Last night I heard the San Antonio Symphony perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, considered his greatest work, and one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. It was also his last symphony, and he was almost entirely deaf when he wrote it. It’s hard to imagine a composer could write the finest work of his life, and not be able to hear any of it in real time - how incredibly frustrating.
In 2010, I visited the British Library, where the original score of the Ninth is permanently housed. Numerous pages are displayed under glass. Low lighting protects the fragile paper. It’s against the rules to take pictures. But I was so affected by seeing the score, I sneaked a photo anyway. My hands were shaking so badly when I snapped the picture it was out of focus, and not worth saving. Which is probably what I deserved for breaking the rules.
As it turned out, what I wanted to remember didn’t require a photo. It was etched in my mind. Heavily crossed out parts of the score were a poignant indication of how much Beethoven struggled to get the right notes down on paper. Black scrawls obliterated notes in long passages of the score.
Was he frustrated because he couldn’t get the notes right? Or frustrated because he knew he would never hear an orchestra bring the piece full circle by playing it? Those pages brought tears to my eyes. What artist couldn’t relate to the struggle the scrawls evidenced? You don’t have to be a genius to experience the heartbreak of not being able to bring work you see in your imagination to fruition.
Listening to the Ninth Symphony last night inspired a breathtaking realization & brought tears to my eyes again.
Beethoven was capable of writing a genius symphony because he knew the sounds of the instruments and the sounds of the notes in the core of his being. The knowing and memorization was so complete, so powerful, his imagination could hear the music, even if his ears couldn’t.
And although Beethoven couldn’t hear the symphony the first time it was performed in Vienna, he was there on stage, beating time and conducting - (even if it was off to the side) - with the house conductor officially in charge. At the end, the audience responded sensitively to the composer’s deafness - waving handerkerchiefs, jumping into the air, and gesticulating broadly - allowing him to see the wildly exhuberant approval that he couldn’t hear.
I’m telling you this story because it’s a story of great endurance and great hope. Next time you don’t feel like you’re worth much, or can’t achieve much when you go into the studio, (or out into Life) think of Beethoven, and resolve to keep going.
I’m not a genius, and you probably aren’t either, but we both have skill sets and time. Let’s use it to become even more intimately engaged by materials and process and Life - than we are right now. The goal? Manifesting through hands what is seen in imagination. And calling it good.