On the afternoon of 3/9/14, as a recipient of gift tickets from kind co-workers, I attended a recital in Chicago given by the masterful Mitsuko Uchida of Schubert’s Sonata in G Major, D. 894, and Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120.
During the recital, a few rows behind me I heard a continual wheezing sound, and eventually realized that it was an oxygen device used by a man in the audience. By intermission, half the row in front of the gentleman with the oxygen device had left the concert, along with a scattering of the nearby audience, and through the concert people continued to depart the area nearby the man with the oxygen device. Many pianissimo passages in the Schubert were fuzzed by the wheezing oxygen.
Throughout, I reflected on how a Christian should best respond to the situation, and literally, what Pope Francis would have done. Obviously, the best response was to let the gentleman with the oxygen device enjoy his concert in peace, and that the remaining audience did. And as it turned out, the Beethoven Diabelli Variations had many loud passages, so the wheezing device did not conquer Beethoven as it had disturbed Schubert. When a broken string banged out during the performance, I recalled that Beethoven was known for having an assistant stand by to remove the several broken strings that were known to be regular casualties of his performances. Beethoven is quite capable even today of generating his own disturbances!
When pondering about Pope Francis I recalled the news stories of that Saturday of June 22, 2013 when Pope Francis skipped a concert of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony scheduled to be performed by the RAI National Symphony Orchestra, directed by conductor Juraj Valcuha of Slovakia. When Giampiero Sposito’s picture of the throne-like empty white chair flashed around the world, I reflected that the Pope might have made a different point if he had simply sat in the audience, and put, say, a man with an oxygen device on the throne.
When Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, on 11/24/13, I immediately recalled that he had skipped a concert of Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.
It is safe to say that Beethoven’s (and Schiller’s) Ode to Joy and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis will be heard by more people–and move more people–than ever will read or be moved by all the encyclicals of all the popes in history.
(Yes, I’ve been taking my second spin through Evangelii Gaudium, and have read and taught dozens of papal writings, but I’ve heard the 9th Symphony and the Missa Solemnis hundreds of times).
Certainly, one can look on classical music as the music of the rich–and read through the list of wealthy donors in the programs–but that would be to misunderstand the universal gift of music, itself a world-wide natural language of peace, a gift in no small part the gift of Catholicism itself.
Beethoven was the Catholic son of a poor (and poorly paid–nothing new here) church musician, driven by his desperate father to learn all ninety-six preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier by the age of eleven, to be another Mozart (at almost 63, after over 52 years of study, I’ve not mastered half of these pieces). Mozart before Beethoven, and Schubert after Beethoven, were also Catholics. There was a time when one could enter almost any Catholic church and hear Mozart’s sublime motet, Ave Verum Corpus. And that is a telling point about music and Catholicism: Catholicism brought the most beautiful music of the world–from the chant to the symphonic masses–to the common everyday people in thousands and thousands of parishes around the world.
And we must understand who musicians are: Yes, a few of the elite musicians are wealthy and influential. But almost all master musicians are common people who work their keasters off for little pay for long hours and days and weeks practicing and learning and perfecting so they can bring the gift of beauty to others. And many people sacrifice–save up–to go to concerts. Each concert is a celebration of generosity: Behind every classical concert are multiple stories of gifting, from the often poorly-compensated work of the musicians to the sponsors of the concert to those who share tickets with others. My co-workers took the Christmas money I gave to them, and gave it back to me by buying me tickets. Music has never been more accessible than it is today, via Youtube, iTunes, and other portals. But never has truly great music been so precious and overlooked amidst all the din and thumping.
I recall that when I was about twenty years old and still in the seminary over forty years ago, I drafted and signed an open letter with a friend reflecting on whether it was a just act to hire professional musicians for a seminary liturgy when there were people suffering who needed our help. It was my later friend and teaching colleague, the late Fr. Stanley Rudcki, who was the conductor! Years later, I’ve realized that I had been spiritually tone deaf: we are called to bring both justice and beauty into the world, and that we have to find a way to keep doing both. As Dostoyevsky said, and Dorothy Day often quoted, “The world will be saved by beauty.”
I well understand that the Pope was rejecting the throne and not the music when he skipped the concert. But I suspect that while the press will sooner or later desert the Pope, Beethoven never will. The melody of the Ode to Joy has been put to hymnody the world over. While the Church is indeed a hospital for sinners, it is also the concert hall of everyday people.
Therefore, I think it would be a great idea for Pope Francis and Beethoven to team up on that joy thing, especially if the Pope puts a poor child on the throne, and takes a place for himself in the nosebleed section.
Perhaps there’s another open date on the calendar of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Juraj Valcuha of Slovakia for a little Beethoven. . . this time with the Pope in attendance.
I noted on the way to the 3/9/14 recital that the lovely little Chicago restaurant, Russian Tea Time, had apparently had its windows and glass door vandalized, presumably over the Russian incursion into Crimea. But Russian Tea Time is not exactly the headquarters of Mr. Putin, and could have easily been spared the damage.
I also packed about a half-dozen Clif bars (meal bars) in advance to give to the many people who beg outside the Chicago Symphony Center. All the bars were given away by the time we departed the parking lot (but $40 to park!), one block from the recital. For many reasons (I would rather spend the money on someone else, and the seats hurt!) I rarely go to Symphony Center any more. But I am thankful for the gift of great music. . . and am especially grateful to Ms. Uchida for her artistry. . .
© Copyright 2014, Albert J. Schorsch, III
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