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.




Civility Revisited

We have to be able to revisit and revise our beliefs as we move through this world, or else we’d get stuck. Something may seem right at 25 or wise at 35 or important at 45 – but may later appear to be a folly of youth! A year ago, as I worked on a project of writing about each of the 30 variations that make up Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I chose to attach the idea of “civility” to one particularly genteel movement.  The music is utterly pleasant and without drama, and that apparently fit my definition of civility at the time.

Yet, I chose a photo to accompany that posting which I had taken in Cape Town several years earlier – a photo of a photo, actually, that showed Archbishop Desmond Tutu standing in front of a photo of Nelson Mandela. I knew even then, I guess, that civility could not be equated with politeness, and certainly not with meekness. Nor can our polite selves serve as a veneer over our inactions or subtle cruelties. With unfailing civility Tutu and Mandela stood up to injustice, but their actions were not meek. Not by a long shot.

It was a Washington Post column several weeks ago, ‘Civility’ vs ‘hysteria’ that woke me up to the fact that injustice is uncivil, and reminded me that confronting wrong requires civil disobedience. Civility is sometimes loud, and sometimes listening. Sometimes tenacious and other times forgiving. It pays attention to those who are hurt as much as it attempts to understand those that do the hurting. It’s so much more than Bach’s sweet 18th Goldberg variation implies. Civility, I’ve learned, requires something more nuanced – and though Bach’s music has plenty of places to look, perhaps I’ll go to Beehoven this time. Not thought of as a model of civility in either his personal or musical style, this elegy was written for someone he undoubtedly loved from afar for many years. Complicated feelings expressed in a civil package of string quartet and chorus:



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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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