Beethoven and Buddha

How could Beethoven and Buddha have anything in common? I hadn’t thought about it until one day  I was reading  a book, “Buddhism Without Beliefs”.  As the author Stephen Bachelor discusses the Four Noble Truths, he explains how important it is to approach Buddha’s discovery of the truth experientially. Rather than the Noble Truths being dogmatic statements- Life is Suffering, The Cause of Suffering is Grasping, ect, he suggests that the Noble truths need to be approached through living them- understanding anguish, letting go of its origins, realizing its cessation and cultivating the path. In his thoughtful and eloquent exploration of  anguish, he makes reference to the late Beethoven sonatas.

Stephen says:

“Great works of art in all cultures succeed in capturing within the constraints of their form both the pathos of anguish and a vision of it’s resolution. Take for example the languorous sentences of Proust or the haiku of Basho,  or the late quartets and sonatas of Beethoven…Such works achieve their resolution not through consoling or romantic images whereby anguish is transcended. They accept anguish without being overwhelmed by it. They reveal anguish as that which gives beauty it’s dignity and depth.”

I have been working on one of Beethoven’s late sonata, number 31 of the 32 that he wrote, known as Op 110, As I work on it , I question this fundamental issue- do we transcend anguish or do we allow it to be there without it deluding us, without caving into it’s slippery, suffocating arms.

Here is the wonderful, thoughtful first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat Major Op 110:

Beethoven was no stranger to anguish. He began to go deaf in his mid twenties and the torment of it brought him to the verge of suicide. He wrote a letter to his brothers speaking of his despair:

“But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life. It was only my art that held me back. Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had forth all that I felt was within me.”

I find it unbelievable that Beethoven was able to compose the most innovative and sublime music while completely deaf. He possessed an unfailing spirit in the face of difficulty, and had an incredible triumph of will. He had the vision and idealism of a true artist who was continually breaking into new territory, transforming every genre that he touched. He expanded the sonata, the symphony, and the string quartet and in Beethoven’s later years his music became more abstract and meditative stepping beyond anything heard at the time.

here is the second movement, the bold scherzo & playful trio:

Did he realize that his music expressed this quality of accepting and being with anguish? When playing the Opus 110 sonata, there are sections that are so honest, so lingering, poignantly expressing this feeling of sorrow. And yet, I think Stephen is right in that we don’t feel overwhelmed. This is experienced most clearly in the slow section, named “Arioso Dolente”. Beethoven has named the movement “dolente” meaning sorrowful, and I feel there are few pieces that can truly capture the the depths of what he expresses.

It is worth noting that Beethoven wrote this within the last five years of his life, and was completely deaf, and had been for probably around 10 years! In Maynard Solomon’s book, he says something so interesting- that rather than being a curse, Beethoven’s deafness may have contributed to his creativity. He writes:

“There may be a sense in which deafness played a positive role in his creativity, for we know that deafness did not impair and indeed may have even heightened his abilities as a composer…perhaps by permitting a total concentration upon composition within a world of increasing auditory seclusion. In his deaf world, Beethoven could experiment with new forms of experience, free from the intrusive sounds of the external environment; free from the rigidities of the material world; free, like the dreamer, to combine and recombine the stuff of reality, in accordance with his desires, into previously undreamed-of forms and structures.”

here is the third movement, the meditative adagio and the sorrowful arioso dolente:

After the “Arioso Dolente”, Beethoven writes a fugue, one of the innovative aspects of his compositional style. I almost feel Beethoven expresses the “Five Stages of Grief” according to the Kubler-Ross model; cycling through an expression in the first movement of the beauty of life, then turmoil and anger in the scherzo and trio, desolation in the arioso dolente, and then the fugue. It is like the fugue is a turning point towards acceptance. It is complicated, and it begins the journey back to life.

here are the two fugues and arioso dolente:

After the first fugue, Beethoven returns to a variation of the pensive slow Arioso Dolente, and is his deeply creative way, breaks from the traditional forms of the time. It has a powerful effect . It allows for another moment of grieving, reflection, of patience and an enduring quality. From here the sonata gradually climbs out into even more light.

After the Arioso Dolente, Beethoven brilliantly inverts the fugue, like a mad improvisation and then ends the piece in the most beautiful, exaltant and dramatic way. Different pianists and writers have commented eloquently about this part of the sonata:

Matthews writes that it is not fanciful to see the final movement’s second fugue as a “gathering of confidence after illness or despair”, a theme which can be discerned in other late works by Beethoven.

Rosen states that this movement is the first time in the history of music where the academic devices of counterpoint and fugue are integral to a composition’s drama, and observes that Beethoven in this work does not “simply represent the return to life, but persuades us physically of the process.”

The last observation is key- there is a physical, all encompassing experience of the return to life. Stephen Bachelor points out:

“In yearning for anguish to be assuaged…we reinforce what creates anguish in the first place: the craving for life to be other than it is…Dharma practice starts not with belief in a transcendent reality, but through embracing the anguish experienced in an uncertain world.”

There is the feeling here in this last section of the sun shining through the clouds. The music seems to be a total celebration of life as it is. Whether Beethoven himself embraced duhkha, we don’t know, but he certainly had the intention to. We know this through many historians who documented Beethoven’s life. The great Beethoven scholar, Maynard Solomon refers extensively to Beethoven’s acquiescence to deafness. Rather than caving into despair and committing suicide, Beethoven resolves to continue living. In the “Heiligenstadt Testament”, Beethoven writes, “Patience, they say, is what I must choose now for my guide, and I have done so.”

The yoga of it all is to be with what is; that conflict comes when we try to get rid of the undesirable parts of ourselves- the feistiness, the ugliness, the anguish. Just let it be there. Yoga isn’t about the ideal- the future projection- yoga is this moment now. Yoga is what is, and being with what is. If it is anguish, then being with the anguish….if it is the resolution of anguish, then being in that luminosity, that moment of release. And the key is, that when we are able to relax and to be with what is, our experience of whatever is happening shifts, as we are no longer caught up in our reactivity to things. It’s our emotional reactivity that creates the suffering.

This piece is continually teaching me. I, too, have had to find an unfailing spirit and triumph of will to learn the 20 pages of it, and as I attempt to memorize and perform it I find I am constantly finding more compassion and patience with myself. These videos are not perfect!  Life is not perfect!!

This piece fell into my life when my mother had a stroke and was put into hospital bed 110-1, and I knew it was a sign. It had also been one of my late piano teachers favorite sonatas, which sadly I will never be able to share with her. And how fitting that both these woman, my mother, Nancy, and Marian Grudeff, my piano teacher, are two of the most inspirational people I know, that whatever anguish they have experienced in their lives has, too, given them beauty, dignity and depth.

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  3 comments for “Beethoven and Buddha

  1. October 11, 2014 at 1:35 am

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

    • October 11, 2014 at 1:52 pm

      too bad! i would love to hear what you had to say!

  2. Manfred
    October 13, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    Stumbled over your analogy by chance, while writing on a book an his 9th symphony. You really understand Beethoven well, and perhaps are connected with him.
    Greetings from Tokyo! Manfred (German)

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