Listening Projects (or infusing more Beethoven into my life)

I spend a lot of time bemoaning the amount of music there is in the world which I will never hear. There just isn’t enough time in the day. Same with books. If I read all 1500 books on my Kindle this year, during the time I spent reading another 1500 titles would crop up that I wanted to read, and it’s just a vicious cycle of me being upset at the things I will never read or listen to.

The other day as I was driving along being frustrated at the amount of sheer stuff there is to keep up with, I had an idea. I probably can’t listen to everything, I thought. But if I make a concerted effort, I can listen to a lot. And if I really make time for it, I can become intimately acquainted with a fair amount of music that is important to me.

So most days of the week I now have a Listening Project. This sounds like more work than it is. Right now I’m concentrating on Beethoven’s string quartets, the Bach cantatas, and Mozart’s symphonies. Three days a week I focus on really listening to one of these, learning about the history, and infusing it into my brain. Once I’m comfortable that I’ve listened as much as I can to these three, I’ll move on to Schubert, who has been calling to me, and Chopin, with whom I had a torrid and short lived relationship in high school.

Today was a Beethoven Day, and I’ve been wanting to get to know the late string quartets better for years. I know enough about Beethoven’s quartets to know that the late ones are something special. His last major compositions, written in the two years before his death, they left contemporary musicians baffled, and made Schubert question, “After this, what is left for us to write?”

Beethoven was in ill health as he wrote them, in 1825 he was in bed for a month and recovered. These quartets were written at a time when he knew his life was coming to an end, and he had to get all of the music he could out of his head and onto the paper. The 14th, in C sharp minor, in particular was Beethoven’s favorite work, and so I’m starting my Listening Project with it.

Beethoven may never have even heard this work performed. It’s possible he had a private performance of it, but it wasn’t performed in public until 1835, after he’d been dead for 8 years. Of course, it may not have made much of a difference; he was fully deaf by this point, so he had to content himself with hearing the music in his head.

In 1870 Wagner wrote an essay on the 14th and said it was “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes.” Of the sixth section he wrote, “This is the fury of the world’s dance – fierce pleasure, agony, ecstasy of love, joy, anger, passion, and suffering; lightning flashes and thunder rolls; and above the tumult the indomitable fiddler whirls us on to the abyss. Amid the clamor he smiles, for to him it is nothing but a mocking fantasy; at the end, the darkness beckons him away, and his task is done.”

I’ve always had this feeling about Beethoven that he saw sweetness in everything, even tragedy. I first experienced this with the second movement of his Seventh symphony when I was in second grade, a piece that reminds me of death knocking at the door, but then the bliss of the afterlife. It left 8 year old me stunned when we listened to it in music class, and I never recovered from the initial shock. Oh, other composers have meant more to me in my life (shoutout to you, William Byrd) but like a first love who will always have a little bit of a pull over you, Beethoven continues to move me. That he was able to take a life that was filled with such sadness, and turn it into this sweetness and light, be remembered for the beauty he made in the world, it’s more than inspiring.

There are a lot of people who can write very impressive musicological things about this string quartet. Here are two of them:

For me, I’m just grateful that I get to share in the soul of Beethoven this way. I imagine him, in his last year of life, deaf and frustrated, working furiously to get the music down on the paper, hearing it in his head day and night. And this turbulent piece is the result, full of experimentation, turning the traditional string quartet structure on its head, and making us feel all of his anxiety and frustration along with him.

You should get to know this piece of music as well. I’m serious. Listen to it. Feel it. It’s magical.