Sunday, December 13, 2009

My First Crush

My first crush wasn't a star from the movies or television. And he didn't sit across from me in homeroom.

My first crush was Ludwig van Beethoven. I even had the sweatshirt to prove it.

Something in his work resonated within me well before I had the sense or sensibilities to understand such dynamics, and certainly well before I had the words to describe it. I knew it when I felt it, however, and through my fingers at the piano the circuit was completed: I played with the passion of a child on fire, my heart set on Julliard and the concert stage. It was a calling so intensely present in me that I didn’t even say it out loud. I had no need to say it. I was it.

Then I moved on to college. As an undergraduate in marine biology, I also studied German, and as one thing led to another, as it does in the labyrinth of our university days, I decided to spend my junior year in Vienna, Austria.

There were many reasons for this, not the least among them being the intense love I had developed for the work of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who would come to serve as guide for me during the rages of late adolescence and remain on duty to this day.

Vienna was also the city of residence for such luminaries as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, Sigmund Freud—and Beethoven. These attributes overpowered the very real problem that Austria, being a land-locked country, was not a hot spot for marine biology. I switched majors.

As a result, I had the life-changing opportunity to live daily with the music I loved—concerts, the opera, in the theater, in the churches. It was nerd bliss.

So this morning, as I sit at my computer trying to weave together the strands of a paper for one of my classes, who drops in for a visit? LvB himself in the form of the Adagio Cantabile of his 8th piano sonata, which we call The Pathetique.

My fingers fall from the computer’s keyboard and onto the keys of the imaginary piano on my tabletop. I close my eyes.

The theme captivates. It draws me into its beauty the way a lark’s call alerts us to her presence. It is at first a naked line, hanging in the air single note by single note, a linear progression across the scales, which, on the piano, lie at the command of the right hand.

We move forward in enchantment. For a few moments I am transported to the place where beauty lives.

Then the melody stops. The notes of the left hand come into the fore. They assert several changes in direction, subtle but unmistakable, as we range through several key shifts. This moves back from dominance as the melody line reasserts itself. This is when I realize that it is because of the gentle support offered by the lower notes that the melody line is able to continue its path. Because it is grounded in a nest. Because it is echoed, supported, and then even challenged from its depths through the key changes. The supple melody persists and thrives.

The pace quickens. I hear the base notes intensify as they reflect the shape of the melody line, and, perhaps more profoundly, offer it an inverse reflection, asking the melody to look at the other side, to hold in awareness the full range of possibility for expression.

The main melody is restated, only stronger this time, with less the quality of a moonlit rosebud and more the presence of a blossom opening in the morning sun.

I think, Well, that’s a pretty picture. I like the symmetry. Oh, that Beethoven! I fall in love once more, just as I do every time I listen to his music. The tension, the Sturm und Drang, ultimately settles in a dynamic balance of energy expenditures and rest. Beethoven demonstrates for us that peace is not an endpoint. It is a symmetrical mean, and it moves as the music changes. So does it move throughout our lives.

I ask myself, What is it that supports us the way the left hand supports the right in this sonata? What is our left hand, and what is it doing?

I believe this is the knowing self. It is the self of all our experiences from youth to this moment, the frame we erect for our lives, the very structure in which we live our days. The extent to which it is comfortable depends on the degree of conscientiousness we use while we are building it. We can only soar to the heights supported by the foundation we set down, and this foundation building is a personal job undertaken in the quiet of the interior self.

I might point out here that the Adagio Cantabile is the second movement of Sonata #8, and that it follows the tempestuous Grave first movement. Beethoven seems to have known that we are all so serious when we are young. Humor and light are the prizes that come with enduring the first movement of our own lives.

If you think past divisive discussions of left brain and right brain, and move toward a holistic model that includes the transportation of information and feelings across all parts of the brain at once (indeed, all parts of the body, but we can discuss that in another post), then you can sense the fibrous underpinnings we build day by day, moment by moment, that become our lives.

Here’s the gift I received today as the piece came to a close, and I offer it to you for consideration. Next time you listen to the Adagio Cantabile, listen to the way the last few bars slip into the center from both directions, and then meet at the point on the keyboard where the ranges of both the right and left hand converge.

Let us all rest in that point of energetic tension. We can soar to the extent that we are grounded, and once again return to the balance of a peaceful heart.

And by the way, Beethoven will always sit enthroned in my life. You know how it is with first loves.


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