Sensucht

September 17, 2014

"Love alone, yes! love alone can make your life happier. O God! grant that I may at last find her who can strengthen me in virtue, whom I can legitimately call my own.” - LVB

 

It’s autumn, with that chill in the air that quickens your step, yet it's still warm enough to walk the streets without a jacket. Red brick sidewalks are beginning to be speckled with yellow leaves. I'm inside, looking at the slow movement of the concerto today; a long moment of reflection and an ecstatic musical prayer, full of longing, contrasting the striving energy of the first movement.

 

Autumn is the season of longing and nostalgia. It’s rather amazing that just as all the trees are dying, they explode into their most outrageous colors. This mingling of tantalizing vitality with the approach of death is so poignant. The beauty of everything is laced with an ache in the chest that is almost impossible to translate into words. The German language has a perfect word for this state of longing, love and pain—sensucht. If you look it up in any translation dictionary, you’ll see how everyone seems to struggle to define it, coming up with lots of states of longing and intensity, and finally giving up with something along the lines of “this is as close as we can get”.

 

Beethoven wrote six songs entitled Sensucht, and much of his other work seems centered around this kind of deep yearning. Of course, when we think of longing, we can’t help but eventually connect it to romantic love—longing for a true companion to love and share life with. Beethoven never married, and became increasingly isolated throughout his life by his growing deafness. He praised art as his goddess, to which he utterly devoted himself. And yet he also had some sense of what companionship would mean to him, and expressed a visceral longing for that kind of elusive love: "Love alone, yes! love alone can make your life happier. O God! grant that I may at last find her who can strengthen me in virtue, whom I can legitimately call my own."

 

 

I think love stirs us indiscriminately; when it touches us, it stretches our hearts a little wider, and we seem to have more to give, not just to our beloved, but to the world around us. We see with more openness, and more joy. We notice with pleasure and compassion the specifics of our world—the passing stranger’s expression of distractedness, the power a melody holds for us. When we love more, we kind of can’t help loving everything more. And the more we see, the more the world is able to touch us and widen us further. The stretching hurts, often it can involve heartbreak, but once we really commit to the process of allowing it to happen, we want to be in the center of it and have love really take hold of us in every realm of our lives.

 

Beethoven lived right in the center of that longing, I think. It was a well inside him, and desire, despair and compassion flowed together from it. And his one way to focus that stream and allow it to touch the world was to pour it into music. Some of the moments in the middle movement of the Violin Concerto are almost unbearably intimate; I feel like I’m right inside his most private struggles, that he’s made me, and any of us who listen, his companion, and invited us to share the deepest places in his heart. Being connected to another in this vulnerable way feels almost sacred, because it is so precious and rare in our busy, self-consumed lives.

 

Do you know what it’s like to be apart from your beloved, and to miss them so much that you almost physically ache with the longing to be able to just touch and hold them? The naked beauty of Beethoven’s writing does that to me sometimes—I want to reach out and take his hand, and the hands of those I love, and agree that we’re all in this together. All the pain, the unnamed longings that swell in us and seem to threaten to break us, and all the visions of beauty, every yellow leaf on every red brick that we long to share with another; someone else has felt it, taken note of it, and led the way down the path for us to follow, and we’ll all get through it together.

 

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