By Louis Cahill
Hear I am, in the front row of Symphony Hall, tears streaming down my face, thinking about Beethoven.
This article is my birthday present to myself. If you’re wondering what this has to do with fly fishing, that’s a fair question. Stick with me for a bit and maybe I’ll get there. Maybe not. First you’re going to hear about Beethoven, and a little about me.
Music has always been a huge part of my life. It’s one of a few things I am truly passionate about. My musical taste has never been defined by genre. I deeply love some pieces from every style of music, and passionately hate many more. It’s hard to have a conversation with me about it. I know what I think. At heart, my aesthetic is punk rock. Long before we coined that term. I have always been attracted to artists who rebelled. Creators so passionate and singular in their vision that they angered way more people than they attracted. For me, these are the ones who get it, and no one got it like Beethoven. If you trace the family tree of punk back past Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop, Brian Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Hank Williams, you will eventually find the first punk to stand erect and scream at the sky was likely Beethoven.
Of everything he wrote, the piece that really gets to me is the Ninth. I’m in pretty good company saying that it is the single most powerful piece of music ever written. I’ve been a regular at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for over thirty years and have had the chance to see the Ninth performed several times. I was even lucky enough to attend a dress rehearsal, with Yoel Levi conducting the orchestra and the late Robert Shaw the chorus, in which they played the fourth movement twice! My wife and I saw it again last night and it was one of the most powerful musical experiences of my life.
I had a bit of an epiphany there in the front row. I’m going to share it with you but first you should understand that I am not a musicologist or musical historian, just an enthusiastic fan. Scholars have argued about the meaning of the Ninth Symphony since it was written. I’m certainly not going to settle that. In the end, like any piece of art, the Ninth belongs to every one who listens to it. Its meaning is that which you ascribe.
Beethoven was a troubled dude. He had the reputation for being an asshole, for ruffling the feathers of almost everyone he came in contact with. He had a very close circle of friends, who loved him for his passion but the aristocrats, who ran the world at the time, only tolerated him at best, because of his music. He infuriated so many of the social elite that Archduke Rudolph decreed that the rules of court etiquette did not apply to Beethoven. If that’s not punk, I don’t know what is.
Beethoven lived more than half of his life in sever chronic pain. He also began losing his hearing in his twenties and was completely deaf for the last fifteen years of his life. This gives me a great deal of empathy for the man. I have a forty percent hearing loss myself. Though my hearing loss stems from a different cause than Beethoven’s, I feel like it gives me some insight. I know how isolating deafness can be, and in Beethoven’s case it was severe. The three little bones, which vibrate sympathetically with the outside world, were, in his case, fused together. Beethoven heard nothing from the outside, but deafness is not silence. Once the sound from outside is gone, there is a cacophony inside one’s head.
The Ninth Symphony was the last piece Beethoven wrote. It was completed only a couple of years before his death. He had not appeared publicly for over a decade, after a spectacular meltdown at the premier of his only opera, Fidelio, where he insisted on conducting the orchestra that he could not hear. Although the work has stood the test of time, its disastrous premier left the impression of Beethoven as a raving madman. I find it hard to believe that this was lost on him.
As I sit and listen to the Ninth, I cannot help but think of Beethoven, sitting alone feverishly scribing music he would never hear.
A man in constant pain, ostracized from society, cut off from the outside world. A man with a gift, divine in nature, that had been stripped away. A man who had truly lost everything that mattered to him. I can’t prove that these were the thoughts in Beethoven’s head at the time, but if I were in his position I would certainly be thinking about my death. It is well documented that Beethoven had been suicidal most of his adult life. He had been publicly shamed and personally isolated. It seems like a dark place to sit and write one’s final work.
The music that rose from that dark place, however, defies any kind of logic. The Ninth is not a dark work. In fact, it is brilliantly joyous. Beethoven creates something completely unique from the ashes. The Ninth is truly joyful, without being idealistic. It is invigorating, while at the same time being heart breaking. It is a deeply personal, uncompromising, emotional rollercoaster that goes off the rails. I think I am far from alone in struggling to square the music with the man, at this point in his life.
At the end of this month I will be the same age as Beethoven when he died. It’s unavoidable that I carry that with me into the front row of Symphony hall. The room falls silent as the conductor raises his baton and the music begins, a single note hangs in the air. I picture a huge block of stone hovering over the stage. There are a few faint tones from the strings that sound to me like a chisel touching a strop, and, with a few skilled strokes of the mallet, Beethoven cleaves away the waste, leaving the form of what is to come. Over the next sixty-eight minutes that form will be refined, detail added, and by the time he’s done, it will sing.
The Ninth is a rollercoaster, and like any good rollercoaster, it brings on a visceral response. The music literally takes you by the heart. You feel your heart start to pound in your chest. As you listen to the four movements, your heart will race, then slow, then race again. It’s an emotional reaction, but a mechanical one as well. There aren’t a lot of symphonies you can tap your foot to, but the Ninth has a very definite beat. It shifts from instrument to instrument, it speeds and slows, but through the entirety of the work it is there.
Thump-thump, thump-thump. The beat of a human heart.
I know this rhythm well. I expect most of you do. Almost everyone recognizes at least the fourth movement of the Ninth. Beethoven was a master. It would be a simple thing for him to employ this mechanism to connect to the listener. It’s not an especially sophisticated technique. At this listening though, my head is in a different place. I can’t shake that image of stone deaf Beethoven, alone in his room writing his final work, thinking about his own death. My finger taps against my leg. Thump-thump, thump-thump, and it hits me. Where I know that rhythm from. The beat my own dying ears play every time I am alone. The one input signal Beethoven’s inner ear could still receive. Even the tiny vila in the ear, that send sound waves to your brain need blood to survive. When there is nothing else to hear, there it is. Thump-thump, thump-thump.
Beethoven, alone in his room, in constant pain, shamed publicly and isolated personally, having lost everything he held dear, was writing a symphony to the only beat he could still hear. The pounding of his own heart. A man with every reason to give up, who had planned his own death many times, who had lost the respect of his public and his connection to his friends, sat alone in a room, thinking about his mortality and wrote the most joyful piece of music ever written. A piece that, two-hundred years later, we call “The Ode To Joy.”
It was an embarrassing night to be in the front row. It was clear for anyone to see that I was a complete mess. Red running nose, tears running down my face, for a very long standing ovation. I was ashamed for a moment when the Concert Master made eye contact with me. He smiled and I knew he got it. You don’t get to sit in that chair without understanding a few things.
If this ties into fly fishing at all, it’s not more than it does to everything else in life.
Listen to your heart, friends.Louis Cahill Gink & Gasoline www.ginkandgasoline.com firstname.lastname@example.org Sign Up For Our Weekly Newsletter!