The sun is shining. The driveway has been snow-blown as we say here in Hope Ness. And all’s right with the world.
Yesterday wasn’t great. My cold was getting me down. But today it’s getting better; so I’m going to pick up where I left the day before with the residual effect of an unexpected moment in music.
Here’s the thing: never underestimate the power of music to lift your spirits when the day seems to be getting off to a discouraging start.
So it was a couple of days ago. At a certain point in mid-morning – for various reasons I’d just as soon not get into – a certain level of turmoil was starting to make me feel overwhelmed. As usual I had the radio on, tuned, also as usual, to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) local “Radio 2” FM frequency. Familiar music was playing. I recognized it as Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto, “The Emperor.”
I hadn’t heard the Emperor in quite a while. I had a tendency to pass it by in favour of the music I’ve tended to listen to more in recent years – Prokoviev and Barber especially. Prokoviev has been my favourite composer since I saw, and heard of course, Glenn Gould play the 7th Piano Sonata on CBC television when I was about 17, as best I can recall. I discovered Samuel Barber about 10 years ago. His best known work is Adagio for Strings, which he initially wrote as the 2nd movement of his String Quartet. I actually prefer it to the “strings” version. My favourite Barber piece though is his Violin Concerto, with its gorgeous melodies.
I regard Prokoviev as the 20th Century Beethoven, by the way, for reasons that will be evident in a few moments. But getting back to the other morning, and the Emperor: there it was on the radio in the midst of my stressful morning, and to make a long story short, I got into it. I dropped what I was doing, and the associated things that had been bringing me down and took the opportunity to sit and give The Emperor my full attention. It’s wonderful music, quintessentially Beethoven, a powerful, positive expression of the human spirit. In a word, it was uplifting.
I turned the volume up a little so others in the house, including the guys installing the new furnace could hear. One young fellow in particular, a high school, co-op student, had told me he liked art and music, and wanted to do something “creative” in his life. I gave him what I think is some good advice: I said, “find a path that has heart and then give it all you’ve got.” Some of you out there may know that’s a quote from one of the Don Juan books by Carlos Castenada. I told the young man, “remember that.” He said he would, adding sincerely, “Thanks.”
When The Emperor was over the host of the show said it was a great performance recording, which it was, with pianist Krystian Zimmerman, and the late Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
That reminded me of regular television shows Bernstein used to do in the 1950s to reach out to young people. One of them was about Beethoven, with Bernstein asking the question, in so many words, why is Beethoven considered one of the greatest composers, if not the greatest. He talked about Beethoven’s melodies, and mentioned that one of his most famous was the “Ode to Joy” theme from the last movement of the 9th Symphony, “The Choral.” It was, he noted, a melody the composer borrowed from an old German drinking song. I have bored many people with that story over the years, ending it by hoisting a glass of beer in time with my own solo rendition of Ode to Joy, in English.
Bernstein talked about Beethoven’s skill as an orchestrator. Certain other composers were better, he said.
So what, when all was said or done, made Beethoven great?
“The truth,” said Bernstein. You have this sense when you’re listening to Beethoven’s greatest music that “you’re hearing the truth.”
It was a wonderful insight I’ve never forgotten. It occurs to me just now that I’ve used it as a kind of standard of appreciation for other so-called “serious music.”
It’s what I heard in Prokoviev, especially in the piano sonatas, and especially the 9th – so reflective. And there’s a moment in it, a few bars, that must be the most sublime in music.
It’s what I hear as well in Barber’s Violin Concerto, and, for that matter, Adagio for Strings.
Speaking of melody, is there any greater composer in that regard than Barber. I don’t think so.
Thank you, my friends, wherever you are, for indulging me in my love of music. It helped me put sunshine in this day about that day.