How Beethoven Saved My Life

| By Paul | | Comments (11)

Ludwig van Beethoven is unquestionably the world's most famous composer. And he is so for good reason. He is a "universal" composer, with an unprecedented ability to translate the extreme range of human emotion into musical form that can appeal to the casual listener as well as present huge challenges to even the most savvy musicians. He is extremely original, yet practically anyone can recognize a piece as being written by him. There are some exceptions, most notably the Große Fugue, written only a couple years before his death when he was completely deaf.

I was exposed to Beethoven through my paternal grandfather who owned the complete symphonies on vinyl recorded by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. For some reason, probably due to my musical non-sophistication, I was fixated on the most popular 5th symphony, never appreciating any of his others. At the time, back in the 70s, that was pretty much my whole musical world. Nothing much else existed. I would "conduct" to that recording of that one symphony in private, pretending I was signaling to the violin section or the horn section to sing louder or softer or with more expression. This piece gave me strength; strength I did not have in real life.

When I started to play classical piano, I immediately turned to Beethoven. I played many of his easier early student pieces (e.g., minuets and German dances) found in my student compilations, but quickly fell in love with his sonatas even though much was beyond my technical capabilities. They were insanely difficult for me, especially since I was not taught for very long. But I really couldn't stand having a teacher. I wanted to be left alone with the music. It was personal. I wanted to play the real emotional and difficult pieces, figure them out for myself, make them my own, and then feel the emotion as I was playing. Not surprisingly, I started with the first movement to the Moonlight Sonata (no. 14), and then learned the first movements to the Pathetique (no. 8), Appassionata (no. 23), and Funeral March (no. 12).

I focussed on memorizing the notes so I could play without having to think, but rather by purely pouring myself into the music from an emotional place; people say I often bite my lower lip and make contorted facial expressions when I play. Luckily I don't have to see myself! Eventually, I learned some of the other movements from these sonatas, with the only one I truly mastered being the adagio cantabile second movement to the Pathetique, which I believe to be one of the most beautiful melodies ever written for any instrument. When I was young and didn't have words to express what was happening to me, I would play these and other pieces. It was my subconscious way, I believe, of talking—of crying out—even though nobody, even me, understood what I was really trying to say or what was really happening to me.

I discovered Beethoven's Third Symphony (Eroica) when I was a bit older and listened to it incessantly, especially the second "death" movement or funeral fugue. Whenever I needed to feel I would listen to it. Eventually, when I got a job and had money, I started to venture to record stores and discovered that there was more to classical music than what I was exposed to. I started to build a CD collection. There was Mozart, Casals, Pärt, Bach, Brahms, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Faure, Schubert, and Haydn, to name but a few. And there were other periods of music for me. Somehow I was absent from any knowledge of 70s rock. I was into Journey and the anthem bands of the 80s. Then Nirvana and Green Day in the 90s. Classic blues in the late 90s. I amassed hundreds of CDs.

In the 90s, I started going to concerts of all types. And about two or three years ago, with a new iPod and great headphones, I started seriously listening to classical and choral music once again.

I listen a lot to Beethoven's String Quartets, String Trios, and Symphonies nos. 3, 6 (especially the fourth movement), 7, and 9 (especially the last movement). I've returned to choral music (e.g., Mozart's glorious Requiem). I tend not to like light baroque music, but rather intricate, rich, and deep choral without soloists that seems to explore the subconscious much like Beethoven does for me in his Eroica. After a long search including Allegri, Bach, Casals, Pallestrina, Purcell, Tallis, Tavener, and many others, I have settled on a short list. Barber's Agnus Dei is simple, but evokes emotion. Faure's Requiem is incredible, and Faure's Cantique de Jean Racine is one of the most sublime choral works I have ever heard. There are some Masses I like: Mozart's Mass in C-minor and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis in D-major. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a master at combining simple and uncluttered melodies that are unpredictable, called minimalist. Like Beethoven's Eroica, Pärt sends me on an exhilarating journey of self discovery.

And, over the past couple years, I fell in love again with Beethoven's Eroica. Eventually, as I began to get better mental health-wise, I heard more in it. I started understanding it. Listening to this piece is like exploring my inner landscape extreme emotions and realities.

I have talked before about how recovering from dissociation is about being aware of, coming to terms with, and learning to navigate around extreme experiences. There is perhaps no other piece of music which captures this better than Beethoven's Eroica. When I listen to this symphony, I hear the messages buried not at all subtly within it. To get the most out of it, you have to listen to what it's saying.

The symphony starts out with two almost obnoxious E-flat chords that scream out to pay attention. Then it soars majestically. The cellos begin, then the violas and second violins provide the inner voices and rhythm. It's pure intimacy. Melodies get passed from section to section, changing a little each time, just like a healing journey. There's an entire incomprehensible landscape of emotional extremes. There's meandering, conflict through harmonic dissonance and "switching" keys. It goes from one end of the human experience to the other end in a very short time. This quickly going from one extreme to another spoke to me profoundly. This was precisely my experience!

But the most meaningful part of the piece for me is the fugue that comes in the middle of the second movement (at Bar 113) with an amazing use of counterpoint, and at Bar 145 he attains heavenly heights. The movement is all about death. It starts off almost in a whisper and this enormously sad melody gets passed from the strings to the oboe. Back and forth. Suddenly the fugue begins. It's the most beautiful two minutes of music I have ever heard. The fugue builds and builds seemingly without end. It cries out with sad strings and then blaring horns. But then it hangs up in the air with unbelievable tension before it collapses. Suddenly, the horns come in and there's power. How is this possible? There's a march. Trumpets provide the melody and strings provide the background. Then the melody from the beginning returns. Who would have guessed? It meanders again, like it has lost its way. And the movement ends like it begins, in a mere whisper. Was everything in between merely an illusion? Did it really happen? Sad. Indeed, even after this emotional journey, this is not the end of this grand symphony. There's more to come. More sadness. And more triumph.

I ground myself to Beethoven's music. Listening to him makes me feel authentic and it makes me realize that the complexity inside my head is all right. The complexity in Beethoven's music is like a kindred spirit. And I can literally look inside myself. What a great gift this man who lived 200 years ago has given me!

Some of you may be wondering what's happened since my last post. Another piece that is equally as amazing as the Eroica is the Große Fugue. It's not, however, easy listening music. This piece is almost a direct mapping of the internal chaos I felt over the last week or more. When I'm in the midst of that chaos, I feel like I'm in a bottomless pit. I can't make sense of anything. Somehow the other night I had the good sense to play the Große Fugue, and almost immediately everything made sense in my head. It was like taking a magic pill!

For a related writing on music on this site, see Music and Heart Healing; if you have not seen this post and have any sort of interest in music, you should check it out.

Two excellent books on Beethoven are "Beethoven: The Universal Composer" by Edmund Morris and "Beethoven: His Spiritual Development" by J. W. N. Sullivan.

For a wonderful explanation of Beethoven's Eroica, you may find PBS' Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas a very worthwhile watch.

For a musical analysis of Eroica, see W. A. Dewitt's Beethoven's Eroica site.


castorgirl said:

I'm just beginning my journey into classical music and have yet to understand it as you describe here. But I'm beginning to wonder if it's always necessary to understand the music on an intellectual level. I find when I'm listening to any sort of music, there are many levels - the intellectual "what does this mean", a surface level "do I enjoy this" and a deeper "this music speaks to me, or for me".

Music is a language. I can see why you would have found a voice within the music and why that would have continued to wanting to play with emotion as you started playing the piano yourself. I'm reminded of watching pre-schoolers play music and how much it can tell you about their state of mind and how they are feeling. They don't always have the words to express themselves, so use the music as a way of releasing the emotion and telling their story. This is not to compare you to pre-schoolers, but rather the lack of an effective voice that you experienced.

Thank you for the tips about other composers, having enjoyed Eroica I'm keen to continue exploring :)

Take care,

Paul Author Profile Page replied to castorgirl:

Castorgirl, you are completely correct. There is no one right way to approach any music. That's the great thing about music. I can here the same piece 10 times in a day and find it grating to finding it soothing to finding it sedating to finding it exhilarating; and hearing it only on a surface level to being able to understand the intricacies of what is being said. I do find that knowing the music (i.e., what notes are to come, etc) does help one appreciate it more. I know that when I see a concert, I will listen to recordings of the pieces for several days to get more in touch with the music. It seems to have a positive impact on my experience. Again, we are brought back to children, with their uncanny ability to be creative and in touch with their emotions. This is normal development, and sadly for many of us, that was taken away. But we can get it back. I do believe it's not lost. As always, thanks for commenting.

Ivory said:

"...dissociation is about being aware of, coming to terms with, and learning to navigate around extreme experiences."

That statement is at the core of DID. I am going to take your advice and listen to Eroica. Also, did you know that classical music also aids in resetting brain waves to more normal levels?

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Ivory:

Thanks Ivory! I'll probably write about music and our brain this afternoon.

Somewhere on my main blog, a long time ago, I wrote about what classical music means to me; one of the best things about my SO is that she has exactly the same relationship with it ... that it's her safe space, the only place where any and all emotional experiences are accepted and understood.

The Shostakovich string quartets, and his 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano, are my emotional roadmap, much as Beethoven is for you.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to David Rochester:

David, Thank you. I could never develop a deep appreciation for Shostakovich, but I do understand that music is intensely personal. I went back and looked at your music blog posts and found them very interesting. I had not known you played cello or recorder; and I do agree with you on your take on Haydn and appreciating your other music musings. Liszt, as I'm sure you know, did some wonderful transcriptions of Beethoven's symphonies for piano.

gracie said:

I have great respect for your knowledge of music, and a little bit of envy : )

I played the piano until I was 17 and apparently I was very accomplished but I have no graspable recall of that being so. I look at my music sheets now and they are so complicated that I find them almost indecipherable. Everyone says I played beautifully but if I sit at a piano now my fingers are mute.

One of the great losses of what happened in my childhood was that at about 12 years of age I cut myself off from music - all of it [note : another part of me played the piano]. The reasons for removing music from my life were numerous and I am not going to go into that here. Looking back on those years [almost 2 decades] without music I can see now that a world without music is certainly a fast-track to death. Combine that to a world without touch [other than of the unwanted kind] and I am amazed that I am still here.

Now that I am on the path of healing, one thing that I crave is music. All types. we are flying back and forth between genres and artists and times! It is wonderful. It has opened up parts of me that were sealed off long ago. I am finding my rhythm and with it my soul.

Paul, please continue posting your thoughts on music and sound tracks of your playing. You have a gift and it helps people and we are grateful for your sharing of it. Thank you.

keep playing

Paul Author Profile Page replied to gracie:

Gracie, You are too kind! In fact my musical knowledge is rather weak. Although, I know that music can be a particularly compartmentalized kind of thing for me. I am so glad you are rediscovering music. In my experience, one of the best things in life is to rediscover what we lost. When you rediscover something, you appreciate it all the more. Take good care, Paul.

I love Beethoven! So does my son who has Down syndrome. Even as a baby he hated most nursery songs and wanted either folk songs or classical music. There's something very powerful about it. Glad you're rediscovering how much it means to you.

Carolyn said:

I loved reading this. It reminds me of my little brother. Once we were both listening and at a particular passage he turned to me and said, "you can hear his isolation." After that I listened often to that passage, now I wish I knew which piece it was, sadly my little brother is not around to ask anymore.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Carolyn:

Thanks Carolyn. There are so many possibilities for which passage it could be. I don't know how someone could understand that a piece of music speaks about isolation unless that person experienced some of that himself or herself. Thanks for stopping by!

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This page contains a single entry published on October 26, 2009 2:50 PM.

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