Friday, July 9, 2010

Beethoven Visits Cleveland by Harvey Sachs


When I was eleven and half and on the verge of adolescence, my parents gave me a box that would determine my future. It was gray and white, made mainly of laminated wood, and I set it on top of the chest of drawers in my bedroom. From that exalted position, it began to confer understanding and solace on me – dim understanding , at first, and only a glimmer of solace, but a hint, at least, that this dying child, this embryonic grown-up, this odd new I , might survive, proceed, and perhaps even learn to assuage from time to time the nameless, incomprehensible ache, or to fill in part of the vast pit of unintelligible sadness that had suddenly and for no apparent reason opened up in the center of life's territory.

Maybe, the box said, the ache and the pit would not be adulthood's sole offerings. Maybe something could happen, during the years that stretched forward in an unimaginably long line, to compensate for the ambiguity of existence, something to counterbalance the attractively horrible dreams, strange yearnings, and stranger physical changes that had begun to inhabit me.

The box- a portable, four-speed record player with a single speaker no larger than a grapefruit – seemed to be telling me something important about the world in a language that I felt I had always known, and I sensed that if I gave the box enough of my attention, much that was obscure would be illuminated. I was amazed that there could be such fullness in the midst of such emptiness, such solidity amid such confusion, such immutability amid such an onrush of time.

The box didn't soften or sweeten the conflicts within me. On the contrary, it highlighted them and revealed that they were still deeper and more intricate than I had suspected. But it also stated them boldly, filled me with the powerful sensuality of thought, and made me feel that one day I might at least be able to grapple with my problems instead of lying stunned at their feet. The music's ambiguous specificity spoke directly to me and forced me to respond. I “conducted it”, jumped around to it, and imagined that I was explaining it to the girl I was secretly in love with, talking to her about life and about Beethoven, who was my alpha and omega. I spent my best hours familiarizing myself with a newly discovered region: inner life.

Yes: alpha and omega. There was plenty of room for all the letters in-between, too, but my listenings generally began and ended with Beethoven...Beethoven spoke to me more clearly, more directly, than anybody else, and I often thought about him, about his existence. His music, but also the simplified yet no wholly erroneous published accounts of his life that I devoured, gave me sustenance and courage.

Never for a moment did I identify with his genius, and I probably already sensed that my fundamental gregariousness would prevent me from becoming as unbalanced in my human relationships as he had been; yet I was always a crowd shunner, and the idea of the fist-shaking Beethoven making a cry of protest, of nonacceptance, for all to hear, appealed to me overwhelmingly. The “older” Beethoven ( younger than I am now) – the Beethoven who sought transcendence – was a discovery I wasn't capable of making at so tender an age. What nourished me was the heaven-storming “Middle Period” Beethoven. He was my constant companion

I still think of him as my alpha and omega; the author of the music that transformed my existence at the onset of adulthood continues to enrich it more than any other. His music still gives me as much sensual and emotional pleasure as it gave me fifty years ago, and far more intellectual stimulation. It adds to the fullness when life feels good, and it lengthens and deepens my perspective when life seems barely tolerable. It is with me and in me. And I suppose that this book is a vastly over-sized and yet entirely inadequate thank-you note to Beethoven.

The Ninth; Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs; Random House, 2010


  1. “Happy season of Childhood! Kind Nature, that art to all a bountiful mother; that visitest the poor man's hut with auroral radiance; and for thy Nursling hast provided a soft swathing of Love and infinite Hope, wherein he waxes and slumbers, danced -round by sweetest Dreams! If the paternal Cottage still shuts us in, its roof still screens us; with a Father we have as yet a prophet, priest and king, and an Obedience that makes us Free.

    The young spirit has awakened out of Eternity, and knows not what we mean by Time; as yet Time is no fast-hurrying stream, but a sportful sunlit ocean; years to the child are as ages: ah! The secret of Vicissitude, of that slower or quicker decay and ceaseless downrushing of the universal World-fabric, from the granite mountain to the man or day-moth, is yet unknown; and in a motionless Universe we taste, what afterwards in this quick-whirling Universe is forever denied us, the balm of Rest.

  2. Sleep on, thou fair Child, for thy long rough journey is at hand! A little while, and thou too shall sleep no more, but thy very dreams shall be mimic battles; thou too, with old Arnauld, must say in stern patience: 'Rest? Rest? Shall I not have all Eternity to rest in?' Celestial Nepenthe! Though a Pyrrhus conquer empires, and an Alexander sack the world, he finds thee not; and though hast once fallen gently, of thy own accord, on the eyelids, on the heart of every mother's child.

    For as yet, sleep and waking are one: the fair Life-garden rustles infinite around, and everywhere a dewy fragrance, and the budding of Hope; which budding, if in youth, too frost-nipt, it grow to flowers, will in manhood yield no fruit, but a prickly, bitter-rinded stone-fruit, of which the fewest can find the kernel”

    Sartor Resartus, Part II Chapter 2, "Idyllic"