Beethoven. This is a name which almost everybody knows. It has been 186 years since his death and his power and majesty have not diminished at all. Indeed, he has become a legend, his life the sort of truth which is endlessly fascinating and needs no embellishment.
To say the name conveys a certain power and awe, even to those who are uninitiated to the ways of classical music tradition. His music has been heard everywhere, for virtually every purpose: in Mass and mass media; in clubs and concert halls; for memorials and in movies. He has been idolized by people from Schumann to Schroeder. Yes, he is truly a Universal composer–and his greatness needs little explanation.
Beethoven can be admired for many things: his incredible compositional output wrought change–sometimes violently–within the world of music. His brilliance as a pianist established a new type of virtuosity, one which has been equaled but never surpassed. His incredible determination in the face of devastating adversity serves as an inspiration for us all, for he truly was a survivor of circumstance. But none of that truly explains why this man and his music have had such an impact on so many people. Yes, the answer is simple: He had a magnificent soul.
It is this soul which gives meaning to each and every note he left for us. It is this soul that transcends time, age, race, religion, language and circumstance. It is this soul which stands equal to any which has lived. This is a man, after all, who suffered–truly suffered. He had an abusive father. His teachers tended to dislike him (and predict failure or, worse, mediocrity!) His love life was always a mess–and he would never marry, nor have a chance to be a father, something he desperately wanted to be. He watched his idol fall from grace and become one of the worst tyrants in history, shattering his idealistic view of the world. And of course, he suffered a nearly debilitating–not to mention humiliating–’failure’ in his physical handicap, one which left him in effective isolation. Beethoven, the Great Soul, had every reason to hate the world, to curse God, to turn from his fellow man–to quit! If he had, we would still have a magnificent body of work: 6 symphonies, 4 piano concerti, a violin concerto, not to mention a magnificent Opera and an incredible series of sonatas and chamber music. But no, no! Beethoven did not give up; he did not give in to hate, inward or outward. Beethoven overcame; he committed to creating. He let Love and forgiveness win.
When I saw the news about the marathon bombing, I was stunned. It has been more than a decade since 9/11, but each time something like this happens it is still a shock. In less than a year we have seen a shooting in a movie theater, a major hurricane and an unimaginably horrific massacre of innocent children and teachers. We have watched as friends across the globe suffer from natural disasters and other tragedies. We laughed a bit as we got through the ‘Mayan Apocalypse’ unscathed, but largely returned to our (still) decidedly first-world problems. Yes, the horrors of war and terrorism still shock us–and they should! We have been incredibly lucky as a nation: we have not suffered military invasions on our soil in 200 years and have largely been able to live in peace and prosperity. Yes, we have just exited a century in which we saw war re-defined, multiple eras of systematic genocide and the establishment of the nuclear age. And yet we are still shocked–or, we are still able to be shocked.
So as I watched the news, feeling stunned, I knew what I had to do: I had to help. I didn’t immediately know how–to borrow a phrase from the ‘Lord of the Rings,’ (of all places!), ‘What can men do against such reckless hate?’ The answer was apparent from the first moment: Beethoven. Or, more specifically, The Magnificent Soul.
The Ninth has a special place in the world. It is a journey; it is not programmatic, per se, but it has a very clear (if complex) meaning. It is a life: it begins with a struggle, inner torment, self doubt, anger, desire, frustration, delayed gratification and an unstoppable momentum. Then it explodes! It becomes a wild dance, a torrential display of emotion, an open defiance, an almost manic experience of emotions (oh, those octaves in the timpani!). Then it returns to the inner voice: nostalgia takes over, but cautiously and, at least in this authors humble opinion, slightly cynically (though perhaps more a cynicism of the cynics–the miserabe who gently refuses a call to drink.) And now what is left? Is reflection and nostalgia not reserved for death? But no! No, it is not time to die! A furious dance leads to a dialogue–inward or outward? To whom is he speaking? Are we allowed to join in? May we feel joy? Yes, we must reject what has come before–but oh, not these tones, let us find joy, embrace it! And now we literally have voices–voices lifted up in praise…praise for the Eternal, for the possibility of a virtuous mankind, yes, but in praise of joy! Joy, unabashed and uninhibited, pure and gentle, omnipotent and eternal–joy for every creature who dares to love, dares to have faith, dares to embrace his fellow man! Joy against all odds.
The Ninth was the only choice–that was obvious. For we, too, shall feel joy, despite the overwhelming odds. We shall mourn, we shall grieve, we shall have our faith (whatever that faith may be) shaken, we shall cry out in anguish…but this, too, shall pass and there shall be joy. Joy is victory. Joy is living with love. Joy is to be shared.
And so I decided to offer my own humble gifts in service of this pursuit of joy. It is a long road and often comes with many bumps and forks. But Beethoven knows the way; he listens, he frowns, he smiles, he thinks, and then…he reveals.
I have decided to include two Americans as company for the Master: Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. Though at first glance it may seem an odd pairing, in this case it is quite happy company. Barbers Adagio is offered In memoriam to those who lost their lives. Yes, this is the time for tears, silent or otherwise. Barbers music is somber yet comforting; to me, it says ‘Yes, there is a time to grieve, and here it is: but do not despair, for your love is more powerful than sorrow and will do more good than your tears.’ It is music to cleanse.
And then we have Mr. Copland. Ah, Appalachian Spring! What a work! So optimistic, so sunny, so quirky–so American. It is, perhaps, the quintessential American work. I shall elaborate on the particular virtues of this work in a later post, but the themes bear mentioning. It is a work about marriage, family, life’s varied experiences, community, love and hope. Yes, I could not imagine a work better suited to the purpose of this concert: to build community, to reaffirm faith, to encourage hope.
It is my great pleasure to invite you to join me at this concert and on this journey. Let this be an experience of joy–and as Schiller (and Beethoven!) remind us, joy is meant to be shared.