Weekly Update 1-10-2014

January 10th, 2014

I hope everyone had a chance to celebrate the beginning of the New Year in a pleasing way. I stayed home. Even if I were inclined to go out to celebrate – and I’m not – it was just too damned cold in my corner of the world. New Year’s Eve found us immersed in -15F temperatures, and I’m not foolish enough to brave that kind of nonsense for anything. My wife and I “celebrated” with a glass of fizzy grape soda. I never claimed my life was especially interesting.

I continue to make slow but steady progress on Chapter 13. As will be apparent when it’s complete and you, my much loved reader, finally have a chance to read it, Chapter 13 will be on a very different tack than the preceding chapters. I’ve said before that I’ve given myself a very difficult challenge with Chapter 13. In order to even attempt to meet that challenge, I’m needing to learn a lot of things of which I am ignorant. While the Muses have been unusually generous with me of late, without having a solid grasp of the basics of some new subjects for me, no amount of inspiration will result in something coherent and interesting. So each night, I study.

Since I’ve started writing the story of Karen and Laci, I’ve undergone some profound changes in my artistic interests and appreciation. When I say “artistic”, I’m referring to the entire spectrum of art: visual arts, drama, poetry, prose, and music. Especially music.

I’ve always enjoyed music immensely, and I have always felt like I have a wide, even eclectic range of tastes: Frank Zappa to Pink Floyd; Patsy Cline to Hank Williams, Sr.; French-Canadian jigs and reels to bagpipe marches; and what is loosely termed Classical music. I thought I had a reasonably good understanding of “classical” music; I thought I knew and enjoyed the big names: Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, even Mahler. And of course, Beethoven. But a funny thing happened. It dawned on me that I didn’t know a damned thing about classical music. If you get right down to it, I didn’t know a damned thing about much of any music. That has begun to slowly change.

About a year and a half ago, right about the time Chapter 5 was a work in progress, I started a cyber-friendship with a fine gentleman who has become a dear, older brother figure to me. He has done as much as anyone I’ve ever known to open my eyes, ears, and my heart to the inherent beauty of art – especially music; even more especially to the transformative power inherent in the music of one Ludwig van Beethoven.

I thought I knew old Ludwig pretty well, but it turns out I was wrong, deeply, embarrassingly wrong. I knew nothing about the man or the music. I’d heard a few bits and pieces of his work here and there, and I thought recognizing Fur Elise, the Moonlight Sonata, and the opening four notes of his 5th Symphony indicated a pretty solid base. Ha! That’s like saying knowing the sun rises in the east and sets in the west gives you a solid base in astronomy. I knew nothing – nothing! But my dear surrogate brother slowly, ever so patiently, began to change that. He did it by showing me the beauty of the music, and never condescending to me in spite of my ignorance. He patiently let me annoy him with thoughts, ideas, questions, and assertions, even when I was wrong. He’s always been the one to put up with my artistic histrionics, whether related to Karen and Laci’s stories, or my newfound passion for Beethoven.

Without question, the opening act of my transformation from ignorant fool to eager neophyte began with my introduction to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and even more specifically to the 4th movement, the Ode To Joy. Hearing that for the first time was an epiphany of sorts for me. It struck me hard and immediately. I was introduced at the same time to the movie “Immortal Beloved,” the fictionalized attempt to solve the mystery of the unrequited love of Beethoven’s life, the woman he referred to in his letters as only, “My Immortal Beloved”. All the speculation and Hollywood dramatization aside, parts of that movie moved me in a profound way. In particular, the end of the movie, when it reaches the point where the 9th Symphony premiers, Gary Oldham, the actor portraying Beethoven, is seen hearing the music in his head – Beethoven was profoundly deaf when he wrote it, so he only ever heard it in his head – and having a flashback to a moment from his childhood. The young Ludwig escapes his drunken, abusive father by climbing down a drainpipe from his bedroom, and flees through the woods at night. Notwithstanding issues of historical accuracy, it’s a moment of great cinematic and musical power. Just as the frenzied orchestra reaches the point of maximum intensity, it pulls up short. The young Ludwig strips his clothes off and lays down in a frog pond reflecting the night sky emblazoned with an infinity of stars. Then, at the climactic moment, just as the chorus erupts in its devastatingly powerful Ode To Joy chorus, the director has the camera pull back, looking down on Ludwig from above, pulling ever further back, back, back, until Ludwig merges with the stars in heaven. Heady stuff, that. It hit me like a punch in the chest, and I was changed forever.

Much of that movie scene has trickled down to a part of Chapter 13. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: if Chapter 13 plays out even half as well as I hope, becoming familiar with at least the Ode To Joy, the 4th movement, will greatly enrich your understanding of where I’ve been and where I’m going with this story.

Beyond the 9th Symphony, my friend started me on a voyage of learning about the remarkable Ludwig van Beethoven. I have become much more than a simple admirer of the man and his music. I have become a deep and abiding lover of it. Everything. The in-your-face power of his 3rd and 5th Symphonies; the trickery of the 4th Symphony; the sublime beauty of his piano sonatas and concertos; the soft, gentle bagatelles a la Fur Elise.

In my eagerness to learn more about Beethoven and “classical” music in general, I stumbled across a treasure trove of YouTube material by Leonard Bernstein, the late composer/director, who was a passionate student and devotee of Beethoven. His “Concerts for Young People” from the 50s and 60s taught me about the meaning of such things as form, motif, and themes, enabling me to better understand what a composer is doing when he writes his music for me – for us. His series of brief commentaries on the music of Beethoven, and his longer lectures, are in YouTubeland, and they instruct me on minutia I never knew I cared about. He did a series of informal conversations with the actor Maximillian Schell that are pure gold for someone wanting to learn about the man and the music.

Let me leave you this week with a transcript I did of one of those brief commentaries by Bernstein. I’ve done my best to get it verbatim, but I ask your forbearance if I’ve mistyped, or improperly punctuated something. I think his message here is worth sharing with you, my dear and beloved reader. Once again, thank you for your patience with me.

“[Beethoven’s] music remains endlessly satisfying, interesting, and moving, and has remained so for almost two centuries, and to all kinds of people. In other words, this music is not only infinitely durable, but perhaps the closest music has ever come to Universality. That dubious cliché about music being the universal language almost comes true with Beethoven. No composer who has ever lived, who speaks so directly to so many people, to young and old, educated and ignorant, amateur and professional, sophisticated and naïve. And to all these people, of all classes, nationalities, and racial backgrounds, this music speaks a Universality of thought, of human brotherhood, freedom, and love.

In [the] Ninth Symphony for example, where Beethoven has set Schiller’s Ode To Joy, in the Finale, the music goes so far beyond the poem, it gives far greater dimension and vital energy, and artistic sparks to these quaint old lines of Schiller; “Alle Menschen warden Brüder, All men shall be as brothers,Seid umschlungen, Millionen! All ye millions, I embrace ye; Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? World, do you sense your Creator?”

In other words, this music succeeds even with those people for whom organized religion fails, because it conveys a spirit of Godhead and sublimity in the freest and least doctrinaire way that was typical of Beethoven. It has a purity and directness of communication which never becomes banal. It’s accessible without being ordinary. This is the magic that no amount of talk can explain.

Perhaps there was, in Beethoven the man, a child inside that never grew up, that to the end of his life remained a creature of grace and innocence and trust, even in his moments of greatest despair. And that innocent spirit speaks to us of hope, and future, and immortality, and its for that reason that we love his music now more than ever before. In this time of world agony, and hopelessness, and helplessness we love his music and we need it. As despairing as we may be, we cannot listen to this Ninth Symphony without emerging from it changed, enriched, encouraged. And to the man who could give the world so precious a gift as this, no honor can be too great, and no celebration joyful enough.”