A conversation on Beethoven between Paul and Michaela
“Music is mediator between spiritual and sensual life.”
Ludwig van Beethoven
M:Hi Paul. Nice to talk to you, how are you ?
P: Hi Michaela, very good thank you. I am pleased we can meet together today.
M: I understand you too admire the music of Ludwig van Beethoven? Is that right ?
P: Since I was a music major in college, I have actually listened and “loved” the music of Beethoven for most of my life. When I first entered college (1970), it was the 200th anniversary of his birth, so that dates me! But the main thing that I would like to explore with you, if you wish, is the possibility that his music connects to the spiritual side of our human experience.
M: Yes, I’d like that. It is strange – I grew up with music. My father was a pianist and anyway, everything in Vienna is about classical music. I have always been around music. However, I never connected with Beethoven. I never liked his music in particular , nor did I understand the musical message. So it came as a surprise to me that for about the last couple of months I have become a Beethoven addict.
P: Ah, Vienna! When I was seven years old, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra came to Chicago, where I grew up, and Herbert von Karajan directed a concert playing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Of course, at that age, it was simply something to go to because it was “good for you.” Not long after that, my parents also took me to a Wagner opera, Tannhauser, at the ripe age of eight. I vaguely remember it, but again, I am sure I was there since it was something good to do. But, once I became a teenager, I was able to juggle listening to the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane alongside Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart and many others.
M: Oh, that’s no contradiction. Classical music is just a part of the scope and variety. Like yourself, I have been exposed to classical music from early on, in particular piano concertos and the opera. If something, I probably have had too much of it too soon, because in my early twenties I had a phase I did not listen to classical music at all. It came back later – primarily with Mozart.
P: The key to connection (to me) of classical music, or any kind of music really, and the spiritual dimension comes from something that I think we have to have already (and be in touch with) inside us. That is, we must be able to sense that vital quality of spiritual flow that some music seems to embody. For example, sometime in the 1970’s, I was listening to the Beethoven Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, one night. I had no other distractions, and the music seemed to go to the deepest part of me. I do not mean it was an emotion, but something much deeper. That is, there was a sense, a feeling, that I was contact with something very vibrant and alive. It was as if the music was being created for the first time, as I was listening to it. The music and I were “connected” in some inexplicable way. So the question becomes, why would it work with Beethoven and not some other music? I think it is very possible that many pieces of music were created by composers who managed to write their music outside of their egos and surface emotional states. Music written from this deeper place can draw a listener (or performer) into this creative, silent wellspring.
M: Yes, I know what you mean. Music connects to something inside. I had this my whole life. Mozart and Bach have been my constant companions. One the expression of joy, the other the expression of clarity. But the surprise came with suddenly understanding Beethoven, because his music touches on something even deeper. Actually I have the sense that in my case some thick layers of contraction and fear had to fall away, before I suddenly could sense Beethoven’s music “stir” something in me. This music seems to connect to the “life force” itself. Do you understand what I mean ?
P: Yes, there is certainly the possibility that music and the life force can intertwine. Eckhart Tolle talks about this at different times, and mentions that one performs music, one allows the life to flow outward into the music and infuse it with much more life and energy. Composers such as Mozart and Beethoven have written pieces where this can take place. Of course, one not need be a performer to experience this state. Listening can also be a complete experience as well if one goes “above the level of thought” and perceives the musical flow mostly without words. In other words, we recognize the life in the music because of the life in us. Another interesting example I can share comes from teaching a class in music appreciation and history. The high school students I have taught show an amazing attraction to a piece of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, The Little Fugue in G Minor. For whatever reason, this piece seems to capture their interest and they sense something in it that goes deeper than many other pieces of music we studied. When I play a recording of it, the students sit very still and allow it to “come in.” This is the place where it seems a connection happens between music and the vital quality we have as alive, vibrant beings.
M: While we are conversing, we are actually listening to the Beethoven string quartet No 14 in C sharp minor. I think we are both being touched by the music. Resonance is the word that is coming to mind. One just wants to sit still and “feel” the vibration of the music and feel into the resonance on the inside. There is an immediacy which is very intense. It’s really remarkable because I have heard the Beethoven string quartets many times in my life and used to fall asleep. No more :-). It is like I feel to be in contact with a great power. To me this is different than listening to Mozart. Mozart goes directly into the heart, It is easy to love Mozart – his music makes your heart sing and dance at the same time, but what we are listening here now is pulsating. Really remarkable.
P: I like the word resonance also, because it is a good pointer to what music can do. There are many ways to misuse music – and I have been guilty in my life of all of them. Eckhart describes three states of being that are in alignment with life: simple surrender, enjoyment and enthusiasm. When we listen to music, and are enjoying its flow, or even enthusiastic with how its energy is pulsing through us. At these times, we are feeling one of life’s gifts. So, when music is forced by well-meaning parents on their unwilling children, there is of course a natural resistance in the child that might keep them from ever wanting to come back when their maturity would allow them to overcome the early unhappy experiences they had with it. The real reason to connect with music is simply because it is a joy in itself. I could not tell someone else that it would be “good” for them. Rather, I could only say that in my life, music experience and involvement has given me moments that allowed life energy to flow through me in a movement of joy and wonderful energy.
M: Yes, but music has this ability to touch us on the inside. Sound stirs something in us, it is dynamic and there are moments we feel the life energy. What I did not realise though is that in my case my choice of music was aligned to my spiritual development – and maybe furthered it even. As I said before – Mozart and Bach were my favorites for a long time. To me, Beethoven must have had a very deep connection to the source – deeper than I feel it with Mozart or Bach. We have to remember that he went deaf early in his middle years and from that on, his music became very powerful, innovative and I would even use the word transformative. I have listened to the “ Hammerklaviersonate” most of this morning and to me this sounds like god himself shouted in Beethoven’s deaf ears. To me it is an example of “not my will but thine”, as Beethoven was forced to give up his very successful career as an performing artist and moved to the suburbs of Vienna to focus on his music. He could not hear his music, but he certainly made sure we could feel it.
P: Yes, Beethoven had to surrender to what life had for him, which in his case was to lose the most critical sense that a musician uses: hearing. In the earlier pieces when he first knew that this was going to happen to him, he fought with anger and rage. Pieces like Symphony #3 and #5 were filled with this conflict. But when we get to the late period pieces, there is a very sublime level of surrender to life and its deeper power and significance. There is still some of the earlier surface emotion that was more prevalent in the more youthful pieces, but now in these later pieces, there is a new sense in them. Unfortunately, the following Romantic era composers tended to adopt the approach of the earlier Beethoven rather than the much deeper, spiritual expression that seems to be more the case with the later pieces. An interesting story about his deafness happened at the premier of the Ninth Symphony. Beethoven actually directed the performance, but since he could not hear the players, he took a tempo that was too fast for the musicians, and so finished directing three to four minutes before the rest of the orchestra did! Beethoven stood and waited while they played the ending. He could not hear the thunderous applause, but the woman who was the contralto soloist turned him around so that he could see their appreciation. But the image is an interesting one. Beethoven experience this entire event in a state of physical silence while one of the most important events in traditional music history was taking place!
M: Yes,this “sacrifice” reminds me a bit of Krishnamurti, who suffered a great deal through his whole life going through what he called “the process”. Something that made him even more open and receptive than a human being can even imagine to tolerate. This is why he was such a spiritual immensity – because he was so open and porous that life could speak through him. As it is with Eckhart – if you watch him, you see him getting more and more transparent. So in some ways, I would liken this to Beethoven, who through his deafness and physical ailments – he also suffered from depression and gastrointestinal disorders – seemed to have been able to connect on a very deep level. It is this force that I recognise in his music and of which I am no longer afraid.
P: You bring up important points here. With artists like Beethoven, they could transcend in their art, but not necessarily in their whole life experience. However, they gave us some wonderful pointers with their creations. When he was a young man, Krishnamurti’s biography mentioned that he once spent two days listening to only the Ninth Symphony and doing nothing else. He said it was “all he needed.” What I remember thinking when I read this was that here was a spiritual leader completely surrendered to what what happening in the present moment, which was a musical event. It points to the idea that when we listen to music, that is what we should do — simply be with it, and not allow it to become a way to avoid ourselves by providing some pleasant alternative to “what is.”
M: Oh, yes – I forgot. Krishnamurti loved Beethoven. It reminds me of Eckhart saying that he enjoys finding instances, when someone gets it or expresses IT. Anyway, thank you, Paul. This has been a real pleasure. Listening, talking and writing about Beethoven and his music.
P: Yes, thank you so much too, Michaela. It was wonderful to connect with some reflections about this music and what its possibility is for us as we experience life and spiritual impulses. I hope we can meet some other time to discuss some other topics as well.
Paul and I listened to String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131, played by the Alban Berg Quartett.