This is an excerpt from Jonathan’s Kindle Single, Beethoven’s Shadow
Why indeed. A sense of equilibrium is a precious asset for any artist (or person), hard to achieve and harder to maintain. For a performing musician, asked to exert and contort himself in ways both subtle and improbable in the service of someone else’s ideas, it often feels out of reach entirely. So why am I throwing myself into Beethoven, whose music, more than any other, demands both laser-like focus and total abandon? To rephrase the original question: Why drive myself crazy in this particular way?
It is, of course, a delicious irony that only a thing that could drive one crazy could justify this kind of head-first immersion. However much an actor might enjoy playing Barefoot in the Park, it will not bore a hole in his brain in the way that, say, King Lear might, and therefore his devotion to it will have its limits. And this is not just some cliché about the artistic persona: Anyone who has been in love knows that infatuation does not come without complexity and, usually, an element of danger. We fall in love — with a person, or an idea, or a work of art — not in spite of the risk of losing ourselves, but because it is a way to lose ourselves.
I could not possibly identify a favorite work of Beethoven, but nothing he wrote strikes me as more emblematic of his personality than the Cavatina from the Quartet Op. 130.51 In it, after several minutes of uninterrupted, always yearning melody, the music begins to break down, and what was previously expressed unhindered, in the most open-hearted manner, now comes out in fits and starts, effortful and uncertain. This extraordinary passage is marked beklemmt, roughly translated as “oppressed,” and many interpret this peculiar and entirely unprecedented direction as connoting sorrow, anguish. But the oppression I hear in this music is not anguish, but shortness of breath, the kind that comes from a heightened state of emotion — in this case, tenderness gone out of control.
And that is why, in spite of my very real worries regarding what this music may do to me (and what I may not be able to do for it), I am recording all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: Because he takes my breath away. Because he does so frequently, and in a way no other musical or life experience can replicate. Because he can do so through so many different heightened emotional states: despair in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata; warm-bloodedness in the second movement of the Sonata Op. 90; rage in the Appassionata Sonata; sheer transcendence in the G Major Piano Concerto and most everything else he wrote. Because I can see no better way of losing myself than in these wonders. Because I have to.
“What a humiliation when one stood beside me and heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard the shepherd singing and again I heard nothing, such incidents brought me to the verge of despair, but little more and I would have put an end to my life — only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce …”
These words are taken from the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven’s anguished attempt to articulate and come to terms with his fate; they were written in 1802, fully 25 years before his death. The thought that the majority of Beethoven’s adult life was spent either in total deafness or the realization that this was his ultimate lot is, of course, heartbreaking. It is also, however, an occasion to remember how great is the palliative power of music. Beethoven writes that only the need to express himself artistically kept him alive in the face of the loss of his hearing. I don’t doubt that this was the case, but what one hears in his music beyond the compulsion to self-expression is the profound form of healing it offered him. The Cavatina, and its out-of-control tenderness — that is what it is about, what it is for. Beethoven’s manner of composing was extraordinarily driven and unsettled — a glance at his handwriting, scrawled and furious, reveals this — and yet at the same time, composing gave his life an order and meaning that were otherwise unavailable to him. Similarly, working on his music is intimidating, maddening in its difficulty, and overwhelming in the sense of responsibility it inspires, but it addresses and consoles the spirit in a way no other creative artist has managed. He is simultaneously superhuman and intensely, painfully human.