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.

 

sonyafirst004

Failure of Imagination

We know there are many different kinds of intelligence – interpersonal, musical, logical…but let’s be honest, when we think of someone as smart we usually really only mean intellectually intelligent. Someone who is good with math or words, certified by college degrees and professional success.

I’ve written before about my fascination with Michael Pollan’s book, Botany of Desire, and the intelligence he ascribes to plant life. In the same way, a 2016 book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, studies the ways that trees communicate with, and even express empathy for, other trees. It’s so easy to scoff at the notion of intelligence in plant life,  but we only know what we know. What about all the things we don’t know…all that lies behind, beneath, and around what we perceive through our senses? Couldn’t any plant or animal life have forms of intelligence that we are unable to recognize or define?

I manage a concert series in downtown Washington DC (check out the link if you’re interested), and this past week I branched out a bit from the usual fare of chamber music, with a local dance ensemble, Word Dance Theater, which specializes in the work of Isadora Duncan.  I don’t know a lot about modern dance in general or Duncan in particular, but I’ve seen their work before and knew it expresses an integrity and passion for Duncan’s legacy which would be beautiful in the performance space, and which I hoped would communicate…well, something… to the audience.

Their performance was indeed colorful and thoughtful, and to me expressed uninhibited freedom. It made me think about how much more we should all be moving – gracefully and freely – throughout our days. As I watched, I thought about all the ways people get stuck – physically, emotionally, spiritually –  and wished we could learn to move with Duncan’s freedom to help us get unstuck.

2017-06-04+10.30.56Afterwards, someone I know to have considerable musical and intellectual gifts came up to me, and admitted he didn’t know enough about this kind of dance to see much of anything actually going on.  He wasn’t being judgmental, just perplexed and perhaps a bit bored by what he had seen. I would have wished for him to see something behind or around the dancers’ flowing garments and limbs, but art is unpredictable in its effect at any given time on any particular person.

I do think the gamut of intelligence includes an acceptance of what we don’t know, but what we might imagine to be possible, whether that is the possibility of messages traveling from one tree to another through a complex web of roots, or a dancer’s invitation to move with a freedom that helps to open our minds to what we cannot put into words or even fully understand. To say that something outside of human experience is impossible or ridiculous becomes, for me, simply a failure of imagination.

sonyafirst004

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrimage: Day Three

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

A difficult day for walking – rainy and lots of hills – but apparently we traveled 27 km and ended up in Lorca. The sun appeared and a row of cold, damp pilgrims lined the road on the sunny side of the street, across from the albergue where we had found a room. It was in fact, despite this introduction, a wonderful day. Mountains in the mist, fast-running rivers, masses of wildflowers (notably, fields of poppies), birds and frogs, medieval villages and bridges.  

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503We had company early in the day with three Brits from Hereford, and then company again late in the day when we joined a sweet couple from the Netherlands.  And we met a man named Stefan from Germany, who had recently spent three years in Washington D.C. and now lives in Sweden.

We’re at the Albergue de Peregrino in Lorca. Mozart is blaring as we come in and an earnest young man seems to be in charge. I can’t help but wonder about his story. I did ask if he was a musician, but he says no.  I am guessing that “Mozart’s Requiem” and “blaring” have not been used in the same sentence before.  At least I hope not.

One more answer to the “why” of this trip…to see if I can. These two days have been difficult. No blisters yet, but sore shoulders and feet. Unhappy muscles and ligaments. I want the answer to be a resounding “yes, I can” though.  And I hope I can in 10 years and 20 years. We have certainly seen people in their 70’s on the camino.

Dessert was a choice of an apple or an orange. The sticker on the apple announced it is of the “Mozart” variety. Of course.

*****

The albergue in Lorca was small and provided just the right atmosphere for conversation with strangers. The Stefan we met had decided only two weeks earlier to come to Spain and walk the camino. He has no time limit and a supportive family at home and we learn that only four months before he had been in a wheelchair after having had a stroke at age 49. He walks slowly now, with a limp and wonders what he will learn about himself by the time he reaches Santiago. A doctor from France joined our conversation, only revealing his profession upon learning about Stefan’s stroke, quickly making a few assessments and giving him encouraging advice. The doctor himself said he was walking because, at age 50, he knew it was time to shed some things.  He didn’t say what those things were.

Our new friend Stefan had clearly been a very successful executive in the car industry and had lived all over the world, a man of means and accomplishment in his field. His physical limitations, however, suddenly took a backseat to the ending twist in his story. He quietly tells us that he lost his job after his stroke and is now unable to find a new position. He didn’t present himself as someone defined by his job, but the pain was clear.

sonyafirst004

A Pilgrimage: Day Two

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Hard to know when anything, including a pilgrimage, actually begins. That moment when you go hmmm and nod your head with a slight tilt may be the actual start to any journey. In this case it’s the 9:30 train from Barcelona to Pamplona.

It was so easy to take Metro from our hotel to the train station, so easy to find our train and make our way to Pamplona. So easy for me to turn to my son as we exited the station and tell him that I had done all the planning up to this moment and that it was now up to him to find the camino. I was too eager to get started and we didn’t explore the famous narrow streets of Pamplona as much as we should have, because we soon found the first pilgrim’s scallop shell, which images-6pointed us on our way.

*****

We walked until 4:45, stopping to rest in the tiny village of Zariquiegui. The cold water fountain was a welcome sight after a very hot, uphill walk. Wonderful views of snow-capped mountains behind us, fields and many moments of absolute silence all around us. Our first buen camino was called out to us on the outskirts of Pamplona, but we saw only a few other pilgrims along the way.

Not much hope of having a place to stay in Zariquiegui, so it seemed to us, but we met an older French-speaking couple who were on their 54th day of walking!  They said there was indeed an albergue just up the street, which had a room and we decided to stay. A quiet hour of reading, and smells of dinner in preparation.

Six courses! Soup, which tasted much better than the dishwater it resembled, beans, tomato and lettuce salad, fish stew, pork (we think…), flan and ice cream for dessert.  All ten of us at the communal table were pleasantly surprised.

Moments of absolute silence and dinner with strangers who feel like friends. These seem like reasons enough to have come here.

sonyafirst004

 

 

A Pilgrimage: Day One

Notes for a New Day will recount some rather older days during the next few months – journal entries from my pilgrimage on Spain’s camino in 2013.

Authors of books about walking the camino want the pilgrim to have a clear answer about why you are doing this. I figured I might know the “why” of it when I got to the end, but am not very clear at the beginning. I can begin with two possible why’s, both true, if not the complete answer. First, a chance to spend time with my newly-graduated, cusp-of-adulthood son, and second, I walk in memory of my friend’s son, who died at 22.  My friend will never get to walk with her son and I am doing this in part because she can’t. I wonder if people who begin their pilgrimage with a clear idea of “why,” find that reasons change over the journey’s course. If our lives are pilgrimages, we can probably all agree, midway or more through our time on earth as we likely are, that our lives have gone in lots of unexpected directions. How can you possibly know the “why” of pilgrimage at the beginning?

If one beginsimages-2 a pilgrimage by flying to Barcelona, then the journey must begin with some experiences of that city! Breakfast at our hotel, Hotel Lloret – faded elegance right on La Rambla. What a noisy night. Late night drunken shouts simply evolved into morning delivery sounds. A walk through the city’s Gotic neighborhood of narrow streets, and a tour of the beautiful Palace of Catalonian Music, which is a dazzling example of the Modernist movement that Barcelona is so famous for. The Palau celebrates music, Catalonian culture, and nature in equal measure, and it seems that maybe the architect wanted to bring nature inside. A local amateur choral organization commissioned the building in the early 20th century….could that happen now?

images-5We walked then to architect Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, Sagrada Familia. A cathedral-sized church of such strangeness that Gaudi is more aptly spelled gaudy, in my humble opinion. A woman sitting next to us at lunch across the street opined that Gaudi was surely manic depressive, that such a creation could only have come about during a period of mania.  And yes, she was a psychologist by profession.

440px-Σαγράδα_Φαμίλια_2941I admit, the place left me cold, but perhaps I’m too far removed from Catholic piety? The building soars, but in a bizarre, seemingly random way that looks like a creation from Dr. Seuss’s imagination.

In contrast, our visit to the local Dali Museum (not the large and better known one an hour from Barcelona) made me think that Salvador Dali was something closer to “normal.” Many drawings on Biblical topics, very few wilting clocks, lots and lots of horses, a fixation on Don Quixote.

My big disappointment of the day –– the evening’s treat of kiwi gelato did not taste very good! See, I’ve learned something already.

sonyafirst004

Next week: our camino begins

On Pilgrimage

We are all on pilgrimage – it’s called living your life.  And, like life, pilgrimages have beginnings and endings, are full of plans that go awry and serendipitous moments, boredom and hardships, times of confusion and others of utter clarity. Important touchstones to which we later long to return are created during this pilgrimage – our birthplaces and ancestral homes, places that nurtured us in one way or another, and others that we yearn to be part of.

Pilgrimages are usually made to holy sites that have called generations before us, but “holy” is in the eyes of the beholder. Tuscany or Machu Picchu or the Great Barrier Reef are holy sites for some. Six years ago I made one such pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – the way of St. James in northern Spain. It was a gift – nearly four weeks of walking during a sabbatical period – and I kept a journal which I revisited not long ago. Over the next few months I will share those entries in this blog, affirming some of the lessons I learned and perhaps including some new insights too. We’re never not on a pilgrimage after all.

There is something about walking that causes us to clear out our minds and which allows us to notice what is right around us. Just as computers and air travel collapse the world, walking expands it again. As I walked that journey six years ago I felt that the world had slowed, and my place in the continuum of time seemed clearer.  The rootlessness of my sabbatical made me all the more aware of my rootedness in a life of family and music, and a belief that we can find our joy in simply being the connection between past and future.

A book that I read a few years before going to Spain, and again – with much more appreciation – afterwards was Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Walking from one end of England to the other, a man wounded by life finds that by living completely in the present as he walks, he is able to understand his past more fully and to have hope for his future. On the face of it, his pilgrimage makes no sense, anymore than walking the Way of St. James across Spain, or threading through the crowds at Graceland makes sense. Harold was walking because he believed that as long as he did so his friend would not die. Near the end of the book he wonders if what the world needs is “a little less sense and a little more faith.”

We don’t always know why we’ve gone on a pilgrimage, we certainly don’t understand life’s purpose most of the time, nor can we fully fathom the tragedies of our life or say that we deserve our good fortunes. Perhaps we need Harold’s words to take root in us so that we begin to need a little less sense out of our existence, and rely more on faith that our lives have meaning in ways we’ll never understand as long as we keep from getting stuck in one place, whether that be mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally.

Journey on!

sonyafirst004

Next week: Day one of a pilgrimage on the camino

 

 

Compassion

I attended a concert recently by a college choir that was performing Handel’s Messiah. The conductor introduced the concert to his likely mostly unchurched audience by telling them that it didn’t matter what they believed, that this was music which told a story of hope in the form of a baby, and which ended with the pain of a mother watching her son die a horrible death. Anyone could feel some connection to those parts of the Christian narrative, he posited, and I have to agree.  Babies do imply hope for the future, and is there anything more harrowing than a grieving mother’s pain?

There is a 13th century Italian poem about one mother’s grief, Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross.  These words have been set to music by composers some 600 times –Stabat mater dolorosa, “the sorrowful mother was standing” –  and it is a text which has inspired composers from Josquin des Prez to Arvo Pärt, Palestrina to Verdi.

At Church of the Epiphany this Good Friday at 12:10 p.m. a quartet of soloists will sing the Stabat Mater by Emanuele d’Astorga (1680-1757?).  D’Astorga has largely fallen into obscurity, but I can’t imagine why. There are more than 150 known works of his in existence, and his life was operatic in scope – a noble birth, attempted murder of his mother, his father executed for treason, adventures under an assumed name, a wife less than half his age whom he abandoned with three small children.  A 19th century fascination with d’Astorga led one J.J. Abert to compose an opera in 1866 – aptly named Astorga – that further embellished an already colorful story.

All of this is an aside, however, to what is a beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater text. Real life grief takes many forms, of course, and none is ever elegant, as is the music that accompanies Mary’s grief in so many of the Stabat Mater settings I have heard. I am reminded of the equally elegant Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber accompanying the horrifying war scenes in the film Platoon. The disconnect is jarring, but perhaps there is a message for us in those things which seem irreconcilable, I don’t know.

Whatever the musical language, d’Astorga’s work is the story of Good Friday, seen through Mary’s eyes. Would any of us have been able to stand with her at the foot of that cross, knowing that we couldn’t do anything to stop the violence inflicted on her son? All we can do sometimes is bear witness to someone’s pain and hold some part of it in our heart. Compassion – to understand another’s pain – has its roots in the Latin word for suffering, passio. We hear the Passion narrative read on Good Friday, but I believe experiencing the crucifixion through Mary’s eyes in the Stabat Mater, and suffering with Mary, causes us to have even greater compassion, and our world could use more of that.

 

* * * * *

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.

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 for which we can be grateful.