More Lessons from Beethoven

True to form, I am out of synch with the rest of the world. Musicians are gearing up for a major Beethoven celebration in 2020, the 250th anniversary of his birth, so plan on hearing a lot of Beethoven’s music next year. Meanwhile, here I am – a step ahead, or just out of step? I think Beethoven would approve.

Alongside the “Archduke” Trio, which I wrote about last week, I am also getting reacquainted with Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata, the Piano Sonata Op. 53, a very popular work from the middle years of his creative output which I haven’t played in  40 years or so! Like the “Archduke” Trio, Beethoven has dedicated this music to a nobleman, Count von Waldstein. Beethoven so wanted to be a “von” – i.e. a member of the nobility, but a single letter doomed him to be a humble Dutch “van” without any hint of noble blood. We have that in common at least.

The “Waldstein” Sonata is part of a program that I am playing for my mother and the other residents of her retirement community. It’s a small gift I can give to the person who gave me a life of music by filling our home with the music she loved – everything from Harry Belafonte to the Mamas and Papas to Mozart. She got to choose anything she wanted for my program…and the Beethoven Sonata is joined by music of Philip Glass, and a piece by Albeniz that really should be on the guitar instead of the piano, and a sweet little piece that she loves more than anything, “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” that is supposedly from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice, with a little Chopin and Liszt thrown in for good measure. My mother has dementia, and her world seems to be shrinking more each time I see her, but music keeps us connected, at least in the moment.

Beethoven performed as a pianist for the last time when he played the premiere of his “Archduke” Trio in 1814. I wonder if he knew then that it would be his final concert as a pianist.  How often do we do something with the knowledge that it is the last time? There are happy finalities – like making a last mortgage payment – but mostly I think we would be pretty sad to know we are having a final experience of something integral to our lives. When will it be the last time that my mom knows who I am?

As Beethoven’s deafness worsened, it may have appeared that his world got smaller and smaller, but in that isolated universe he went on to create great expanses of music which pushed the boundaries of tonality and form. It wasn’t a limited experience at all inside his head, it would seem.  Even as I am shut out of the life I shared with my mother, perhaps there is a richness of sounds and experiences inside her isolated world that are unknown by those on the outside. I hope so.

I learn a lot about myself when I play Beethoven. He wears his heart, and his frustration, on his sleeve – or so it seems when I hear his music. Expressing emotions in creatively productive ways is certainly one lesson to be gained. And too, his music seems to contain everything that the beautiful reading from the Bible’s Ecclesiastes teaches us about the span of a lifetime. That there is a time to be sad and a time to be joyful. A time to be serious and another to be silly. Times to be in control of our feelings and others when we should be unabashedly exuberant. Times to sing and times to be silent, times to dance and times to be still.




The Still Point

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

What are memories made from? I know there are scientific answers to that question, but I’m more interested in the metaphysical explanation. We know that memory is malleable, that we can’t count on our memories of conversations and events being completely accurate. Or at least, we should know that. I believe we do remember feelings – our feelings of fear or happiness, safety or sorrow. More than sight, senses of smell and hearing seem to create lasting memories that often relate to our feelings, rather than to specific moments in our lives. Our house was affected by a tornado several years ago, and it wasn’t until weeks later when I sat on an airplane and heard the jet engines roar to life that I suffered a few moments of PTSD.  I don’t recall hearing anything except breaking glass in my panic at the time, until I heard a similar sound which caused that panic to return.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Wrestling with T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton seems like an autumnal event to me. I don’t pretend to have any depth of understanding of these poems in his Four Quartets, but the words evoke familiar feelings that I yearn to understand, and cause questions to arise which don’t have answers. There is so much truth in Eliot’s belief that poetry communicates before it is understood. News and life have lately conspired to make me think about memories and nostalgia and all the ways that our minds hold on – or let go – of life’s experiences.  Is Eliots’ “still point” the moment when the present meets our former self in a memory? Do the future and past exist within the present?

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

An important figure in my childhood memories died recently. He lived on a farm where my friend and I spent our summers, and she and I will return to the scenes of those youthful summers which bound us so closely together for a memorial service. Memories of those idyllic summers from many decades ago are back in force right now. Laying in the grass under the shade of a tree-lined horse pasture, propped on elbows in hunt of four-leaved clover.  Picnics near the opening to a badger’s den that we watched for years with hope of seeing a nose poke out, wind moving through the pine trees, games of croquet and badminton that became boring or competitive depending on the day. It was a childhood of summers spent reading on the screened porch and picking gigantic zucchinis that seemed to grow overnight. Reclaiming those memories means reclaiming those feelings of freedom and wonder and a thousand life lessons, and all of that makes me feel like I am moving through Eliot’s coexistence of time past and present and future.

In another part of my life, my mother is shedding new memories more quickly and clinging to old memories more ferociously. I’ve entered her world of time past and present in ways that I hope will keep us close for as long as possible. I’ve also begun teaching a piano student who is openly and bravely facing memory issues. Music is this person’s connection between past and present. In Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia he writes in the final chapter, titled “Music and Identity,” about the ways that music experienced by dementia patients draws on the deepest parts of their memories, but also grounds them in the present, creating shared experiences of listening and singing with others around them.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.


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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was, and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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