April 12, 2021

My Beethoven

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Kelly Cherry

I have loved Beethoven’s music since before I was born. My pregnant mother, having read that the child in the womb can hear music, played recording after recording of what was then unashamedly referred to as “good” or “serious” music. She wanted to be sure that I would be a good-music lover, as was she. She and my father were violinists. Sometimes Dad gave solo concerts—my mother fell in love with him when he played the Brahms Violin Concerto at L.S.U.—and both of them played in the New Orleans Symphony, but their passion was for the Beethoven string quartets, especially the late quartets, and wherever they were, they formed a string quartet. If I remember clearly (I was under the age of six), in Baton Rouge, it was the Cherry String Quartet. In Ithaca, it was the Ithaca String Quartet. In Richmond, it was the Richmond String Quartet. If the violist was weak, which happened to be the case from time to time, my mother would move from second fiddle to the viola.

Did the record-playing work? I can’t remember a time when I did not love Beethoven. In any case, I heard music, and in particular Beethoven’s music, very shortly after I was born. I listened from my crib, which was in the room where the musicians rehearsed. As soon as I could crawl, I was crawling around the eight-legged creature that is a quartet, or the four-legged creature that was my parents making music together, or the two legs of my handsome father practicing. He liked to warm up on the Bach Chaconne. In Ithaca, where we moved when I was five, my bedroom was down the hall. The night my eardrum burst and pus poured out I waited until rehearsal was over before telling my parents. It would not have done to interrupt them. Rehearsals were sacrosanct. They didn’t have to tell us that; we, the children, knew it in our bones. On concert nights, my mother wore long gowns, heels, a little rouge, and lipstick; if it was cold out, she might wear her squirrel jacket. Dad dressed in tails. In a swirl of glamour they left the apartment, and when they returned, still in their elegant clothes, they sat at the small, linoleum-topped kitchen table, reviewing the performance mercilessly but with high spirits. If we were awake, we could join them.

I tell people about my parents and their music because I am still entranced by their dedication and their struggle and grateful for the luminous, limitless gift they gave their children—my brother and sister and me—but it is harder to talk about what listening to serious music, and especially Beethoven, means to me. And would it have meant the same to me if I had not grown up with this music? I think so—because of who I am—but of course it’s impossible to know. I do know that neither I nor my siblings blindly accepted what our parents said about music. We were rebellious kids, somewhat neglected, rivalrous, angry, and anxious. My brother, who had a terrific talent for the piano, was not about to conform to any parental wish. When my father started me on the violin (“fiddle,” we said at home), I complained that my arm hurt. Years later he told me that if I felt any pain at all when I played the violin, I must have been holding it wrong. I’m sure I did hold it wrong. Who could keep arms and shoulders relaxed in such a tense situation? For me, that lesson was life or death. When we moved to Virginia, I started on the piano. I practiced five or six hours a day, after school, but it was stupid practice: With each mistake I’d back up and take the music faster. If my parents had been home, I suppose they might have explained to me that this was not how to get better, but they weren’t, and didn’t, and then I’d slam the lid down and go to bed hating myself. Nor did I have the hands for the piano.

My sister, the third-born, had begun ballet and would have been, her teacher said, a superb ballerina, but a cyst developed on her leg, and that put an end to her dream of dancing on stage. When our parents got home from work, she would turn on the radio just before they reached the driveway, blasting the house with early rock-and-roll or country music. She was also going steady with someone in the middle-school band. Mom and Dad concluded she was “boy crazy” and that there was no point in paying for music lessons for her. This was exactly the conclusion she had hoped to lead them to. It removed the pressure (though our parents would have sworn they didn’t pressure us). Some months later, at dinner, she announced that she needed flute lessons. Turned out the flute was what she was playing in the band. They still assumed that the boy was why she was learning the flute. A year or two later, she said she needed a better teacher. She had already decided she wanted to study with William Kincaid, then considered the best flutist in the world. Astonished and proud, Dad drove her to Philadelphia for an audition, and she became Kincaid’s youngest student. She began performing at fifteen.

I had learned to read music, of course, but at twelve I wrote a poem. Not for school; it simply occurred to me to write one, and in it I made a rhyme. The rhyme, however simple and obvious, electrified me. I had not realized that words were, or could be, music. No doubt I ought to have realized that, but I hadn’t, or it hadn’t meant anything to me before I committed a rhyme of my own. At once, I announced that I was going to quit piano and become a writer. This caused a considerable ruckus, and I’ve long regretted that I insisted on quitting piano, but in our house it was always essential, we thought, to do whatever we did with dedication. I can no longer read music at all; I might recognize middle C but, then again, maybe not.

Thus I became a listener. My sister and I had bought our first records on our own when we were nine and six or seven, walking barefoot beside the road to the store. The selection at Woolworth’s Five and Dime was thin, but I found Smetana’s Moldau and my sister chose Bartók’s Romanian Dances, or maybe it was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, for 67 cents apiece. I already had some records that my grandfather had given me, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, for one; Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, for another. (The latter were 78-rpm records.) There was a good-music station in Richmond; it ran all night, and I often stayed up all night to listen to it. My father checked out for me records from the Richmond Professional Institute, where he taught, including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and works by Elliott Carter, Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and J. S. Bach (including the Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations).

As for the few crummy pieces, I say, Thank god for them. They remind us that Beethoven was human.

For a while, I was in love with opera, although I paid no attention to plot or character, only to the music. I sang along loudly, and when the notes outran my range, I dropped down an octave and kept singing. There was a time when I played a recording of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis over and over for weeks, for months. I did the same with Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives. Both brought me peace when ideas were boiling over in my head. My last year in college, feeling intellectually estranged from other students, I calmed myself—and reinvigorated my thinking—by listening to Bach’s B-Minor Mass; I listened to it with the same unquenchable thirst with which I had listened to other music. The Bach unaccompanied cello suites—recordings by Casals, by Rostropovich, by Fournier—mesmerized me. And so did the Beethoven string quartets—as performed by the Budapest, Hungarian, Juilliard, Amadeus, and Emerson quartets. (The Pro Arte Quartet, located at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I taught for many years, traversed the entire Beethoven cycle while I was there.)

I love Beethoven’s piano sonatas and concertos and symphonies as well, and even the better-known trios. Beethoven had more musical ideas than any other composer. Probably I should say, less categorically, I believe that Beethoven….But when I listen to the great (and not so great) composers, that’s what my ear and brain are telling me: that Beethoven is richer in musical ideas than any other composer. That is, he is always doing something worth thinking about—some consideration or reconsideration of theme, orchestration, development, some lovely or lively moment. My interest never flags, because his mind never flags. Well, that’s not true—he wrote a few crummy pieces, but there are no lapses in his completed, great works. And there are dozens of them.

As for the few crummy pieces, I say, Thank god for them. They remind us that Beethoven was human.

He was human and he sweated over his themes. This heightens rather than detracts from his genius; he was genius enough to know he could do better than his early drafts. Genius enough to recognize that music needs to adhere to structural principles, the first of which, in my opinion, is that a slow movement needs to be supported by smaller moments of musical interest. A slow movement that is a suspension bridge will sway and tremble and trouble the listener trying to cross over it. In first and final movements, time passes, and the listener needs to believe that time is passing also in the slow movement.

I don’t mean to suggest that music is the same as narrative literature; I do mean to suggest that the excitement, the breath-taking excitement, of both lies in knowing that we are being led somewhere meaningful. Certainly we also enjoy meaningful moments along the way; they are what allow us to assume the whole will be meaningful. Music, it has been said, is linear, as is literature, or at least narrative, and Beethoven, with his dynamics and rhythms, and in his piano sonatas with the use additionally of sustain, creates a narrative that carries tension.

Meaningful? someone may ask. How can music that is not a pop song or program music be meaningful? Or, doesn’t something have to be translatable to words to have meaning?

How, I want to ask in return, can it not be meaningful? Music is patterning, and patterning is how we think. No, I can’t name all the patterns—fugues, canons, counterpoint, harmony, recapitulation; I never even took a music appreciation course, fearful I might earn less than an A. But I hear the patterns and rejoice in them, and surely it is true that the very existence of pattern registers in the mind as a sign of logic and even good faith. I understand why a contemporary composer might want to explode pattern, but the only way to do it is to create new patterns. Unpatterned music, whether electronic or instrumental, is music a listener will fall asleep to. It’s the patterns that make us think and feel and stay awake to the end.

His work still often sounds more contemporary than many contemporary works, and it will last for all time.

As for the whole: Every one of Beethoven’s successful pieces is a whole world. I find it impossible to hear another work in my head—even a poem I’m working on—while listening to Beethoven; the work commands—not “demands”—attentiveness. It is cerebral, playful, tragic, beautiful, and beyond paraphrase. It may lift up, calm, delight—and yet none of these words adequately describes its effect upon me, and, I think, on other Beethoven fans. Yes, Mozart was a genius, with his singing line and chromatic harmonies; he influenced Beethoven’s early work, and his late work anticipates Beethoven’s late work. He died too young. And yes, Bach more or less invented music, turning out masterpieces along the way. And yes, both Mozart and Beethoven learned more than a little from Haydn. But Beethoven took music to places it had never been. His work still often sounds more contemporary than many contemporary works, and it will last for all time. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to express the concept and value of freedom in sound. His music expands—swells—my heart, for I learn from it that anything is possible; it instills hope and courage. But not at the expense of ignoring reality: his music entwines light with dark, bringing me to a crux where I cannot choose whether to cheer with unalloyed joy or to weep in concert with the poet Rilke, who spoke of beauty as “the beginning of terror.” This dilemma cannot be referred to as “bittersweet,” a commonly employed term in literary reviews and criticism; rather, it reflects a vision that recognizes dark and light as inseparable, perhaps even interchangeable (though Beethoven wanted light, wanted freedom, wanted, perhaps—we don’t know for sure—God).

Naturally, my family had a recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I remember that once, when it was on the player in the next room, my father came to the doorway of the kitchen. “Oh, God,” he said. “It tears my heart out.”

Beyond paraphrase.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I submitted a story to my high school’s literary magazine. It was about a man who planned to take his life. Walking down the street next to the Richmond Professional Institute, he heard someone practicing the “Waldstein” Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 21) in an upper room with an open window; the beauty of the sonata drifted down and lifted up his heart so that he resolved to live after all. The teachers gently informed me that they couldn’t allow my story to be published—it might put the idea of suicide in some student’s mind. I understood, but I also understood that the teachers didn’t understand Beethoven’s music.

A few years later I couldn’t get enough of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata (No. 29). These days I listen endlessly to Sonata No. 32. In the second half of that piece, high notes cluster with sustain, sounding transcendental. These measures seem to suggest a kind of liberation from the struggle of the real world and possibly freedom from the trials of life—by which I do not mean a longing or lust for death. It’s as if the composer has discovered a world freer and wider than the one we have. He has achieved mastery of his medium and is therefore free to write whatever comes to him. (This is true artistic freedom.) I can hear the Wilhelm Kempff recording in my head as I write this, the lighthearted and bell-like jazzy notes an efflorescence of perfection. I also recall hearing this sonata played by the astonishing Maurizio Pollini in concert twice: once in Italy and once at Lincoln Center. Pollini’s renditions struck me as a case of the performer becoming the music; he seemed to be at one with it, his interpretation as precise as if he had been Beethoven. After the crashing chords of the first movement, the second is like fresh air and sunlight—or no, like heaven, were there a heaven. And if it sounds like heaven, maybe it is heaven. Anthony Burgess, writing about his novel The Clockwork Orange, referred to “the vision of paradisal order which great music conveys.”

The “Grosse Fuge” is another piece in which the movement of the whole is onward and upward. Terrifically exciting, the quartet negotiates a double fugue in a single astonishing movement, intense, complex, and passionate measures rising to a transforming climax. I reflexively lean forward, the better to hear every note, contrapuntal encounter, variation, every design. Earlier critics called this piece “discordant,” but I doubt that anyone thinks so now. In his 1995 collection, Atlantis, Mark Doty justifiably, and lyrically, asked, in his poem titled “Grosse Fuge”:

What does it mean, chaos
gathered into a sudden bronze sweetness,
an October flourish, and then that moment
denied, turned acid, disassembling,
questioned, rephrased?
(Quoted with permission from the author)

What it means, I wish to suggest, is that, as a world unto itself, the “Grosse Fuge” responds to the light in the dark, the dark in the light. In a poem of my own, “The Memorial,” I envision the music as a ladder of strings: Beethoven climbs the steep, moving steps to a confrontation with the Almighty (or the universe). The poem first discusses the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, for which the “Grosse Fuge” was originally meant to be the last movement:

. . .the Beethoven,
Which one writer describes as “dark” and “near-
Impenetrable,” though it is neither impenetrable
Nor dark, the adagio gravely lovely, allegro
Electric with energy, both leading to,
Originally, the Grosse Fuge, in which
Beethoven climbs to heaven on a ladder
woven of strings to knock on God’s closed door
And have it out with him, man to man.

Music and poetry are ever entwined.

Beethoven’s work often reminds me of the color green. I’m not synesthetic (though my sister is) but—maybe because I imagine him striding through woods, or maybe because my husband and I frequently listen to Beethoven while driving through countryside, or maybe because Beethoven’s music is so filled with life, a sense of movement, of development—I see, with my mind’s eye, green, an abundance of green, of growth, feel surrounded by greenness, a burgeoning, as I listen to it. Not always, but often enough to associate great art with the idea of development. In a short lyric poem the development is of depth, layer upon layer; in longer literary works it is a series of changes—and those small moments that fortify the larger lines—and a sense of direction, for I also believe in ends. Contrary to many, I do not think that process is art. I think that process is process until it achieves an end, whereupon the work exists, and exists separately from the artist.

When I was ten, I asked my mother if there was a God. She said, “I don’t know, but there was a Beethoven and that’s good enough for me.”

Think of Beethoven’s endings! And his beginnings, too: how they declare themselves, how they notify us of the composer’s intent. He wanted listeners to know where he started and when he was done. What is between the beginning and the end is Beethoven, the incomparable composer. The beginnings and endings are themselves so distinct and characteristic that we know at once to whom we are listening. The Fifth Symphony’s four famous opening notes have become almost a part of our DNA, they are so well known. Listeners the world over recognize them. Similarly, the “Ode to Joy” that concludes the Ninth Symphony is acknowledged by all as a metaphor for brotherhood (and sisterhood) and freedom. But whether loud or soft, his beginnings and endings define the works as completed objéts d’art. This is not always the case within his works. One movement may advance attacca—without pause—to the next.

Of interior moments, I am particularly drawn to the Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) in the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 (No. 15 according to publication, but number thirteen in composition). In a meditative mood, aware of how close he had come to death (an illness), grateful to be allowed to live for the nonce but knowing that he cannot live forever, Beethoven furnishes the quartet with five movements; the Heiliger Dankgesang occurs in the third. The high notes have a celestial quality like the high notes in the last movement of Piano Sonata No. 32. There is again a sense of the deep worthiness of life, of freedom as a result of self-discipline, and yet of playfulness.

Surely, the “Muse of fire” Shakespeare solicited to attend his play Henry V is at Beethoven’s side as he “ascend[s] / The brightest heaven of invention….” T. S. Eliot, writing to Stephen Spender, called the fifteenth quartet “inexhaustible,” and said of Beethoven, “There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

But I don’t think Beethoven was in the least masochistic, and Eliot does sound a bit, here. Eliot is toying with the idea of pain as a catalyst to artistic transformation; Beethoven, on the other hand, believes that he has an obligation to “artistic destiny” and is annoyed by any crisis that threatens to keep him from it.

At the start of the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a letter to his brothers in which he acknowledged his thoughts of suicide, his fear that loss of hearing would capsize his career, and, finally, his determination to live, he notes, “I was ever inclined to accomplish great things.” Considering death, he writes that “only my art. . . held me back. . . . [I]t seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” And I imagine this sentiment was not mere sentiment; he always had various works underway, ideas he wanted to explore; he may have had quite specific projects in mind.


When I was ten, I asked my mother if there was a God. She said, “I don’t know, but there was a Beethoven and that’s good enough for me.” I’m inclined to agree with her. In a poem (“What the Poet Wishes to Say”) I speak of

. . . Beethoven,
who, deaf and lonely, brought his art to such
sublimity, it is as if he wrote
his music among the spheres of music, working
at a desk of sky, the innumerable stars for lighting,
a gust of solar wind sending manuscript
flying. In the late piano sonatas,
you hear the composer placing his notes, solid
and silken as they somehow manage to be,
without hesitation but with deliberateness
exactly where they are supposed to go,
thereby fixing the apparatus of heaven
God had let fall idle.

My parents died in the eighties. The fiddles—my mother’s an Amati, I think; the Guadagnini, my father’s—for which they had scrimped and saved and gone into debt were auctioned at Sotheby’s. It is a joy to have found out that the Guadagnini, known in the literature as the Ex-Kingman, now belongs to a vigorous and impressively fine violinist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. My husband and I heard him draw his bow across the strings when he came to our hotel, and the sound was like lightning, the lobby suddenly brilliant and stark and gladsome.

Also in the eighties, I went to Germany and Austria for a couple of weeks. I turned that trip into something of a pilgrimage, visiting Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, the woods he walked in, and, in Austria, the house outside Vienna where he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” Whenever I came across a concert that included Beethoven, I went. Perhaps the trip was less pilgrimage than a desire to experience the conditions of his great creativity. Beethoven has always been my guide to life in art. From him I have learned that there is no law that obliges the artist to restrict herself to a single genre or form. That a work of art must be interesting at every point. That competence necessarily precedes maturation. That the artist works for the art, not for anything else. That beauty may seem to be simple—a field, a forest, a musical scale, a line of poetry with no difficult words—but is always complex, a union of contraries, of contrasts, of hard work and inspiration.

Walking in Beethoven’s steps, I was in some sense listening to him—to the echoes his life created. What do I hear when I listen to Beethoven? I hear him thinking. And feeling, yes, but thinking about what he is feeling. To be inside a mind like his is an immense privilege, enlightenment, and delight.

Always, delight.

Kelly Cherry is the author of twenty-five books, ten chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. Former Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor of English and Evjue-Bacom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This essay appeared in the print edition of LitMag.
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