Bullett, Beethoven, and the Connection of Suffering to Meaning

We are currently dog-sitting our youngest daughter’s dog, Bullett, a “rescued” year-old German short-haired pointer mix. Yesterday he had a number of “firsts”: first dog-park visit, first trip to Mickey D’s, first cup of ice water, first exposure to Beethoven.

Bullett is a young, very wiggly, very active dog, but when I went to the piano and started to play the op. 110, he sat STILL right under the keyboard until I stopped. (Full disclosure: he did the same thing when I lit a fire in our fireplace.)

An article I had just read in the Sunday NYT’s Arts section, called “Wait, You Need to Suffer Some More” by Vivien Schweitzer, notes the number of musicians today, especially pianists, who believe that they “are not ready”—i.e., they have not accumulated enough life experience to play intensely emotional music such as Beethoven’s. The Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, 44, says that “Beethoven is not only about suffering—it’s about many emotions, true happiness and ecstasy. … It’s not true that someone has to have been through extreme emotions to play the music, but you have to be able to sympathize and have empathy with the emotions. ….with Beethoven, the slow movements are not so much a confession but more a kind of preaching. He has a bigger message about humanity. Earlier, I didn’t really understand and appreciate that expression.”  Likewise, many musicians believe that they should not attempt to “channel” such music until they themselves have “something to say.”

One of my previous piano teachers “let” me attempt op. 110 a few years ago, but made clear that my interpretation of every measure was lacking in some way. He was in his mid-30s at the time. At nearly 70, I have my current teacher’s “permission” to tackle it. As she said, she’s a great believer in musical exorcisms.

If not now, when? Another pianist in his thirties, Jonathan Bliss, believes this: “On the one hand, Beethoven is unspeakably profound.  On the other, there is not much gained about being too precious about it.” Gershon Gerchikov, 30, of the Ariel Quartet, says simply, “the only way to acquire the maturity and experience is by playing them.” Or, as Bliss says, “Musicians have anxiety about everything. A solution to my anxieties is that you step into the void. Just try.”

“No mortal ever feels totally ready” for Beethoven’s late work, says Paul Katz, cellist. “Those works humble us. We grow into them.”  He goes on to say that many of his teenage students feel that their own lives have been “too comfortable” to emphathize with such despair: “there is something to suffering pain and depression—that somehow does deepen a musician. But most teenagers have experienced that for one reason or another.”

Yes. We have all suffered to one degree or another. But we do not all have the desire and/or perseverance to learn a craft that will help shift our suffering into the realm of meaning and beauty.

Philip Chard, psychotherapist and columnist for the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, writes: “research suggests that real gains in wisdom usually emerge in one’s 50s, and, absent any neurological or personality dysfunction, increase with advancing age.”

It’s nice to think so.

Bullett, like the other “rescues” we have taken from the pound over the past thirty years, was  homeless, abandoned at least once, probably more, and has endured things about which we know little.  

Friday I talked with a homeless woman (I will call her Tanya) who was too far down on the list to get into a shelter last week because she had no children and had no drug or alcohol problem (ironically, according to the police officers she stopped for help, being an addict would have gotten her immediate care).  I drove her to a rooming house she knew of where she could buy a bed in exchange for $25/week, which I gave her. She was probably in late middle-age, though it’s hard to know. She walked with a cane.  Tears streamed down her face as she told me her story: her mother’s house foreclosed upon her death, moving in with a friend until that no longer became feasible, living on the streets for 48 days, terrified of the coming cold (which has moved into Wisconsin with a vengeance). I will go back today to give her more money, hopefully to tide her over until her name comes up in one of the few shelters available.  I called a reporter on the JS staff who is looking into the issue of lack of beds for single women in homeless shelters.

Tanya, like many others, has suffered. Suffering does not make you noble; I cannot believe that it is a prerequisite to experience, understand or to create beauty. On the contrary, if Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” pyramid is even close to being correct, one’s requirements for bodily sustenance, safety, love, and self-esteem must be met before one can even begin to “self-actualize,” which, as I define it, is to create—to become fully who one is.

Who is Tanya? What might she become once her basic needs are met?

Have I suffered enough to play Beethoven’s late sonata, op. 110, written in his 50s when he was not only sick but completely deaf?  Am I old enough? Are these even helpful questions?

I am interested in what you have to say.

One thought on “Bullett, Beethoven, and the Connection of Suffering to Meaning

  1. KathleenFor the record, I follow your thoughts as they are posted. My focus has been on writing down my own and perfecting that process at least to a degree, so I have not shared them with you. You taught me the need to ponder, the value of the rewrite, and the success in what is practiced. Forgive me if I stray from these lessons in responding to your latest posting. Perhaps your intended audience is accomplished. Perhaps their expectations have an entry level of achievement that expects excellence. Yet I wonder about the actual audience who may already know your many accomplishments and appreciates the experiential wisdom of your blog. Do they not accept that the piano or poem has a variety of components, including variations in quality over the undertaking of crafting, honing and eventually performing a work new to you?Your emphasis on "practice" for the goal oriented purpose of "playing for others" makes me wonder about the process of perfecting as both a noble goal and seldom achieved state. If allowed to be the sole standard of value, it steals the satisfaction from improvement, and threatens the joy of playing. You emphasize the need to perform these works for an audience, and set the bar at "flawlessly from memory", challenge yourself with increasingly difficult passages, daunting fingerings and pejorative interpretations of mentors.As lifelong learners, our goals are always beyond our reach, yet does that require sacrificing our pleasure?. "We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than most but always remember that we are human, too" (Russell FourEagles in The Making of a Healer: Teachings of my Oneida Grandmother). Strive for a Carnegie Hall performance but accept less from yourself. Play to explore, to experience, simply to attempt!Do you deserve to play Beethoven? Go for it Woman! Then again, only if you always take something personally meaningful from the movement, rather than only if played in the rarified air of a satisfied instructor. The wisdom of aging is, as you well know, hard-won, and as such should come with some privileges. That would include, in your case, the shear joy of playing, even if only as well as yesterday; especially if it releases some heart-felt emotions through your hands; and always because you can…! You can opt out of "performing" it for an audience for whatever reasons, but play it!With aging must come a forgiving attitude that awards points for learning increasingly challenging works of masters while many of your peers have retired from learning. With aging comes the realization that our pursuits are no longer put at risk by accepting less than perfect. With aging comes the trust that we will continue towards our lofty goals because we understand their nature to be essentially unachievable. So dear friend, play for Bullett, play for the suffering of your new found, homeless but deserving friends, play for your teachers if and only if you can heed their criticism with a grain of salt, and most of all, play for yourself.

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