Friday, May 07, 2010

Copying Beethoven

I've just finished watching, for the second time, the movie Copying Beethoven. The story is fictitious, but I find this fictional rendering of Beethoven's interaction with a young female composer sent to assist him with preparing his score for his 9th Symphony most interesting. The first time I watched it, I was moved by the forcefulness of Beethoven's personality and the beauty of his music, which appears as a sort of main character in the movie. But what has intrigued me this time around has been how Beethoven's relationship with God, and his spiritual relationship with Anna Holz, the young copyist, is portrayed.

We are introduced to his character as beastly, arrogant, crude, and only later do we see how these dark aspects serve to frame a sort of pure light that radiates as from the divine through him, not only through his music, but personally, in conversation with Anna. Beethoven's beastliness, arrogance and crudeness as depicted in this character strike me as decidedly different from these qualities in modern characters, fictitious or otherwise. He strikes me as one who is beastly because of the intensity with which he experiences the melodies of God. It is as if he knows he is only a conduit; the Beauty has not taken up residence in his soul, and he cannot bear the injustice of being treated as if it had. And he cannot bear the injustice done to God if the music of God that comes through him is not recognized as such. It is a very interesting tangle of raging jealousy for God's honor.

Anna, the copyist, rises to the call to meet Beethoven's beastliness and respect it for what it is, and not fear him or fawn on him as a person. He sees her as a sign from God that he is ready to die, ready to cross the bridge musically into areas that no one but future musicians will understand or appreciate. Her own call from God to compose music draws her towards Beethoven, despite his shocking ways, and also away from her attachment to herself, her understanding, her loves. He tells her at one point that she can leave him, but that doing so will not free her from him, so certain is he of the spiritual purpose of their encounter.

I am no expert on the historical life of Beethoven, other than to know that the broad strokes with which this portrait is painted (of Beethoven, not of fictitious Anna) are held to be true. It is interesting to me to read the lives of famous classical musicians, and painters. There seems to be a common thread in many of their stories. Their personal lives tend to be tragic and troubled, or at the very least, far from pious. Yet their music (I confess I relate less readily to other works of art) can make the human spirit soar and ache for all that is divine. The Beethoven character in this movie tells an architect at one point (after destroying the bridge model he so painstakingly constructed for a competition) that only when he feels, for example, rage and anger so that he could kill someone is he ready to create art, out of that gut-wrenching. I think there's some truth in these lines. Piety, commonly held, is often destroyed, finally, only by the unleashing of the deepest churnings and fomentings of the soul. Come to think of it, it seems humanity would be far better off if more so-called piety and other forms of complacency were so destroyed. I think this is the service that artistic expression is designed to do for humanity: to upset us so deeply that we feel again what it is to be human.
This causes me to think on two matters: music and mental illness, and music and sanctity. I can't think (can you?) of a single vocational classical music composer who has been canonized. Surely the sort of genius that produces beautiful music, that transcribes these heavenly melodies, differs from the sort of spiritual genius, if you will, of a soul that is transformed by grace and therefore loves as God does. It seems clear that one may produce excellent art and yet love no one, if historical accounts are to be believed.

I've also wondered if musicians are more likely than the average population to be mentally ill, or at least to be thought of as such in the society in which they lived. I once worked for a man who is arguably something very close to a genius, and I can testify that there are areas of normal, common sense thinking that just don't work for him. So my tentative theory is that when one has certain capacities for excellence, other human capacities can be grossly limited. Maybe this is why great art seems to come hand-in-hand with bizarre behaviour that is chalked up to mental illness.

How does God look on the souls of men like Beethoven and Mozart? Is He quick to forgive their moral faults for the love their music bears Him, just as He is quick to forgive socially adjusted Christians their insipid, tame lives, devoid of gutsy creations, for the love our prayers and piety bear Him? How is it they clung to their Savior, communed with Him -- through staff and note and melody? As I cling to Him through dustpan and stove and library trips?

Eternity, I think, will afford us greater opportunities than earth to learn of the depths of God's mercy. So many stories to hear!

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