I’ve been listening to a lot of Beethoven’s music of late, and indeed reading both about it and about him. I have read comments abut the spiritual nature of his music, and I think it’s that notion that I really want to try to understand.
1. Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things
2. Relating to religion or religious belief”
(definition courtesy of Wikipedia)
It’s a term that gets used (and abused) in many different settings and contexts these days. All “spiritual” seems to need is a few scented candles and some “mindfulness” – but I suspect something deeper is implied here in a music which, to quote the Oxford Companion to Music, “reaches to the heights and plumbs the depths of the human spirit as no other composer has done”. Joseph Machlis in his book “The Enjoyment of Music” (p.243) writes of the tumultuous twists and turns in his life which along with his total deafness towards the end “framed an inner life of extraordinary intensity, and unceasing spiritual development that opened up new domains to tonal art”.
I need to be careful and not make too much of a fool of myself here. I’m not a musicologist – not even close! I listen to a lot of classical music and am beginning to “know what I like”; but the more I learn the more I realise how little I know. I can’t in any truly objective way analyse the music of Beethoven, I simply don’t have the technical knowledge with which to do so. All I can do is respond to it and acknowledge the response it calls out of me. I listen to his symphonies (including incidentally the 9th which he wrote in his late period) and I hear music which I describe as “open-faced” and welcoming. It draws me in, it embraces me and it truly lifts my soul in a reaction that has the potential to be much more than mere enjoyment. (I should add here that for the potential to be realised, the music must be listened to with a real measure of concentration. I am guilty of using this great art as background music to reading a novel, as I’m sure are many other people. In a way that’s OK, but the great rewards, the spiritual benefits require some work!)
At the other extreme for me are the late string quartets and particularly the Grosse Fugue, Op133. Chamber music was it seems very important to LvB and particularly so in his late period in which (Machlis again, p.245) “the master’s gaze is focussed within, encompassing depths that music never before had plumbed”. In that sense then intensely spiritual, at least in relating to and perhaps expressing the spirit of Beethoven in that period of his life which was surely beset by so many great frustrations, his deafness foremost among them. I confess that I find the Grosse Fugue very hard to listen to. To my ear it’s brittle and intense; rather than drawing me in it seems to push me away, perhaps I simply lack the musical sophistication to appreciate it, or perhaps it is so driven by the anguish of his spirit that one instinctively recoils. I don’t know, and I acknowledge being out of my depth here – except that I suppose I can legitimately own my reactions and wonder how they might impinge on my own spirituality.
I suppose that’s the point really, especially in the context of this reflection on my own spiritual journey. I can be sure of my reaction to the symphonies and piano concerti, and accept that they invoke in me something very akin to worship and praise. If my understanding of God is of that Spirit which is seen in Jesus and which so moves the spirit of humankind away from selfish and destructive acts and towards creativity, goodness and kindness and if I sense that same direction of movement being encouraged by the greatness of good music, then does that music not become eucharistic – a thanksgiving to the One who moves in Beethoven (whether acknowledged by him or not) and who also moves in me as in all people (again whether acknowledged or not)? I do hope this isn’t just fanciful – what is certainly so in me is that I find (and this I stress is highly subjective) a greater sense of worship in this profound music than I do on Sundays in the parish eucharist!
What about the Grosse Fugue though, and indeed the late String Quartets and (apparently) some of the last Piano Sonatas? Struggling to find a spiritual significance (for me as listener rather than for LvB as composer) may be a total blind alley. Again at risk of going way out of my depth, I register from what I read that there was a development in musical structure away from “tonal harmonies”, which I take to represent the lyrical, “open-faced” music that comes through from the likes of Haydn and Mozart to the earlier writings of LvB, towards “chromatic harmonies” which will become more and more prevalant later in the C19th/C20th in the music of Richard Wagner et al. While chromaticism (Wikipedia offers a comprehensive definition) may have been around pre LvB, it seems to have been he who, to the perplexity of some of his contemporaries, brought it into the mainstream. Quoting again from Machlis ……. “in his 3rd period, the years of the final piano sonatas and string quartets, he found his way to more chromatic hormones and developed a skeletal language from which all non-essentials were rightly pared away, This was a language for transcending his time. To someone who asked him if one of his advanced quartets was music, he replied, ‘not for you, for a later time’”.
Assuming that to be correct, then I guess that to appreciate the challenging musical ideas in these later works I must look for progress rather than for angst! Here perhaps is a spirit of exploration and discovery rather than one of frustration and confusion and the task for the listener is to go with the composer a little way on his journey. So I can find my soul lifted by some of LvB’s music and challenged by other aspects. If I choose to identify either or both of those reactions with my spirituality, my seeking after God in my life, that is rather up to me. Certainly there is much in the experience of Christian discipleship in this age that is about a struggle to make progress and a struggle to relate theological understanding to that which is both observed and experienced in world society. I can’t quite get my head around whether listening to the struggle that I perceive in the music is in itself therapeutic and how that therapy might become or encourage prayer. Maybe the answer might lie in the notion that prayer doesn’t need words to be real but can be a simple (simple?) offering of an emotion to God, and that immersing oneself in the appropriate piece of great music might enable that to happen.
I’m put in mind of the Christian classic title “The practice of the presence of God”. It’s many years since I read the book, but the notion that If I make the effort I might encounter something of God in great music (as indeed in so many other things) is a very attractive one to me. No-on else controls it, allows it or denies it. It requires no liturgy, priest, sacrament or church; but what it might well need is practice!
I recognise a great danger here though. Marcus Borg in his book “Jesus: a new vision” (from which I quoted earlier) speaks of “centering in God”. (Sic! The spelling is his and he’s American!). He says “there is a difference between centering in God and centering in ideas about God, just as there is a difference between following the way and believing in the way. The latter becomes religion as convention, as a set of beliefs and behaviours learned from others. Our beliefs about God rather than the reality of God often become what we center in”. Now that’s not quite the same thing, but I see a connection. Seeking God in the music could well become a sort of idolatry in which the music itself becomes all important (just as, in fact, eucharistic liturgy can become all important for it’s own sake rather than being a vehicle in with we might find our way to God). So there need to be checks and balances which, in a Christian context, might be found in reading and reflecting on the scriptures, debate and discussion, reading related books and so on. There then needs to be a practical outworking, an applied theology, which influences and perhaps transforms values and priorities. There needs also to be some element of Christian community, of these things being shared and thus available to others. Music may be a good starting point, but in terms of Christian discipleship, it must not be allowed to become the end in itself