I have been silent for a week, since writing that last post about Picasso's pebbles. It was, I guess, a statement about my personal aesthetic, my preference for the "modest"--for modesty of means, modesty of scale, modesty of authorial presence... And now along comes Beethoven to offer me a humbling corrective to my vision.
We went to Disney Hall yesterday to hear the magnificent Ninth Symphony performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The tragic majesty of this overwhelming achievement of the human imagination swept aside my pebbles in its irresistible raging torrent of orchestral sound. Beethoven manages to sweep us far beyond the smallness and mundanity of personal experience, immersing us in the awe and mystery of the universe itself.
The "Ode to Joy," it seemed to me, on listening to the voices of the soloists and the choir this time, takes us far beyond joy into its opposite, the tragic and insatiable yearning of the human spirit for a sense of serenity and enlightenment always just beyond its reach--something evoked earlier, in the touchingly lovely and subdued third movement.
As I've said often enough before, I lay no claim to any "understanding" of music. Most often, at a concert, I find it hard to simply pay attention, let alone to follow the subtleties of what I should be listening to. My mind wanders happily off to other things. But this performance precluded that possibility. It grabbed my attention from the first moment and held it, rapt, throughout.
And I was reminded, none too gently, that pebbles are very small indeed. A couple of days ago, in the car, I tuned in to a brief snatch of conversation with an astrophysicist who was talking about the insignificance of our little planet in the immeasurable scale of the universe. Not even a pebble, we are barely a grain of sand...
How petty our differences, in that perspective; and how petty the strivings and the quarrels of our species. And how overwhelmingly important we allow them to become. This is the eventual source of all human anguish, and of the great tragic vision in which Beethoven so powerfully engages us. Listening to his music, I could not but feel the immense well of sadness that resides within--not to mention to that ever-illusory glimpse of joy.