Your first orgasm was a hell of an event. It rose up within you as tentative curiosity gave way to complete physical rapture. Fizzing, beautifully agonizing, incomprehensible pleasure demanded attention in your mind as it never had. It had to fight for that attention, though: just the idea that anything could feel this incredible had been inconceivable only 4.7 minutes before, and serious brain-RAM was being used to safely handle the possibilities of this overwhelming sensation. In the end, the irresistible force of the physical pleasure triumphed, decisively so, over your feeble analytical mind, and you allowed the feeling to rip through — no, shatter — your earthly body. You fairly detonated. The I-Don’t-Know-What burst through your fingertips, deafening colors and lights erupted beneath your eyelids, and your entire speech system, from heaving diaphragm to inflamed lips, surrendered to evolution and ejaculated a primeval grunt of excruciating joy.
So this is sex music, then? Please. Beethoven doesn’t care about your orgasm. In fact, he doesn’t care about you altogether. Or anyone else, for that matter. Not here. Not in the Musical Realm. Nature is the Almighty here, and Beethoven is Her conduit. You’re lucky enough to be in the path of their combined creative force.
Consider the change of the seasons. Winters in the US tend to fade reluctantly into chilly, self-conscious springs that may or may not last until the next freeze. In Germany, maybe because of the extreme latitude (and consequent wash of spring and summer sunshine) March positively hurtles through late February like a hurricane. Spring here takes no prisoners: the cold winds utterly cease, and not a single tree branch is left without a swollen bud trying to push its way to freedom. The victory hymns, from rapt matins to solemn vigils, are sung full-throated by each and every bird and newly-melted stream. Nature throws Herself a blowout party every year, and Beethoven has the audacity and brilliance to be the DJ. That’s the scope and ambition of his music: to be no less than the soundtrack to Nature Herself. So any similarity to your puny orgasm is purely coincidental. Let go of your ego, tune your mind to the frequency of the cosmos, and try your best not to get lost. Beethoven is about to teach you how the universe works.
And I’m not just talking about the “celestial bodies” universe. If you decide, as Beethoven did, that all of existence is within your purview, then you cannot ignore the quickening, boiling swarm of life that crackles and teems all around you. There’s plenty of stratosphere and majesty in his large-scale works, but his smaller ensemble and solo pieces often concern themselves with the very grit of the earth.
In May, after the rains, pustules of soil fester and finally burst open to release multitudes of beetles and roaches and cicadas that have been writhing frantically atop one another through their squishy, semi-solid adolescence. They immediately cover the surrounding area in a frenzied, raw search for food and sex, all the while running terrified from predators attracted to the crunchy, hustling mass of protein. Life is doggedly persistent, unquenchable in its thirst for more of itself. You, of course, aren’t exempt from this agitating, all-consuming need. You know exactly what that nettling, interminable struggle is like. You insist nastily upon your right to survive, to satisfy your daily requirements of food and love and success and self-worth at the blistering speed with which they emerge. If you’re looking for lofty rhetoric on the nobility of the human spirit, very often Beethoven’s solo works will disappoint. This is the wonderful muck of common existence, and great Beethoven pianists revel in the dirt under their fingernails.
There’s a stubborn truism to be found in Western culture: almost always, music is the last sphere of human endeavor to join the others in embracing new cultural movements. It’s as if, despite its high intelligence and widespread popularity, music gets held back a grade while painting and poetry and the other kids—even architecture—move on ahead. Long after staid Classical portraiture had been rendered hopelessly passé by the sweeping, tempestuous naturalism of Caspar David Friedrich, and the wild passion of Goethe’s “Werther” had sensitive, lovesick young men across Europe firing bullets into their temples in emulation of the story’s emotional hero, music was still obstinately working within very strict formal parameters, eschewing subjectivity and strong emotion in favor of rational, noble intellectualism.
Beethoven, while not solely responsible for finally wrenching music into the 19th century, is usually seen by musicologists (yes, that’s an actual job that people have) as the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras. His desire to express himself and his world in ever more emotionally charged ways meant he was constantly at odds with prevailing musical tastes. His adamant refusal to be dissuaded from fully expressing himself has led to his reputation today as a prickly, cantankerous, wild-haired Artistic Hero. And there’s a degree of truth to that: he was going to say what he wanted to say, to hell with the shrill complaints of “difficult” or “too long” or “not pretty enough.”
Beethoven’s mother died when he was 17. His father, already too free with liquor, descended into out and out alcoholism (and physical abuse of his children), leaving Beethoven to look after the care of his two younger brothers. He was completely deaf at 32. These were his struggles, his almost insurmountable obstacles, and yet the cold, jagged, lacerating world was going to tell him what to write and how to write it? It’s easy to see how anyone in that situation would quickly get a reputation for being spiky, mulish, and disagreeable.
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“In 5-billion yrs the Sun will expand & engulf our orbit as the charred ember that was once Earth vaporizes. Have a nice day.” – From the Twitter page of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. August 15th, 2011.
When you were a kid and you felt down or scared, your mom would tell you softly to go brush your teeth and get in bed. She’d come into your room a few minutes later, and with the semi-darkness of 8:00 pm twilight keeping her face just visible, she’d sit down at your bedside, her presence heavy and comforting. She’d tut-tut and wipe your eyes and kiss your forehead, and in that voice that only she had, that lovely, pacifying sound, she’d tell you everything would be alright in the morning. You’d see.
Today, thanks to people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, we know your mom had no idea what she was talking about. One morning, things won’t be alright. They literally won’t, you know, be. It’s probably safe to speculate that in 5 billion years, all that we’ve worked for and treasured and considered terribly important (including the music of Ludwig van Beethoven) will have vanished into the recesses of relentless time. What you and I are doing with our lives is completely inconsequential. We are here for no reason at all, and the things we do have no lasting worth. I mean, sure, go ahead and do whatever it was you were doing, but I can’t really understand why you bothered getting out of bed this morning.
If you’ve never experienced serious depression, welcome. Although Beethoven didn’t subscribe to the maudlin outlook above (and neither, for the record, do I), he did know depression — the grim, grinding sensation of losing that hope your mother tried to cultivate in you as a child. The sadness is absolutely unyielding. Even if you manage to convince yourself to drudge mindlessly through the day, the kernel of your hopelessness remains. It beats steadily on and on, and though your friends and your work and your chores may drift in and out of your still hours, they’re just satellites of your sadness. It would almost be comforting, the constancy of your pain, if comfort mattered at all.
For most of the mornings in his life, Beethoven would wake and hear the music of the spheres, but not the sound of the floor creaking beneath his feet. He composed the crumbling of mountains, but couldn’t make out the scratches of his pen on the paper. Successes and headaches, work and family troubles, all came and went; but the tinny silence was always there. Perhaps he would have found solace in modern astrophysics: all of him, even the faithless bones of his inner ear, would one day revert to unalloyed carbon, and he would continue to create.
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Beethoven’s output famously caused a good deal of depression all on its own, and not because of any perceived quality of sadness in the music. Generations of composers after him felt chained by futility: what could possibly be said that Beethoven hadn’t already covered? A very fair question, since aside from stormy explorations of suffering and hopelessness, Beethoven’s works also include a complete and exhaustive guide to every conceivable form of joy. Despite his hardships, he never succumbed to artistic hypocrisy: he demands that his audience consider the entirety of existence, so that’s exactly what he gives us, euphoria included.
And it can often be exquisitely brutal, the full force of his ecstasy rushing at you as though you’d somehow mainlined happiness. Beethoven grins at you as he releases the tourniquet, and you feel the pure elation slam you hard into a wall of bliss. The sensation is so fantastic and so overwhelming that you begin to feel slightly nauseous — it becomes clear this music wasn’t written for mere pleasure. This is beyond joy, much more than bright daylight. You’re strapped into Apollo’s chariot, his rabid fiery horses slashing a trail through the sky as they tow the blazing sun toward the horizon. It’s terrifying and glorious — perhaps, you wonder fleetingly, a little more glorious than you can handle. Oh well. Too late now.
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But then sometimes his splendor is more much manageable, his happiness much more accessible, and not by accident. It’s probably too narrow to suggest that Beethoven believed in “God,” at least in the sense of God as a bearded, slightly Middle-Eastern-looking figure holding court from his cumulonimbus throne. What he did believe in was the eternal in Nature, and the universal, perpetual human quest to belong to and experience something grander than ourselves. Unlike many well-known composers, Beethoven rarely presents us with tuneful melodies. When he does, as with this famous example, it’s out of a desire to celebrate the oneness of existence, the passions and longings that link us to one another. Not for nothing was this music adopted as the anthem of the European Union.
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Euphoria is exciting and glory is thrilling. But like all emotional extremes, they’re the most ephemeral. When you’re manically joyful, there’s a bit of you that realizes, even in that delightful moment, that the feeling won’t last long. It’s too loud and energetic to be sustainable. The best kind of happiness, the most lasting, is simple contentment. It’s the feeling of being securely balanced on the emotional fulcrum, with a slight lean to one side. It’s the first time you woke up to find you hadn’t spent the night alone. It’s the consistency of hard work met with even the occasional reward. It’s when you recognize that the people who care for you are justified in doing so. “Joy cometh in the morning” — that’s clearly bogus. Your mom knew that. But contentment, the frail yet confident grip on cautious optimism, can come. Every morning. And without the nagging uncertainty about whether it will last.
The brassy roar of the cosmos can be deafening, Beethoven shows us. But the sublime, the transcendent, the truly durable things in the universe, sound low and calm. Who knew? — infinity is quiet.