How Beethoven Saved My Life
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.