I'm best with highly narrative music. I do love me a good story, more than almost anything else, and music can certainly be a way to do that well. When there's no real story evident though (to me, at least), I find it much harder to grab onto it, emotionally speaking, and it becomes just sort of pretty sounds to me. I find this is especially bad with things like jazz and classical music, music that I know - I know - can be profoundly emotional artistic statements, but the meaning, the true genius of these pieces, always seems to be just out of sight for me, and I feel like I'm missing out. It's like listening to a foreign language: you may find it pretty, even beautiful, but you don't understand.
Sometimes, though, sometimes... I catch a glimpse.
Last year, I surprised my girlfriend with box-seat tickets to see Beethoven's Ninth Symphony performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for her birthday. She's a violinist, and has often cited Beethoven's Ninth as one of her favorite pieces.
Even if you know nothing about classical music, you can hum at least part of Beethoven's Ninth.
That's right, the Ode to Joy. You've heard it a million times, often in movies as a standard snippet when someone is suddenly overwhelmed with happiness and/or luck. Something good happens, and the full chorus bursts into the character's head for a few seconds. It's done so much that Ode to Joy has become cliché, overplayed, and you rarely really think about its meaning. I know I certainly never did, not really, beyond "That's an especially pretty one."
Luckily, my girlfriend was there with me. This wasn't the first time we'd gone to the symphony together, and other times she'd helped teach me just a bit of the rudimentary language of the pieces, just enough for me to get a toehold onto the meaning, things that I'm amazed I didn't see before ("It's a conversation between the violas and the violins") and that opened up the meaning to me, if only a little. This time, however, there was more to it.
See, first, it really helped to have the Ode in the context of the rest of the symphony. It isn't really an entity unto itself, and it doesn't burst in out of nowhere like it does in the aforementioned characters' heads. No, the chorus is actually the finale to the symphony (which lasts more than an hour). The symphony goes through some stormy, dark areas full of sadness and anger before getting there, and once you do hear the familiar melody, it's in a soft undertone breaking through the clouds like a bit of sunlight you didn't even realize was there at first. It builds, though, driving the darkness away, before finally bursting out in the well-known, triumphant chorus. The joy had to be earned.
Then, of course, it was important to understand the context in which it was written. Everyone of course knows that Beethoven went deaf, but for some reason, it seems, many people don't seem to realize that he continued to compose music long after his hearing loss first manifested. By the time he wrote his Ninth, and final complete, Symphony, he was almost entirely deaf. He had resolved, long ago, to continue to live through and for his art.
Think about that for a moment.
No. He writes the Ode to goddamn Joy.
It was a project he'd had in the back of his mind, it seems, for a long time, going back even before his hearing loss. But for him to bring it to fruition then, after such a long period of what must have been terrible hardship for someone such as him, is absolutely astounding. To celebrate the joy and wonder that this world has to offer, and the heart-swelling pleasure of connecting with fellow human beings, when it would be so easy to dwell on what the world had taken from him, is utterly amazing to me. The path to that joy was hard-fought and, yes, would eventually kill him only two years after the premiere, but to celebrate joy, to realize just how much there is to love and celebrate and enjoy in this world despite it all, is a profoundly powerful message.
She helped me understand all this, my girlfriend did, both with the passion of her words and with the intensity with which she listened. I was able to see the glory and the power of this work, now so often relegated to brief quotes on TV. And when we were married this past October, when together we walked down the staircase in front of our friends and families to promise to be with each other always, there was only one piece of music that was up to the task.
I still don't speak the language of music, not really, not yet. I'll probably never be truly fluent. But sometimes, sometimes... you realize that what you're hearing is what was in your heart all along.