Thursday, September 18, 2014

Inevitable Beethoven

I'm not religious, either by inclination or upbringing, but occasionally one can be drawn into a logical cul-de-sac by a purely rational pathway.

I can recall when I first heard Beethoven's 6th Symphony, on my own record player--an LP recording of the New York Philharmonic directed by Leonard Bernstein, a nice staunchly American interpretation.*

Bernstein in the 70's

It may seem a preposterous proposition, but the piece struck me then, as it does now, as what I would call inevitable music. I remember telling a friend, then, not long after I'd listened to the piece, that it was so inevitable, that "if Beethoven hadn't written it someone else would have."  Yes, yes, I know that you are already chuckling at this absurd notion, that the creation of any human hand is nothing more than the literal transmission of some intervention.

Beethoven Life Mask

The Greeks believed that artistic inspiration was the literal result of being instilled with a divine spirit--of having that spirit breathed into one by some supernatural influence. Being touched, if you will, by the supernatural.

Plato believed in the idea of universal forms--our tapping, if you will, into entities of shape or sound or ideation--as a borrowing from the storehouse of perfect things in eternity. These "universals" pre-existed their human "creation," and anything you might think to make or devise was indeed already "there" in the void of time/space.

The whole range of sounds or colors or shapes that may be combined is not infinite, but to the human capacity for understanding, they may as well be. Any instrument or combination of instruments has a limited range. Indeed, there are instruments that have yet to be invented, just as there are sounds (music) which have yet to be composed.

But along a time-line which presupposes a very much longer human endurance, it is perhaps not an improbability to imagine that our efforts and apprehensions may have taken place, over and over again in a countless number of instances, as the physicists suggest, in identical worlds across a limitless universe. The music we compose and appreciate may indeed be a rehearsal for a debut performance that has happened many times before, and will be reprised again, endlessly, in the future. (How odd to think of oneself, existing at some distant point in the past, or in the future, living the same life, with the same successes and failures, the same tics and accidents and sudden encounters!)

Beethoven's symphony, which he worked on simultaneously with his writing of the famous 5th Symphony (talk about a fruitful period!), is divided into 5 movements, disguised perhaps by the fact that the last three run together. In addition, he gave each movement a descriptive phrase:

One: Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the countryside
Two: Scene by the brook
Three: Merry gathering of country folk
Four: Thunder, storm
Five: Shepherd's song, cheerful, grateful feelings after a storm

The theme of the first movement is a repeating figure of great spontaneity and warmth, as of the rhythmic buzzing of bees, or the vital pulse of flowing water. It is "cheerful" and spring-like, with twittering grace-notes suggesting bird-song, and a wending coursing quality as of a stream flowing through meadow. It is full of optimism and vitality, like a spring morning. Light penetrates through green, and light breezes lift and shiver leaves. 

The second movement is more melancholy, while perpetuating the rhythmically insistent and deliberate vital spirit of the first. Its lilting melody begins more reflectively, in the first stirrings of devotion or affection, a consciousness of the other, the implications of separation and loneliness, even of sadness at parting or awareness of death. But the comfort of continuity and the life-force never flags. 

The third movement is dance-like and celebratory, with vigorous steps and light-footed maneuvers. There is strength and determination, showiness, but always with the throbbing, muscular beat. 

The fourth begins subtly, with onrushing pursuits and a series of runs and escapes. There are disturbances, water crashing on rocks, foreboding intimations, then a general rest with resolutions.

The fifth is characterized by more fitful surmises, recollections and searchings, with uncertain acceptance, we are at a higher elevation, the air is thinner, fresher, clarity is apparent through mists, and almost unexpectedly, we are at an end. 

I've always thought the ending was anti-climactic, though the overall structure of the piece does not suggest a struggle with a concluding triumph or tragedy. The peace isn't tragic, or comic, it's pastoral. And pastoral suggests a static context. There is birth and death, but traditionally it's about peacefulness and harmony. 

Is the symphony an oversimplification of the pastoral, or a perfect expression of it? The shepherd tending his flock, the green meadows, or the dancing goat-footed satyrs? There's almost no sense of complication--of problems, of evil, of the competition inherent in nature--in this music. It's programmatic, no doubt about it, but its purity is really spiritual, rather than narrational. Music may be the purest of the arts, because the least programmatic, at least classical music is. 

But to return to the point: Is it possible, from a purely speculative vantage, to view a piece of music as "inevitable"--that is, as having an absolutely necessary and natural reason for being? Was Beethoven, in effect, the vessel through which this inevitable sound traveled, and perhaps just a convenient one? Throughout literature, there is a repeated reference to the repeatability of events, of things "echoing in eternity" or of rehearsals of situations which will take place again, and again, of relationships which are symbolic. 

Having once heard a certain piece of music, one is forever bound to remember it. It's locked inside the memory where it may be recalled and replayed repeatedly, though not necessarily at will. Is the power and purpose of a work of music (like any art) to be measured by the intensity of the memory of its event? Long pieces of music, like romantic symphonies, are like journeys, traveling along constructed landscapes and spaces designed to evoke feelings and scenes (and other memories, personal or generalized). 

Beethoven is often characterized as a strong musical mind, whose certainties and convictions tend to overwhelm the listener. There's very little that's "ambiguous" in any of his works. They mean to do what they mean to do, without reservations or footnotes. This kind of intellectual certainty tended to fragment and decay in the 20th Century.  

Does my adolescent surmise about the timeless inevitability of Beethoven's symphony imply a kind of religious apprehension about the structure and meaning of time and matter, or of the relationship of mankind to greater powers? Great philosophers have meditated about this for centuries, and physicists have found themselves often at the threshold of such a problem. Matter has structure, and it vibrates to varying degrees, at different registers of scale and density. These oscillations may or may not seem euphonious to human ears. Would an atomic explosion, occurring, say, once every year, produce a series of oscillations, at some unimaginably huge scale, sensible as a tone? Certain tones are too high up on the scale for the human ear to perceive. Dogs can hear higher than humans. The slower the rate, the lower the tone. The more brittle (or attenuated) the string, the faster the vibration. 

Are we "in touch" with higher truths when we commune with certain works of art? What are higher truths? If we cannot explain how a certain work attains its majesty or perfection, is this because its riddle is beyond our comprehension? Is our inability to figure out the universe a prophylactic against the knowledge that is too difficult to know? The desire to make innocently pure and satisfying works--such as Beethoven's 6th Symphony--or the pleasure we may experience in imagining them as an expression of something greater than the mere organization of notes, may coincide in the magic of perfect accident. Is genius as impenetrable as the equations of advanced physics? Is the conundrum of grace a jingle on the way to grandma's cottage?  

" . . . and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." --T.S. Eliot (Four Quartets)


*A good recording of a later performance conducted by Bernstein is this one in studio with the Boston Symphony orchestra (date unknown) though it's probably in the 1970's judging by Bernstein's face.

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