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.





Bach gives us a turning point at midlife with variation 16, exactly midway through the Goldberg Variations. He wouldn’t have used this term, but it’s a yin yang moment as well. Work and play. Alone and in community. Sleeping and waking. Two things seemingly contrary, but nevertheless inter-dependent for a fully satisfying life.  Wisdom at midlife embraces the “both/and” mindset that finds joy in quiet and chaos. Life’s richness is fed by a maturity which recognizes the need for balance.

Goldberg Variations, 16 (Abandon/Restraint)

Runs and trills and loud chords…all played with a sense of abandon in the first 16 bars.  Ah, but discipline wins out and the second 16 bars feel restrained, careful, polite.

No need to choose.  There is time for both abandon and restraint in any life well-lived, as we’re reminded in Ecclesiastes: (and take note, my friends, this reading is in my funeral plan, along with a dozen or so of my favorite hymns)

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

We might recoil at making room for times to hate and to make war, but there is a place for hating those things that work against love –  abuse, lies, selfishness, addiction. Not hate for the person, but for the falseness which can take hold of someone’s life.  And war…hard to justify a need for war, except the kind of war that troublemakers have to wage before they are recognized as peacemakers.

Peace (and war!),

A reminder: This Sunday, May 7 at 4:00: a performance by pianist Sophia Vastek to benefit Bethania Kids, a ministry which supports orphans in India. Learn more and rsvp

Also, save the date Thursday evening, June 22: Sophia and I have put together another program for two-pianos, raising money this time for Samaritan Ministries. More information and a chance to rsvp later.

I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

Both Sides Now

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for confusion, and a time for understanding.  
                                                    –Ecclesiastes 3

(Ok, I admit the last line is mine, but I think King Solomon would approve.)

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. – Danish physicist Niels Bohr

A book about math and science that a friend recommended as highly readable had been languishing on my bedside table for a couple of years now.  I can’t begin to explain why I picked it up as my “beach reading” for a quick trip to Florida a few weeks ago, but The Universe and the Teacup by K.C. Cole had me with its subtitle: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty.  The author suggested ways that the realm of physics offers us the opportunity to understand how we might avoid those often impossible choices between one valid truth and another.  Not mourning or dancing, but times for mourning and dancing.  Seeing different truths gives us a deeper insight into a problem, just as mourning and dancing offer us a fuller understanding of life.  Cole gives the example of light – at once a wave and a particle.  Life, she reminds us, can be explained by biology as much as by novels and poetry.  Or as Joni Mitchell wrote, clouds are ice cream castles in the air one moment and the next, simply something that block the sun.

Both Sides Now – Joni Mitchell

A young friend gave me permission to share excerpts from an opinion piece she wrote for her high school newspaper recently.  I was moved by her ability to articulate the practicality of impracticality.  That doctors and poets are equally responsible for moving humanity forward in our search for understanding.

So We Beat On: Why Art Matters by Sophia Higgins

Here’s the truth: Life isn’t fair.  Or perfect, or quantifiable by any metric.  There are people who live under bridges and in war zones and with heroin addicts for parents.  People are unequal and things often don’t go as planned.  That’s just the way things are.  We exist to alleviate suffering…Doctors and the Mother Teresa’s of the world keep us living…but there’s still a group of people whose purpose is not so clear.  Of what use is the poet, the musician, the painter?  Poetry doesn’t keep you alive.  A song can’t cure disease.  Art is what we survive for…it finds meaning beyond the suffering…connecting people in the most basic expressive way, [creating something that touches] you despite a gap of space and time.

Art is pointless

The fact that a “theory of everything” in physics remains elusive just might reveal the limitations of having any single point of view.  Perhaps understanding requires us to stay open to contrasting perspectives and truths.  K.C. Cole, in The Universe and the Teacup quotes 20th century theoretical physicist Victor Weisskopf:

What’s beautiful in science is that same thing that’s beautiful in Beethoven.  There’s fog of events and suddenly you see a connection.  It expresses a complex of human concerns that goes deeply to you, that connects things that were always in you that were never put together before.

Symmetry and proportions are often our guides through the fog as we search for meaning and beauty. As Cole writes, “symmetry therefore lends a satisfying concreteness to the vague sense that there is beauty in truth, and truth to beauty.” Could the symmetry of seeming opposites create different perspectives and definitions which take us to those deep truths we yearn to understand?



Where I’ll be:

April 17 – Church of the Redeemer, 6201 Dunrobbin Drive, Bethesda MD, playing for their 10:30 am service

April 24 – performing L’enfant prodigue, Debussy’s one-act opera, with Mary Shaffran, James Shaffran and Andrew Brown, at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, 7:30 p.m. ($15 suggested donation)

 *   *   *   *   *

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 new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.