Several years ago, I had to prepare a speech for my Toastmaster’s club that summarized my life experiences. At first it was daunting—how could I make myself sound humble and interesting at the same time? But this turned out to be a valuable exercise, because it revealed to me a pattern in my life that I had never noticed before. I summed up that pattern by naming my speech: “When The Student Is Ready.”
The title comes from the Japanese saying, “When the student is ready the Buddha will appear.” The origin of the word Buddha means “to wake up” and people think of the Buddha as a great teacher. And what is a great teacher but someone who wakes you up? Why this is important to me is because—while preparing for that speech—I realized that I’ve always been a student, and whenever I most needed it, a person has appeared to either teach me or point me in the right direction.
The Buddhas who taught me about classical music are numerous and after my friend Kerry Wade came an entire family, the M*s, whom I presented in a previous entry. It seem like every time we visited their house, Mr. M* would be sitting, happily ensconsed in his comfy chair in the living room, champing a cigar, listening to a symphony. Every once in a while he would look up from his book to read aloud a humorous passage from Ring Lardner or S.J. Perlman or to quote a James Thurber cartoon. One time I arrived to find the whole household in an uproar. The Mary Tyler Moore show, a ’70 American sitcom, had depicted a dinner party in which one of the characters raised a glass of wine and said “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy, without any breeding, but I’m sure you’ll be amused by its presumption.” The M* family weren’t enraged by the use of the quote, but rather that the writers had not attributed it to James Thurber, who had created it as the captions of one of his cartoons in the New Yorker.
Paul M*, a year my senior, and I once went to see the John Borman film, “Zardoz.” This film was a kind of anti-intellectual and anti-bourgeois, post-apocalyptic morality play. Kind of like “If . . .” but with more sex and Sean Connery. In one scene, a huge stone head comes floating down from the sky accompanied by a somber, almost funereal piece of music. “Beethoven,” Paul leaned over and whispered. “Seventh Symphony. Second Movement.” Some days later, I bought a recording of the symphony by The Chicago Symphony, conducted by Fritz Reiner. It remains one of my favorite symphonies by Beethoven. Although, you can decide for yourself if you think it was an abomination to use Beethoven in this film:
The liner notes called this work “The Dance Symphony,” which might go back to Wagner referring to it as “the apotheoisis of the dance.” For me, the association with dance goes back to an early ’70s movie that was shown on T.V. around the time I first heard it. The film was “The Loves of Isadora,” which starred Vanessa Redgrave. I had first heard of the dancer, Isadora Duncan, from my friend Kerry Wade, who told me she had been killed on the island of Capri while riding in a Bugatti (Kerry was an antique car enthusiast.) It seems that Duncan had a fondness for flowing scarves, and while riding in a small convertible, her neckwear became entangled in the wire spokes of the rear wheel and it snapped her neck. The film depicted this event in rather disturbingly graphic detail. In another kitschy touch, they showed Redgrave flitting about on stage doing an interpretive dance to Beethoven’s Seventh.
The Seventh sparked much florid prose by its enthusiastic supporters, among whom Schumann, Wagner, and even Karl Marx. Some read into the piece depictions of gay peasant dances, revolution, orgiastic bacchanlias, flowering meadows, and the jubilant voices of children. Even Beethoven found this really too much and he said, if writers needed to explain his work to the public,”they should be confined to characterizations of the composition in general terms, which could easily and correctly be done by any educated musician.”
In truth one would have to be pretty callous to listen this music and not feel good. True, the second movement does sound almost funereal, starting out with ominous low strokes by the string basses. This was perfect music for a brooding adolescent boy with acne. However that movement ends on an optimistic note and is followed by one of the most exuberant pieces Beethoven ever wrote.
Maybe that is why Beethoven is so great, he takes you into the dark depths of sorrow, but he then leads you out safely into the light.
In the the 40 years since my high school days, I gradually lost touch with the M* family Buddhas. The last I heard of Paul, he had become a Jesuit and worked with Mother Teresa in India preparing people to die. One of his sisters went on to become a doctor. Their lessons live on in me, though, every time I hear this great, great symphony.