This post is a day late…and I’ll start by admitting it’s been a tough week. Like all of us, I try to keep up with what’s happening in the world, but lately it seems like everything is going from bad to worse. There’s chaos and destruction everywhere you look. I don’t know about you, but I start to feel like little actions by little people – like me – can’t make much difference.
I’ll also add that I have depression. I hadn’t really meant to talk about this, but I know a lot of us deal with this condition every day, and it helps all of us to know there’s a community of people who understand what it’s like. Depression makes all the ordinary day-to-day challenges bigger. Depression is the voice in your head that tells you, even on a good day, that what you’re doing isn’t enough. That you have no reason to try. That you’re going to fail and you might as well give up right now.
Research has suggested that depression and artistic ability are often linked. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? You’re a musician, or a painter, or an actor, or a writer. You’re already going after one of the toughest careers out there. You have to fight for every opportunity; you have to spend a lot of hours working alone; maybe you have to deal with the worry and even judgment of the people closest to you, who wonder why you’re doing this crazy thing. And always, always, you have to face countless rejections that make you question your own worth, and you have to keep trying anyway. Then, on top of all that, your own brain asks you, day in and day out, why you’re trying so hard for something that doesn’t matter anyway, or something you’re not good enough to have, or something that means you’ll never know where your next dollar is coming from.
This is tough to write about. If you’re a depressive too, maybe it’s also tough to read, or maybe reading it helps. I hope it does. If these words resonate with you, please know I’m sending you a big virtual hug.
Because here’s the thing. Even on the worst days, as hard as it can be to remember, small actions do count. Beauty is still important.
As an artist, I want to add beauty to the world. I want to help people reach each other. My biggest hope for my new novel is that it will do exactly that: it’ll help people who have different beliefs and perspectives to communicate with each other. It’ll help people to see each other, and the world, differently.
I think music can do the same thing: bring us together when words can’t. So let’s talk about music.
Today’s feature: Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata in E flat Major, Op. 7, first movement
About the music:
Beethoven inspires me on a lot of levels. If I could only pick one favorite composer, he would be it.
For one thing, we’re used to thinking of him as “the deaf genius” – we know he lost his hearing, and we take it for granted that he kept on writing music in spite of that. But let’s think for a minute about what that experience was like.
You’re a musician. It’s the only thing you want to do. (Beethoven actually started out as a concert pianist.) Then, all of a sudden, while you’re still young and still fighting for those opportunities and trying to make a name and career for yourself, your own body starts to let you down.
Beethoven realized he couldn’t hear things other people could. He couldn’t trust his own performing anymore, because he couldn’t hear what he was doing at the piano. He started going to doctors, who tried all kinds of things, like flushing his ears out with strange solutions, and having him take questionable medicines (let’s remember this is during the early 1800s, when remedies could get pretty exotic). Some of those remedies did nothing; others made his hearing even worse. Finally, at around age 30, still a young man, he had to accept the idea that he was going deaf and nothing would stop it.
He went into a period of terrific despair. He even thought, as he wrote to one of his brothers, about ending his life. Ultimately, though, he decided that there was still too much he wanted to do. Maybe he couldn’t perform anymore, but he could still hear in his head how music could sound, and he could still write it down.
He made the commitment to himself and to his music that he would keep composing as long as he could. We know now that he was able to keep writing until the end of his life (in fact, he had a Tenth Symphony and other big-scale pieces in the works when he died), but at the time, he felt he was running a race against time. Any day, he could wake up and realize his gift had been taken away from him forever.
Beethoven’s deafness changed the course of his career, pushing him away from performance and into what we know him best for: composition. Maybe more importantly, though, and certainly more inspiring for me, his deafness changed the way he wrote. When he felt he was fighting against the clock, he became more determined than ever to write truly original work, to create his own musical language. In doing that, he single-handedly changed the course of music history.
This post has already gotten long, so I’ll talk more next time about how exactly he did that. Before I stop, though, I’d like to leave you with two things:
- One of the biggest reasons I love Beethoven is the honesty of his music. Throughout his life, he stayed absolutely true to himself and his ideal of what his art should be. That’s the kind of artist I want to be: to have that kind of courage, and to keep finding hope, in spite of everything life can throw at you.
- Here’s a passage from To Love A Stranger, taken from Chapter 7, when my main character Sam is about to conduct Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in concert. It sums up what I see as the power of Beethoven’s writing and what music can do:
“When Sam stood in front of the orchestra with the white light on him and the audience behind, he could not imagine anyone not wanting to give up their whole self, down to the last drop, to this.
Beethoven, the deaf genius, had felt like an outcast because his failing hearing isolated him from the world. He stormed and shouted, raged at God, lived in constant physical pain. Out of that, he wrote this music.
The strings were velvet, and the winds were silver. Their individual lines of melody met and blended at the podium. In the voices of the instruments coming together, Sam heard the voice of the other Maestro, the real one who had written this piece. By the end of his life, Beethoven couldn’t stand up on a podium alone to conduct his own music, or sit at a piano to play in public, because his ears would not tell him what his hands were doing. Sam could imagine that Maestro’s voice in its gravelly roughness. You, boy, it said. What are you going to do?
The best I can, Sam told it. Sir.”
As always, thank you for visiting the blog. See you next week.