If I asked you to pick the first word that comes to mind when I say "Beethoven", what would it be?
Maybe it would have to do with one of his famous traits, like Temper or Passion? Maybe Deafness, for the disability he surmounted? Maybe Joy, for the 9th Symphony's famous choral finale?
My word would be Strive.
The essence of Beethoven's music, and his life, are linked to this word. In most of his music, he relies on rhythm and propulsion to constantly push forward, and he wages a war on the expectations of his audiences by throwing rhythmic grenades at us through his use of heavy off-beat accents and syncopations. He embodies the archetypal hero's struggle against all odds, in the way his music charges forth, encounters dramatic obstacles, and then overcomes them and triumphs through what feels like sheer force of will, but is actually deft skill and imagination.
Beethoven took this tack in his personal life, too. He keenly felt the disadvantages life dealt him, and gathered his strength and determination in battling them, from his alcoholic father, to his loss of hearing, and even in his politics. On his deathbed, as a storm raged and thundered outside, he sat up suddenly and raised his fist to the sky in a last gesture of revolt before he died - not willing to surrender the fight even up to the last moment. I have a feeling he entered the world that way, too - a tiny baby shrieking in protest with clenched fist raised.
He was not a man to take hurdles lying down. He strove to conquer them. And his music is full of striving; an unquenchable life force surges through everything he wrote, and seems to always be rushing headlong towards some goal. That's what gives his music such direction, buoyancy and urgency.
Striving is a glorious, purposeful and very human action. It also implies a sense of longing: we strive because there is something we want that we do not currently possess. That yearning is the flip-side of all the passionate struggle, and in Beethoven's slow movements of music, he bares his heart and shares that longing with us. He is able to stop time in the most astonishing ways, by spinning out heavenly melodies.
In two weeks I have the honor of performing his Violin Concerto in D Major with my talented colleagues of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. This is a piece full of striving and longing, and examining those states of being is a large part of what I feel I'm constantly doing, as I hone my musical craft each day. Pushing toward the goal, and being here now. I think we are all engaged in those two tasks, no matter what we do. And I look forward to sharing my journey with you over the coming two weeks.