The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on October 8th, 2013

Years ago I had the opportunity to visit Vienna, Austria, on the occasion of the celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 200th birthday. Many will already know that Vienna has been home to a number of great musical composers in the past, including not only Beethoven, but Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss, Mahler, and many others. But Beethoven was my focus at that moment because I had a secret agenda. The rather superstitious notion had occurred to me that if I were able to visit the city where Beethoven had lived and could tread the same cobbles he had trodden daily, stand inside the rooms within which he had dwelt and look out of  the same windows on (nearly) the same vistas he had regarded, I might possibly be able to detect some ghostly traces of the great man that would help illuminate my own musical efforts. It seemed to me that if ever such a thing might be possible, the occasion of his bicentennial might prove especially auspicious.
So I did all of those things --- promenading along the curving cobbled streets of the city following routes he must have frequented, visiting his apartments, examining displays of his personal effects, like snuff boxes, spectacles, ear trumpets (early hearing aids), a writing desk, personal notebooks and letters, and original manuscripts of his musical scores. At one location I even went so far as to wait until no one was around, remove the protective glass from the keyboard of one of his personal pianos, and play a little of his music on it. My hope was that if I could touch the same keys his fingers had touched, I might be lucky enough to detect and absorb some subtle, lingering whispers of the essence of the man…
Nothing. Not the slightest suggestion of a link to Beethoven himself from any of it. As I sat there expectantly waiting for something to happen, the thought kept rolling around in my mind, All this is just so much inert STUFF! There are no signs of life here! If you have ever had the experiencing of clearing out someone’s belongings after he or she has passed away, you may understand what I’m driving at here. It was something of a revelation for me to realize that it is the person alone who possesses the vitality. The artifacts of a person’s life are only so many inanimate objects, like stage props, carrying no significance of their own, no remaining charge of their owner. It is the person who imbues the objects with significance while he is alive. After that, they just become hollow souvenirs.
This realization was particularly striking to me when it came to Beethoven’s musical scores. In them he poured out his musical genius directly --- from his heart, through his imagination, down his arm, through the pen in his hand, and onto the paper. There in front of me were all his painstakingly executed notes and symbols, written in his own hand, looking not unlike the scratchings of so many ink-dipped hen’s feet if they had flapped and skittered their way across the page. These markings were the traces of his most inspired efforts, and yet in the end even they were oddly lifeless and mute --- full of potential, no doubt, but lifeless.
It was then that it came to me that none of the stuff in Beethoven’s life, or any of our lives, was or is ultimately important. Only Beethoven’s spirit  is important; the life and genius were in the man, not his things, and it is only when his music is once again realized in sound by perceptive, sensitive, proficient musicians that he may be momentarily brought back into our presence as a living, breathing entity. He lives in the music.
It is part of the magic and the mystery of music that the essence of a human being and his experience of life can be condensed and reduced to a silent manuscript, only to be reconstituted into sound,  revivified, and shared with others at a later time. It is an incredible gift to us all that we can remain in touch with the ennobling, heartening, and intensely human presence of Beethoven in our own time. We should be grateful that his spirit will continue to sustain and inspire us for as long as the sounds of the music last and as long as they linger in our memory.
On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven
Edna St. Vincent Millay  (1892-1950)

Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music, do not cease!
Reject me not into the world again.
With you alone is excellence and peace,
Mankind made plausible, his purpose plain.
Enchanted in your air benign and shrewd,
With limbs a-sprawl and empty faces pale,
The spiteful and the stingy and the rude
Sleep like the scullions in the fairy-tale.
This moment is the best the world can give:
The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem.
Reject me not, sweet sounds; oh, let me live,
Till Doom espy my towers and scatter them,
A city spell-bound under the aging sun.
Music my rampart, and my only one.
Below you will find an excellent performance of the final movement of Beethoven's Symphony #7 performed by the great conductor Carlos Kleiber and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam:

Posted in MUSIC    Tagged with Beethoven, music, Vienna, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carlos Kleiber, Symphony #7, Concertgebouw


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