When I told my beloved dissertation advisor and now emeritus professor that my chorus was preparing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis for a spring concert, he said “It will change your life.” I can understand his words on a personal as well as a larger scale. My professor studied in Germany. He has been happily married to a German woman for decades. He reveres the literature and especially the music that came out of German-speaking lands – it is part of his personal aesthetic imprint. But of course he is not alone, for Beethoven is universally respected as one of the giants of Western music, a primary contributor to our human endeavor, loved and worshiped across cultures and time.
The piece itself is monumental and, as another friend put it, “fiendishly difficult.” It took Beethoven nearly five years to finish, towards the end of his life when he was already completely deaf. It has many, many shifts of key and time, sometimes measure by measure, and there are some chords and intervals that sound more like Schoenberg than what you would expect from the early 19th century. The fugues are jolly fun to sing, but most of the music never repeats in exactly the same way, and it also never goes where your ear thinks it should – such is the composer’s experimentation. I’m sure books have been written regarding Beethoven’s personal religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and where and how the Missa fits. There can be no doubt that he was expressing something that he found to be immensely powerful, mysterious and impressive, lodged within a story of many twists and turns.
I had trouble grasping this music, despite working steadily for months. Never before, even while working on completely new and modern compositions, have I had the experience of spending hours learning this or that thorny moment, only to return days later to find that what I had thought I learned was gone. It was as if I had never even looked at it, so odd was the configuration and so resistant was my traditional ear. I became frustrated and frightened in turn, and up until the dress rehearsal was uncertain that I knew the piece well enough to perform it. Ultimately, a leap of faith was required – our Music Director asked us to trust him and take the plunge, and that was what I had to do.
In the New York Times Book Review in April, 2016, the author and librettist Tim Federle wrote what can only be described as a manifesto for musical theatre nerds, or how to succeed at what you love, despite being one of the weirdos. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/24/books/review/chorus-lines.html . My favorite on his list of lessons learned is the third one, “Confidence is overrated. Courage is underrated.” Amen, brother. I was not confident about singing this huge piece of music, and if I had waited until I was confident, it would simply not have happened. I had to jump in, per our Music Director’s instructions, feet first, and trust that our work would pay off. It did.
The result was enjoyable and satisfying, but did it change my life, as predicted? Maybe it did, but not in the way that my professor meant. Beethoven simply does not speak to me in the profound and moving way that he does to others, although a rousing version of the Ode to Joy gives me chills, and I’ve been known to weep at the second movement of the 7th Symphony. The music that touches my soul most deeply comes from Mozart, and that is not to give or take anything from either composer. I learned something about learning, though, thanks to Beethoven, our Music Director and Tim Federle. When faced with an enormous and terrifying task, courage trumps confidence, and being letter perfect may matter less than the willingness to take off into the darkness, with a good pilot, the wind of preparation and a master’s brilliance beneath your wings.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.