Any self-respecting fan of the Peanuts comic strip will know what’s coming up in a few weeks. December 16 is Beethoven’s birthday, the event marked each year by Schroeder, the maestro who somehow overcame the fact that the black keys on his toy piano were only painted on. This year happens to be the 250th anniversary of Ludwig’s birth, and it comes at a very poignant time in our history.
Beethoven, as you probably know, started losing his hearing in his 20s and was totally deaf by his 40s. In a recent interview, Marin Alsop, the musical director of the Baltimore Symphony, noted that Beethoven’s deafness drove him into a state of isolation, much as we’re going through today, thanks to COVID.
But while she describes Beethoven’s music as a cry from that isolation (ironically, the interview preceded a performance of his first piano concerto, written before his hearing started to go), out of that isolation came some of his greatest works. His last five piano sonatas and string quartets, his ninth symphony (the “Choral Symphony”), and the Missa solemnis, among others, were all composed after he had gone totally deaf.
That “plaintive cry” has brought beauty that resonates through the centuries. You could argue that the deeper Beethoven’s isolation became, the more creative and poignant his art became. Maybe there’s an example here for us.
I know that’s easy to say. We can’t minimize the fact that people are suffering, dying, depressed, all due to COVID. It doesn’t help that we are bombarded, daily, with reminders of how bad things are: news reports carry statistics on new cases and deaths; there is confusion as experts speculate when a “second wave” will hit, when there will be a “third wave”, or even if we’re out of the “first wave”. There are also sidebar stories about the probable impact of winter and flu season; the psychological effect of longer periods of darkness; and for good measure, let’s throw in some stories about depression due to isolation and domestic strife because of prolonged, close contact.
“The world” has not provided much encouragement. Where else can we turn?
That’s where faith – and Beethoven – come in.
In the Bible, Isaiah prophesies that the Spirit of the Lord is on the Messiah, to “give (those who mourn) beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, (and) the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” (Isaiah 61:1-3). Centuries later, Jesus declares that He is the fulfillment of that prophecy. This could be something to bear in mind – that in the ashes we can find beauty, if we look for it. In the isolation and other restrictions on our physical freedom we can find ways to re-assess what’s important. We could build on existing gifts – as Beethoven did, “hearing” his great works in his mind and rendering them on paper – or discovering things about ourselves that we never knew.
Yes, it takes work on our part, and a particular effort to do so in the face of the blitz of despair that surrounds us. But it’s worth it, because when we take that beauty and joy and pass it on to others, like the mustard seed Jesus talks about, even the tiniest grain can turn into the biggest plant in the garden. Joy, especially in the face of depression and despair, is just as infectious as any virus.
Hmm. I think I’ll put on a record: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – written when he was totally deaf – and which closes with the finale, “Ode to Joy”.
Drew Snider is a former pastor at Gospel Mission on Vancouver's Downtown East Side, and has been a guest speaker at churches in BC. He writes about the people and events in his e-book, ‘God At Work: A Testimony of Prophecy, Provision and People Amid Poverty’. (available at online bookstores)
You can read more articles on our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE
* This article was published in the pring edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, October 31st. 2020