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Redeeming Dissonance

Not all dissonance is destructive. Some can redeem.

Considering the tragic events in Afghanistan, Beethoven’s late string quartets remind me of the turmoil and dissonance of events that can so disrupt life. Unlike yesterday’s events, however, the troubles and toils depicted in Beethoven’s later string quartets (as in much of his compositions) are between the spiritual forces of darkness, chaos, and despair contrasted with the spiritual forces of joy, redemption, and grace. May the families of the Marines and others who died receive some form of grace that will bring some comfort during their grieving.

What is so characteristic of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which begins with the chaos predating creation and ending with the chaos being overthrown by the Hymn of Joy, is the later String Quartet in A Minor, Opus 132, in which mental and spiritual anguish is also finally overcome. In this quartet is a section called the “Heiliger Dankgesen,” or, in Beethoven’s words, the “Holy Song of Thanks Offered to God from a Convalescent.” Evidently Beethoven had recently suffered an episode which made him fear for his life and then experienced healing. This is a beautiful hymn using the most joyful mode of Medieval Chant, the F Lydian Mode.  

I am becoming more and more convinced that Beethoven’s greatest works are his late string quartets. Complex, filled with contradictions, more akin at times to the polyphonic music of Bach (some commentators have called Beethoven the Second Bach), I find Beethoven’s late string quartets to be striking metaphors of the complexities, the tragedies, the struggles, and the joys of life that we all experience. Maybe not quite to the degree of intensity as expressed in Beethoven’s late string quartets, but nonetheless our lives are often filled with dark as well as bright scenes in our own unfolding stories. In some ways, Beethoven’s late string quartets remind me of the Gothic tales of Flannery O’Connor, stories not near as complex as Beethoven’s compositions, but stories nonetheless describing flawed characters living in a world fraught with sin, death, and turmoil but one in which grace at times nonetheless penetrates.

Beethoven’s music is not elevator music. Nor is it the sentimental pablum of the popular songs of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Nor is it the repetitious simplicities of much of contemporary music. Nor is it inane like so much praise music. One must allow oneself to truly listen to these late quartets. To let them move within one’s ears and then to seep into one’s soul. These quartets are very dramatic. They can even be operatic. And they are deeply Christian in a way very little Christian music is. It seems to me that in his late quartets, Beethoven is attempting to come to grips musically with his own turbulent, erratic, and sad life, with a life of poor health, poor hygiene, poor relationships, and questionable sanity, A life filled with sadness, depression, loneliness, turmoil and catastrophe, as well as progressive deafness that became total during the period he composed his last and greatest works, including the massive seven movement String Quartet in C Sharp Minor that opens with a beautiful fugue (no string quartet had opened with a fugue before), a fugue containing seven key changes whose seven keys became the predominant keys of the following movements.

As a string player, I am amazed at the sheer genius of Beethoven’s string quartets. As a care giver coping with a spouse who has a progressive disease, a situation which brings about its own complex of emotions and turmoil, I find myself identifying with the dramatic emotions and turmoil portrayed in these string quartets. One can only marvel at what Beethoven managed to create in his lifetime despite all he suffered and despite many of the problems that he, as a very difficult and troubled person, created.

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