Siloti’s arrangement of Bach’s tenth prelude from the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier. An upward spiral that reveals new perspectives at different levels, without losing sight of the past. A cycle such as Sandro Boticelli’s Primavera or Dante’s Comedy, where individuals achieve transformation as they ascend through knowledge to the kingdom of light.

If the question of forgiveness begins in ethics, it must end in aesthetics – it can be grasped only through the secret truth of absolute responsibility and absolute passion. Forgiveness as a question of aesthetics cannot be framed by the universal moral law. Aesthetics presupposes an individual approach – art, as such, is not universal. Furthermore, could genuine art exist as mere perfection, without an element that demanded forgiveness? Forgiveness is not universal – it cannot be taught, found, or inherited. With every new generation, the passion to grasp forgiveness must be rediscovered. And is not this passion, this burning and unyielding passion – is not the ability to have this passion universally accessible? In Russian, there exists a separate word for a finite “goodbye” – “прощай” (proshaii). It is a derivative of the Russian word for forgiveness, “прощение” (proshenie). Literally, “прощай” means “forgive”. With this word, I say goodbye to these notes. Forgiveness is the beginning.

Feuillet d'Album

Feuillet d'Album