Is Dvořak, to paraphrase Dr. Leonard McCoy, really that beautiful? Really so much more beautiful than other music you've heard? Or is it just that it acts beautiful? If it comes down to the performance to go more than skin deep, the musicians must play very convincingly indeed. Beauty in music has proven to be diverse. For a sound to be music rather than mere sounds, however pleasing, the it needs the broadest possible aesthetic idea of beauty. An ugly sound, it has been pointed out, can be "beautiful" if used so fittingly by a composer that nothing but that sound could be desired at that point in the music. For human beings, this has included the rasping shawms and the regals, and the augmented fourth of the middle ages and renaissance, the harsh use of the usual orchestral brass by Mahler, and all the freely used ugly sounds and outbursts in 20th century music and its terrible dissonances. I would draw the line at physically painful sounds, either through loudness or shrillness or both, as ugly in a destructive way, and so incapable of beauty, even betraying the faith of the listener who trustingly opens their ears to the music, though some do seem to find pleasure in the ginormous 19th century organs played at full volume with all the stops out. Free expression in a musician or a composer can be beautiful in itself, of course, though when that expression becomes gratuitous or self-indulgent, or sentimental (which can betray a certain narrow emotional rigidity) or arbitrary (which can betray a self-imposed or self-persuaded intellectual rigidity) it can become ugly. Music in a straight jacket can be ugly too. A masterful fugue in transcending any thought of a dichotomy between these two extremes can be most beautiful of all.
One thing you will not find in this rather brief (210pp.) but concentrated book is a recommendation of what recording of Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet to buy, or a reminiscence of some outstanding performance of the work. When first perusing the book, I was naive enough to think that some bit of this kind of information might crop up in an appendix or in a footnote. But no, the only performances of the quartet mentioned in the book are nameless ones at the beginning—one great, one mediocre, and one terrible—as well as a performance by music students, which still remains in the future at the conclusion of the narrative part of the book. The only complete analysis of the quartet as entire movements, in fact, occurs out of order: first the Adagio ma non troppo in the final section of Chapter Eight, and the rest in the appendix, which is a discussion of certain musical forms: dance form, theme and variations, sonata form, and fugue, which means that the Scherzo (third movement), finale, and first movement are discussed in that order, following other examples of their forms. There is no fugue in Op. 74—although there is one in the first movement of Op. 131, which is analyzed. Hence you should not expect to find Tovey-like analyses of the "Harp" Quartet either. You may reasonably conclude that this book is not really about the "Harp" Quartet, but about the "looking for" it—the search musicians and listeners become enmeshed in once they become conscious of a work they believe to be a great one, a classic...or perhaps, less promisingly, a teacher tells a student that it is part of the basic repertory and assigns it to study for performance.