Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is Beethoven the Voice of God?

I'm being facetious, of course.  But it did cross my mind yesterday, after I woke up in the dark of early morning, and, in a bit of a panic, asked God the Father to send me a hug (I'm not usually that sentimental, but waking up in the dark really kicks the ass of my soul).  Later, I turned on the radio, to hear Beethoven's Symphony no. 7 -- again: the last time I asked God for some sort of a sign, the same thing happened, and the same music played (and I was annoyed).  So, I thought, is this it?  Is this you talking to me, God?  I would have maybe preferred the humanity of the Symphony no. 6, the Pastoral, which contains whole worlds of delight and terror and the wistfulness of nostalgia.  But the Seventh is awesome in the truest sense of the world, and this was God the Father I'd been talking to, after all.

Then, today, I was helping my son clean up the dozens of empty wooden thread spools we'd been building with (I've become obsessed with this slim series of English craft-and-early-learning books from the 1960s, Learning with Mother, which features all sorts of things you can do with wooden thread spools), and put on the radio again.  And this time, I felt as if I were not only being hugged by God the Father, but also kissed by God the Son, for it was Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, op. 80.

I can't explain why I love this piece with the intense passion that I do, but to me, it is the most perfect piece of music ever.  I love the simple, anthemic theme, so redolent of human hope, which Beethoven cycles through the sections of the orchestra, treating it with grace, wit, and -- if a composer can be said to feel this way about his own tunes -- heartfelt love, before handing it over to the full orchestra, where it erupts into a swelling lyrical outburst that foreshadows his other great anthem, the "Ode to Joy."  The theme starts at 1:20, below.

And then, out of nowhere, what has been, to this point, a piano concerto becomes something else entirely, when the voices suddenly appear as if wafted down from above, singing self-referentially about the consolations of music (about 2:51 here).

I remember hearing the Choral Fantasy fortuitously on the radio one day when I was a lonely new mother, and how I shouted with joy at my newborn, "That's Beethoven!" as if he could understand. Later, when he was two, he was playing the harmonica one day, and I told him he sounded like Bob Dylan.  "Beethoven," he loftily corrected me.

Today I did something similar, feeling like a real music geek.  I could feel my face light up as I turned the volume higher and explained to my now-four-year-old that the music had been composed by Mr. Beethoven, and then pointed out, one by one, the different instrumental entrances.  I know he's going to be really embarrassed by me one day; I was embarrassed by myself.  And then, without meaning to and without any warning, when the piece was over I burst into tears.  "What's wrong, Mommy?" he said, alarmed.  "Nothing," I replied. "Just that the music is so beautiful."  "It's not beautiful," he said, trying to comfort me.

I read once long ago, in a book of essays about English literature by an early twentieth-century Indian scholar whose name, like the title, I can no longer remember, that the aim of literature is "the total eradication of sorrows and miseries."  God must have intended music to be a similar balm.

(The picture above illustrates a famous incident in the life of Beethoven.  He and Goethe were walking together one day in the Schönbrunn Palace gardens in Vienna when they met the Archduke and Archduchess.  Goethe made as if to move aside to let the imperial party pass, but Beethoven linked arms with him and made him walk on.  They marched right into the midst of the royal entourage, which humbly parted to make way for the two great artists, the true nobility of the modern age.)

18 comments:

Rodak said...

Thank you Pentimento--You cannot know how much I needed this little injection of joy into my life today.

This is a poem:

And then, without meaning to
and without any warning,
when the piece was over
I burst into tears.

"What's wrong, Mommy?" he said, alarmed.
"Nothing," I replied.
"Just that the music is so beautiful."

"It's not beautiful," he said, trying to comfort me.

Pentimento said...

I love your poem, Rodak.

Did you listen to the music?

Sally Thomas said...

I love both the post and the poem.

And my verification word: ovenessi.

I love it all.

Pentimento said...

Hi Sally! "Somebody loves us all." :)

Rodak said...

Yes, I certainly did listen to the music! That, augmented and given context by your words, comprised the joy that I felt. Not everyone can give context to Beethoven.

Pentimento said...

Now I'm content. I'm so glad you listened to the music and loved it!

Pentimento said...

I also love the way, in the first video, that the conductor, Claudio Abbado, barely conducts when the full orchestra takes up the theme. It's as if he's overwhelmed by joy, too.

Rodak said...

I agree. Being able to see the musicians and the conductor so clearly adds a wonderful dimension to experiencing the music.

Pentimento said...

Beethoven is so the man.

Tracie O'braks said...

I really enjoyed the music and your piece! It was a joy to listen while reading. Wonderful!

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Tracie. I'm happy to spread the Beethoven love.

Clare Krishan said...

Your son is so blessed to have his very own narrator-retainer. Accompanying hubbie on a business trip to Seattle, in a thrift shop in some far-flung hamlet along Puget Sound I picked up a sorry looking used cassette tape of this intriguing performance:

http://www.amazon.com/David-Bowie-Narrates-Prokofievs-Peter/dp/B000003F6R

and I can honestly say it was the best $1 I ever spent! I carried it in my car to play when commuting back and forth with the youngsters of a dear single-parent friend who lived in a rather economically deprived neck of the woods on excursions and trips (she had few opportunities to offer her kids meaningful enrichment during their school vacations without wheels of her own) until I lent it to another dear friend who was more in need than me: she had adopted a brother and sister from Russia and was at her wits end with them (they had emotional adjustment issues) - and it was a hit with them both also - so much so she and hubbie got their wee ones violins and hired a teacher to develop the full potential of their God-given musical souls so frustrated by the continent-shift culture shock...

Have you ever considered a similar project for children like your son who have sensory perception issues or are on the autistic spectrum and are at risk of developing social awkwardness? Your writing/editing experiences mean you have the skills to make a good "producer-director". All you'd need would be to persuade some celebrities to do the narration... or contacts with the actors/performing artists' agents who could do that for you (surely you have maintained connections back in NY, no?)

What a great home-based business that could be...!

Pentimento said...

I've never heard that recording, Clare. I have the Leonard Bernstein recording, which is pretty great too. I loved reading about how it changed the lives of the two Russian adoptees.

Also a very cool idea about the recordings, but I doubt I'm the person to spearhead it. My old piano teacher from undergrad, Gena Raps, did do something like it, though.

http://www.amazon.com/Mother-Goose-More-Various-Artisits/dp/B00001OH2L/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1287943672&sr=1-1

eaucoin said...

It's not at all surprising that Beethoven's work seems divinely inspired. Perhaps he lost his sight and hearing to remove him from the distractions of humanity, as if in losing these senses, he became the blank canvas that God drew Himself on. But the picture was music. The better that we should know Him. Maybe Beethoven suffered not just for his art, but for His art.

Pentimento said...

That's a beautiful insight, Eaucoin. Perhaps Beethoven's deafness was a kind of kenosis, the self-emptying that the early Church fathers speak of. His loss of hearing was devastating to him, and yet he wrote some of his most profound music when he was completely deaf, the late string quartets for instance, the last three piano sonatas, and the 9th Symphony . . .

I've linked to this post here before, but I'm going to do it again, because I love it.

http://soundtime.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/beethoven-my-brother/

BettyDuffy said...

Hi P, I thought of this post the other day when I walked in on a Ken Burns documentary of Frank LLoyd Wright set to Beethoven's Piano Concerto #5 E flat. I've never been to the Guggenheim, and I'm sure it's lovely--certainly appeared magisterial and awesome set to Beethoven's reverent scales. It occurred to me though, that Ken Burns could set stills of my concrete basement to Beethoven and it would be magisterial and awesome too.

Pentimento said...

I think you're right, Betty. The 6th Symphony is a good illustration: it's about some peasants who go on a picnic, then a storm comes, then the sum comes out; and yet it has to be among the most sublime works of human creativity in recorded history. Did you read the post on The Big City that I linked to, "Beethoven, My Brother"? You'd like it.

BettyDuffy said...

I remember reading it way back when you first linked to it--and enjoying it.