Ludwig Van Beethoven: “Marcia Funebre” from Symphony Number 3 in E flat

I sometimes reflect on the important role classical music played in my emotional development. Indeed, it served to help me tap into and experience emotions even before I could name them. The connection between music and emotions is deep and profound and a great composer like Beethoven can guide you through the overwhelming shock of trauma and bring you through to a bright place on the other side where you’ve integrated the pain into your bag of life’s experiences without it destroying you.

Take the second movement from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, which he first dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he saw at first as a great revolutionary in the style of the French and American revolutions. When Bonaparte declared himself emperor, however, Beethoven tore the dedication from the manuscript.

Composed long before Bonaparte died, the funeral march seems a bit odd. Did Beethoven intend for it to be played when Napoleon eventually died? Or was it to commemorate the horrors of the French Revolution? When Napolean did die in 1821, 19 years after Beethoven wrote it, someone asked the composer if he was going to compose any music for the funeral, he reported said: “I have already composed the music for that.”

The “marcia funebre” starts out ominously. The bases play low rumbling chords, almost sounding like the sounds of canons in the distance or the drums that would be played at a military funeral. The bases give way to the violins which play the mournful march. Eventually this dirge gives way to a oboe, that most sad of instruments. The orchestra wells up to give a bit of brightness, maybe in recognition of the need to find some kind of spiritual solace. Eventually, Beethoven returns to the dirge again, followed by another more reflective interlude before ending again on a somber note.

 For some reason, whenever some insanely senseless killing or death takes place, the Marcia Funebre starts playing in my head.

That happened when the kids went berserk at Columbine High School in 1999. During the days after, nightmares disturbed my sleep and made me feel zombie-like all day long. On one of those mornings a girl stepped off the curb in front of my car about a block away from my house and I had to slam on the breaks to keep from hitting her. The topic of death weighed on my mind that day. Then on the way home, I remembered a disturbing fact from my own childhood.

My mother used to tell me and my brother, Ken, to look both ways before crossing the street and not to play near road. To put the fear of God in me, she told me that my father, on his way home from work one day, had hit a little girl who had darted out between parked cars and into the street. She died from her injuries. “And your father was sick about it for weeks” my mother said said.

Death of young children is especially hard to deal with. I can’t imagine the burden one might feel knowing that you caused the death of a child. One regrets and blames oneself for so many petty things. Imagine having to mull over again and again that hideous event, wondering why you chose a particular route that day, thinking how things might have turned out had you been driving a bit more slowly.

Then think about the parents. The driver might not have been to blame, but you feel why should an older man live while your daughter dies? I never heard that part of the story, nor did my father ever mention it. But looking back on his character, I can clearly see the scars. He was a very emotionally demonstrative man. Sometimes he wrotes syrupy, saccharine letters to my daughters. He always gave hugs when he visited. He always desperately wanted peace and love between his children-as if he was saying “look, life is too precious to waste fighting.” At the same time, the smallest thing could set him off into a rages, fuming and cursing a blue streak. Still other times, he could became the life of the party, telling jokes, pulling pranks on friends, going in drag to parties. Again, the way he threw himself into that role almost makes me think he was doing it to chase away demons. Finally, he could play the role of wounded victim, complaining about some snub or slight by a friend, boss, co-worker, or relative. If you had killed a little girl in an accident, wouldn’t you feel kind of victimized?

Another thing on my mind is how to help young people deal with the death of friends, relatives, or people one’s own age on television. When I was about eight, my father took me to a funeral home to view the remains of his first cousin’s son, who had died. I don’t remember him preparing me for the circumstances, and it was really disturbing to approach the casket, peer in, and see that the person lying there was roughly the same age as I! Several years ago, my older daughter, Claire, then about seven, one day asked me “Daddy, what are some of the ways people die?” My breath caught in my throat. Her question took my right back to the time that I saw my cousin lying in his casket, and I realized I hadn’t resolved my own fears around death.

Rather than try to change the subject, however, something made me stick with her and we talked about it so much that it kind of blew away the tension. Later I rushed to the library and read several books on how to talk to kids about death. That turned into an article that I eventually sold to a newspaper.

The most important thing I learned from those books, is that it is important to provide age-appropriate opportunities to allow a child, even involve the child, in the grieving process. The last thing you want to do is completely isolate the child from what is going on with other people. That does two things-it leaves the child to grieve alone and it can also make the child think that they had something to do with the death of the person.

Today, therefore I’m thinking of everybody in Littleton, Colorado. All the students who lost friends, and even more importantly, those who saw their friends gunned down before them. I’m thinking of the parents of those who died–the sense of loss, the sheer anger, the feeling of victimization. I’m also thinking of the parents whose kids did these monstrous things. Imagine first realizing your child committed such an act of horrific brutality, and then that the wonderful being that you created, nurtured, watched grow had taken his own life. What if they were good parents, whose kids just fell in with the wrong crowd? Would anyone believe that?

What strikes me odd is how this could happen in our “civilized” society. How civilized is it? I saw a statistic today stating that 40,000 children starve to death every day in the developing world. Are their deaths any less tragic than those in Littleton? Right now there is a famine going on in Chad. One thing that you have to remember about famines is that they are not caused by natural disaster. They are political and economic acts of genocide. We hear all of these stories about the wonder of modern agriculture and how many countries have so much food and rather than flood the market (and lower the wages of farmers and agricultural corporations) they dump their food to rot. So famines are really caused by one group choosing not to move the food to where it is needed. Politics pure and simple. A photo I saw in Life Magazine once showed a well fed man stealing a bag of rice (a day’s ration) from an emaciated boy.

The other great irony about the deaths in Littleton is that it disproves Maslow’s theories of the hierarchy of needs. That is, if you can satisfy the basics of self-preservation-food, shelter, ability to reproduce-you have an easier job of preventing or curing psychological ills. By all standards the kids who shot their classmates came from a wildly affluent life style-the pictures of their parents house showed it to be a mansion compared to the hovels where 4/5 of the world’s population live. They had computers. They bought guns. They made videos of themselves. They excelled in English. What needs weren’t being met that would turn them into such monsters?

How do you get through loss, suffering, death? You might be able to stanch the flood of emotions for a time, but psychologist tell us that you must go through various stages before finally reconciling yourself to the loss. Friends have sometimes noted a dark, depressive streak in me. Yet when I am sad often it is because of trying to suppress the emotions that should otherwise come out. Sad music for me therefore has a therapeutic effect, and I often feel better for having listened. If you are suffering at all right now, may you find peace.

A Page Dedicated to the Eroica

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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