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Beethoven

I was asked to write a (really) short essay about Beethoven for our Beethoven Festival program book. Here it is:

Who is Beethoven? It’s a question that haunts me. When I perform Beethoven’s music, I feel close to a presence, a personality, a force of will so strong that it’s unnerving. I start to have strange dreams. Certain passages keep repeating in my head. My blood pressure goes up. You get the picture.

I first felt this presence at age 16 or so. I was watching the Emerson String Quartet play the second movement of his String Quartet Op. 132. It was in a massive church, on an unadorned altar. I had no idea what I was about to hear. The second movement begins with serene chant-like lines interweaving. It is music of deep devotion, serious prayer. Little by little, the music becomes more expressive, more personal and by the time the second subject is introduced, we’ve moved from deep devotion to pure joy. I didn’t know that the music was about something specific at the time, only that it felt shockingly intimate and personal. Later I learned that the movement was called the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” the Holy Song of Thanksgiving. In this music, Beethoven was sharing the joy of recovering from an illness that almost killed him.

Imagine all the conversations you’ve ever had in your life. How many of them were about something truly important, truly profound? How many times have you laid your soul bare to someone else? This is what Beethoven does in his music: often with power and violence, but just as often with mystery and tenderness.

It was emotional intimacy that Beethoven missed when he went deaf, not just musical sound. “My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood,” he wrote in his Heiligenstadt Testament. “… for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live like one alone, like one who has been banished.” Beethoven was no longer able share these intimate moments, these secret whispers, with others.

When Beethoven’s secrets reveal themselves in his music, they are mysterious, uncanny. He brings us messages from his isolated world, messages that are urgent, but hard to completely understand; they both obfuscate and enlighten us. It’s like God’s answer to Job from the whirlwind: more questions. Like all instrumental music of its time, Beethoven’s music speaks, but there are no words to express what he is saying.

Those moments of wordless speech haunt me: the opening of the Fourth Piano Concerto; the lamenting violins at the end of the Eroica’s funeral march; even the Ode to Joy itself. These messages are profound, but what do they really mean? Beethoven leaves this open. He knows what they mean to him, but he wants a “refined conversation” with us, his “fellow men,” his listeners.

Who is Beethoven? What is this force, this presence in his music? He answers us through his music: “Who are you?”