Lessons from Beethoven

There’s always a place – a few notes or measures – in any piece I’ve encountered by Beethoven that is just impossible.  Beethoven’s music is always difficult to play well, but hard work usually pays off and something musical emerges, with his abrupt mood swings propelling the music at every turn. Except for that one spot…sometimes the fingers find all the right keys, and sometimes they don’t, and no amount of practice guarantees success 100% of the time.  That’s just how it is, for me anyway.

Beethoven came raging – he never ambles – back into my life a few weeks ago with two works that I needed to learn for two different concerts. First up, his so-called “Archduke” Trio, Op. 97. Piano, violin, and cello open the first movement with quiet grace and charm, but there it is, just a little over one minute in – the spot. The one I practice and practice without guarantee that it will go well in performance. I’ll work hard, drill into the spot’s difficulties with slow practice and careful attention to fingering….and in the moment will just hope for the stars to align!

Perfection is all around us. Images and sounds are manipulated in the studio to create ideal versions of beauty and performances free of any mistakes. Maybe perfection is a worthy goal, I don’t know. But the drama of Beethoven’s music, with its interruptions and conflicts and surprises, requires a different approach in my opinion. One that is unhampered by perfection, accepting of messiness, that leans in to the surprises and embraces the interruptions, all the while wrestling with the conflicts.

Those are goals worth pursuing, musically and in every other part of our lives, don’t you think?

sonyafirst004Join me and my musical partners for our performance of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio on Tuesday, November 19 at 12:10 pm at Church of the Epiphany’s Tuesday Concert Series.  TCS concert flyer

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.

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Love is the Lesson

An Easter treat in the form of a beautiful work for choir by my friend Gary Davison. I asked him to write a piece in 2004 for an anniversary celebration and he set this text by Edmund Spenser, which ends with the simple petition – So let us love, dear love, like as we ought; Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught. As is so often the case, profundity lies in simplicity. And as human history has too often shown us, we aren’t very good at keeping things simple.

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?visual=true&url=https%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F533165868&show_artwork=true&maxwidth=500&maxheight=750&dnt=1&=&%2338%3Butm_campaign=share&%2338%3Butm_medium=facebook&utm_source=soundcloudhttps://soundcloud.com/mark-dwyer-2/davison-most-glorious-lord-of-life-the-advent-choir?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=facebook

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English poet Edmund Spenser (1552/3-1599) was a contemporary of this week’s birthday boy, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), usually celebrated on April 23 or 24. While Spenser seemed to work within Tudor political machinations, writing in praise of the Queen and to gain favor with the nobility, Shakespeare seems to be more of an outsider, quicker to cast a skeptical eye on the institutions of his time and the people who ran them. But that’s just my unscholarly summary of two of the English language’s greatest writers.

Spenser’s sonnet, and the whole liturgically-based cycle from which it comes, Amoretti, demonstrates his comfort with the Anglican church and its theology. Debates, on the other hand, about Shakespeare’s belief in God, his churchmanship or whatever else might be ascertained about his religious convictions, are less clear, especially considering his acknowledged role as one of the preeminent humanists of all time. Love was often the lesson, but for Shakespeare it was always an arduous one.

What I think has appealed to most of us during these past 400 years is Shakespeare’s ability to write about every aspect of human character – its many frailties, its potential for redemption and forgiveness, its capacity for love and sacrifice. Just as “there lives more faith in honest doubt” (Tennyson), I believe there lives more understanding of God in our evolving and ever-expanding awareness of God’s complicated creation known as humankind. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for giving us so many windows into that perplexing creature, and happy birthday.

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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.

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.

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.

 

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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.

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.

Ecologue

As we move into Holy Week, an achingly beautiful, elegiac piece, written by British composer Gerald Finzi — his Eclogue for piano and strings:

This will be one part of a program I am doing on Tuesday, April 16 at 12:10 at Church of the Epiphany — more details are found here: TCS-April 16, 2019. Please come if you’re able – sometimes the message we need to hear is said without words.

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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.

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.

Why Bother?

(from November, 2011 and July, 2014 posts)

I remember going into a church some time ago as a woman was putting finishing touches on the altar’s flower arrangements. I made a few admiring comments and she said that her purpose had been to recall the blood of martyrs by using the dramatic streaks of red gladiolus I was seeing, in honor of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, whose feast day it was that day and for Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast day was to come two days later.

Well, I’m sure you would have made that connection right away, but I admit it eluded me at first glance. Having read a charming book called The Language of Flowers (an enjoyable beach read), I knew that flowers carry symbolic meanings for some, and that in the language of flowers the gladiolus represents strength of character and honor.  Would anyone else seeing those flowers have all those bits of knowledge at hand?  Irenaeus….symbolic meaning of flowers… Probably not, but does that matter?  Not at all, in my opinion. Our days are filled with small connections and invisible acts that enrich our lives without us even realizing it.

Several years ago I wondered aloud with a colleague why I put so much thought into hymn choices, making key relationships with prelude and postlude music, thinking about meters for walking hymns and texts that are theologically sound, on top of relating the hymns to readings and liturgical seasons. He assured me that the flow of the liturgy was enhanced and appreciated in ways that no one would ever be able to verbalize, and I took that heart.  I remember now a conversation with another colleague about Evensong and other Daily Offices, and the comfort she found in simply knowing that prayers and music have been sung in cathedrals and monasteries on our behalf for many hundreds of years. Swirling around us at any given time is an invisible world of prayers and intentions.

I am reminded of something I heard years ago about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson. He insisted that the miniature sets being created to simulate some parts of the Middle Earth be constructed so that even the backs of the sets – the parts never seen by an audience – were as completely and authentically built as the parts that would be seen on film.  And I read somewhere that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling created many more characters and events for her stories than ever made it into the series’ seven books.  A whole world beyond what was on the page somehow lurked behind what we were reading and made the experience all the more rich.

We may not ever be aware of the unheard thoughts – red flowers, a prelude in C minor before a hymn in Eb Major, characters that didn’t make it to the page – that thread through our lives, but that doesn’t diminish their value. I appreciate those moments of subtlety versus conspicuousness, humility versus flamboyance, poetry versus prose. Every day we might remind ourselves that the uncelebrated work of our lives still carries a beauty and importance about it.  Kindness, joy, friendship, faith…these are the often unheralded things which create a richly led life.

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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.

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.

Mysterious Ways

originally published March 27, 2014

Perhaps you have occasionally answered difficult or puzzling situations with a shake of your head and the words “God moves in mysterious ways.” That phrase can be a flippant or a serious answer to just about everything we don’t understand, and its popularity would suggest to me that it must have come from one of two possible sources – the Bible or Shakespeare, but surprisingly it comes from neither. Rather, it is the first line of a hymn by the 18th century poet and hymn writer, William Cowper. In the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 his text is found at Hymn 677:

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a case study in woe. His mother died when he was very young, an unhappy relationship with his father caused him to enter a law practice he abhorred. He suffered from severe depression and horrifying delusions all his life, making several suicide attempts. It was while he was an inmate at the St. Albans Insane Asylum that he became a believer in God’s power to be the strength and guide he needed in his life. A prolific poet, he was urged by his friend and mentor, John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame), to write hymn texts as a form of therapy. Together they created a hymnal with nearly 350 hymns in it, many of which are still sung today. He shared Newton’s strong anti-slavery sentiments, writing poems that were quoted by Martin Luther King nearly 200 years later.

Knowing that he struggled with mental illness, I find the words of his hymn God moves in a mysterious way all the meaningful. The trust required to believe and write about God’s ability to bring bright designs (gems) from unfathomable mines (v. 2) speaks to Cowper’s ability to have hope in the midst of his anguish. The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy (v. 3), the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower (v. 5) encourage us to trust that goodness can emerge from our struggles. The more we trust, the more we believe.

A trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen, Cowper seems to tell us. The eyes opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in this stormy life. Cowper channeled his tortured mind to craft poetry. For his sake I wish he could have created without suffering, but God’s ways are indeed mysterious and I want to take Cowper’s words to heart and simply trust in the presence of goodness, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

There are a surprising large number of recordings on YouTube of settings of Cowper’s most famous words, and they come from so many different traditions. These are a few that I enjoyed. Though the first doesn’t exactly stick to Cowper’s text, it’s pretty fun:

and a more sober approach:

And then there’s this one, which just cracks me up – in a good way. If the Monkees had sung this hymn on their show it would have looked like this:

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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.

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.