I can't seem to stop staring.
There's something irresistible about observing art in the process of getting created. Here are the opening measures of Beethoven's "Heiliger Dankgesang" - a work of art I've loved unreservedly since the first time I heard it, a work of art where not a single note seems like it could be anything except itself. And here's the composer, scratching and scribbling on a piece of paper with a lumpy quill, bringing the whole mess of it into being. What sounds like radiant divinity looks like some major smudge action and re-thinking of the inner voices in measures 3 and 4, and let's not get into the random curlicues.
But I love Beethoven for mucking around until he gets the voice-leading right. I love him for scribbling the iconic movement title "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart" (Hymn of thanks from a convalescent, offered to the divinity, in the Lydian mode) in a scrawl up there, borderline illegible in his native language, before the Italian translation shows up all cleaned up at the side. I love the little shorthand in the upper right hand corner where he basically says "hey, B natural replaces B-flat because of the mode; it'll be a bit weird but will look like this." This piece of art really has to be created by a human, with all the warts and false starts and awkwardness that that entails.
It has to be created by a human because it captures one of the things about our existence which is the most incomprehensible and beautiful: We heal.
Beethoven was taken out by an intestinal illness, and not a brief one. Little glimpses from his letters show that he seems to have feared for his life for months. Something that lingers like that changes your thoughts. It gives them time to go to all of the places, again and again, to really traverse the territory we would usually shy away from, step by slow step, and even to make a home there. There's a reason why patients have the name they do.
But then life returned to him. The flush of it, the rush of energy, the ease, the breath, the flow. The necessity of patience melts away, and the extravagance of impatience enters the world once more. Small, petty things that are not meaningful in the desert suddenly can feel important again when you're back in a spring meadow - because you can feel! Celestial gratitude that slowly unfolds under the stars can, again, transform into the wondrous banality of everyday life. It's OK. You can take a load off. You've gotten better.
The thing that I'll love in this movement, for as long as I live, is the way that Beethoven binds together the wisdom that comes with enduring a long illness and the utter magnificent foolishness that is the gift of returning health.
I'm thinking about this all the time these days. Really. As we come up on a year of crisis, a year of distance and suffering (that fell differently on every one of us) I'm marking that time, but I'm also sniffing the air for spring, and I'm counting the weeks and days before my newly vaccinated parents approach immunity. I'm wanting to be solemn, but I'm also wanting to jump in the air. There's a lot happening. We're all learning to approach the idea of hope, maybe learning to live again. And what does that look like? What will we take with us?
In the two middle sections of Beethoven's movement, the ones that are marked "Neue Kraft Fühlend" or "Feeling New Strength", the music starts by leaping and lurching almost clumsily. There's grace and relief, but I think there's also the feeling of blood rushing through legs that have been asleep. So, some stumbling, and some laughing. Not too elegant, not too serious, ending in a delicious cascade of warmth.
And surrounding those moments of lightness and release, are the three meditations that gently hold them, marked "molto adagio" and finally "mit innigster Empfindung" (with the most intimate, the most inward, of all feelings.)
I don't know if there's a point in narrating how those sections unfold. They just do. From the strangeness of the Lydian harmonies, the ones that lead you not where you expect, but one chord beyond, into some kind of wild grace, to the subtle give-and-take between the contrapuntal voices that are answered in the simplest of all hymns. From the blurring and reaching of the rhythmic structure in the second section, creating suspension after suspension like a cascade of rainbows that lights up every corner of the score to those breathless moments just before the "new strength" arpeggios leap fully into view.
All leading to the final section, where more becomes possible than we could ever dream of. Where contrapuntal gesture takes on the blessing of melody. Where a once-separate hymn tune becomes an embedded bass line. Where every part of the music is embraced, transformed, and ultimately, held.
When I think of the way that Beethoven works within these last moments, I think of all the times in creative endeavor where we enter into something only to find that it's larger on the inside than we ever imagined. And I think of the radical safety imagined by the 14th-century visionary Julian of Norwich, when she writes "And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
In her Revelations of Divine Love, another work written after an illness, Julian shares this:
"...he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ "
That perspective. That empathy. That embrace of contradiction and paradox. That ability to perceive the whole, and the infinite variety within it. How do we move forward? How indeed? Julian and Beethoven perhaps are both pointing towards something greater than we can comprehend. (And perhaps towards something which, in the end, is simpler than we can comprehend.)
I don't want to reach a point where I can fully grasp what's going on at the end of Beethoven's work. But I want to take the inner light of love that infuses every measure of it, and shine it everywhere, as we begin to heal.
All my best,
(A Far Cry is playing the Beethoven on a program called "Feeling New Strength" that premieres at 2 PM on Sunday the 7th)