Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Monday, August 31, 2009

Beethoven: Joy and Radiance

I recently saw the movie ‘Copying Beethoven’ in which Ed Harris played Ludwig van Beethoven. It is worth seeing. But the central character of the movie is Beethoven’s music. And that makes for a very inviting and attractive movie. There is another major character. It is a girl who shows up to make copies of the score as Beethoven finishes his ninth symphony. Such a female never existed and it is indescribably unlikely that a woman would have done that job in those times. Let me just say that some unfortunate people find Gloria Steinem, Bill and Hillary and PC foolishness more important than historical accuracy and say no more about this blemish on this movie that is otherwise highly commendable.
The movie recaptures the events surrounding the completion of the ninth symphony and its first performance. The movie conveys a strong sense of the beauty and grandeur of the ninth without the whole work being executed from beginning to end at one go. Some sense of that debut is created by large chunks of the beginning and end being played in a beautiful and spacious hall. The final choral section’s ability to bring tears to the eyes of men and women because of its joyous beauty is there in all its glory.
The movie has a few scenes that show Beethoven’s relationship with his nephew. Beethoven had raised the young man but had not done a fantastic job at it. It could be summed up by saying that he loved his nephew and had been better at parenting than his own father had been. It is probably unrealistic to expect more than that from anyone. But this subplot gives us insight into the man who happened to be an artist. And Beethoven’s contacts with others were generally very limited. He was consumed by and totally devoted to his music.
Beethoven had an extremely high opinion of himself because of his great talent for music. And his great gift makes him stand out in the history of mankind. But the inordinate greatness of his gift was so prodigious that it would be more accurate to call it a rare gift from God than the an aptitude or achievement of one person. Still it is good that Beethoven saw himself as so very special. Because of this sense of self-importance he went to the lengths necessary to create his body of musical work. He was able to live through the loneliness, misunderstanding and sacrifices that necessary for the creation of his work. And the emotional tenor of his music makes it obvious that he never surrendered to anger or hate.
Throughout my life I have been emotionally drawn to different composers at different times. In my twenties I was drawn to Mahler, Brahms and Stravinsky. In more recent years I have felt more pulled toward Gabrieli, Vivaldi, Corelli and Scarlatti. But throughout varying times Bach and Beethoven have remained constants. (I sometimes think of them as the Catholic and the Protestant of music or the papist and the roundhead.) I do not know much about many of the technical aspects of music. I listen to the emotion of the music and am guided totally by my emotional reactions. And I suspect that this is also the case with the most technically talented and knowledgeable of musicians: they also end up where their emotions lead them.
Emotionally I find Beethoven’s music a rock and an inspiration. Around the edges and sometimes a little deeper the master’s music is aware of the challenges, irritations, disappointments and inescapable tragedies of life. But at the core is an heroic and steadfast and even joyful perseverance in the face of anything life sends at him. Beethoven’s music defiantly refuses surrender to any force. Plato would have welcomed this music into his Republic because there is nothing about it that encourages sentimentality, lewdness, cowardliness or excessive introspection. There is something about the master’s music that fully appreciates the dangers and difficulties of life and responds by grappling with them and enjoying any victories. Defeats are possible but are only momentary since they are never wallowed in and the hero of this epic music always has forward momentum.
But this music is not just about difficulties and obstacles. There is also the simple and soul strengthening enjoyment of natural beauty. And there is joy. The joy of just being alive and aware. The joy of creation and accomplishment. The joy that comes of feeling the radiance of a beautiful work of art or one of nature’s endless miracles. As love is the opposite of hate and fear, I think that joy is a species of love. Rather than having one object joy’s object is all of creation: the eternal and imperishable within myself and within everything in creation. I suspect joy even enjoys the perishable and finite in everything. In his Poetics Aristotle says that a beautiful object is characterized by unity, harmony and radiance and joy is the radiance within me that is able to recognize and enjoy the radiance in everything external to me.

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