Saturday, December 18, 2010

Happy Belated Birthday to Beethoven!

Thursday was Beethoven's birthday and I just want to give a shout out to Ludwig Van B. I have been listening a lot to the Beethoven marathon on WRTI which was nice because I haven't been listening to Beethoven in quite some time. One of the nice things about the classics is that they are old friends. You can listen to them for a while and then come back and pick up the friendship and deepen the connection as you travel together through time.

I just heard a really nice piece by Beethoven that has a lot to do with recovering from an illness. What makes Beethoven really great is how he can come back and strip a music idea down to the bare essence. Beethoven was critically ill from all kinds of tummy troubles and they thought he might die. He wrote a very nice piece called "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity".

It is basically two themes: a hymm and a "feeling of strength". The hymm is performed very slowly. If you picked up the tempo it would sound like something you could hear in church. Yet, Beethoven sets it to a very slow tempo such that you capture each note moment by moment. This is what you do when you are very ill and you are waiting for yourself to come back. You live moment to moment. You don't have the strength to do much else. I have often felt this way each day during certain phases of therapy. I would do my therapy and then come home and go to bed. I wasn't tired enough to fall asleep but I was too tired to do much else. Not even read or cruise the net. So, at times like these, I would say some prayers or meditate and try to join a larger part of the universe even as I couldn't really engage in my smaller part of the world. I would say my rosary or I would just try to control my breathing and become very still and quiet and one with God. After sinus surgery, I can take big gulps of air and there is a richer and deeper connection just simply as I breathe deeper than what I had been able to do before.

As with a lot of Beethoven's music, there is conflict and then there is resolution and there is often some transcendence to a higher order of the universe or with God. This is true in his second theme of Feeling Strength. You get the first feeling of strength and the beginning of joy of overcoming something very difficult. Beethoven repeats the alternating of these two themes but makes the hymm shorter and shorter with each repetition until there are only two notes ascending to heaven. In this work, he starts with a hymn and dwells on his personal sufferings but calls on his inner strength and healing. Also the composition of this piece is like the path that healing takes: it is not straightforward but relies on an ebb and flow of the need to rest and just wait for time to pass and the body to heal and the realization that the body has healed and you are stronger.

The structure of the piece is:   hymm, "feeling strength", hymm, "feeling strength", and hymm. But the hymm is not repeated exactly the same. It loses notes going from 8 to 5 to 3 to 2. As it loses notes, it becomes a fugue with many voices in the string quarter transposing the theme. So as the theme simplifies, the voices transpose higher and higher bringing you closer to God and also a need to create at the end of the piece. Maybe this is what illness can bring you that very quiet time to be spiritual. To stop as time stops for you and to bring you an awareness of the very simplicity of the universe.

In a bit of leap of imagination, this also makes me think about Advent.  You know, Advent is a time of waiting.  Waiting for the Christ child.  I love the Advent wreaths with the candles  counting down the time before  the Christmas.  The sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent talks about waiting for Christ as the Healer:  

the blind receive their sight,
the lame walk,
the lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have good news brought to them.


As the days get shorter and shorter as the Winter Solstice approaches, we wait for the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings.  We wait for Christmas and the rebirth.  I think Beethoven catches some of this eternal hope for healing in the final part of his Thanksgiving piece.

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