I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the theater the other day. I like watching those old movies that had such an impact, especially on the big screen. They never have the same effect, though. Maybe it’s because I know what’s coming.
Watching this one did remind me of one thing: the part music can play in story telling. Close Encounters has that five note sequence: Re, Me, Do, Do, So. John Williams is a master at creating simple note progressions that become a short of shorthand for the story itself.
Music can be more than enhancements to the story. Music can be story in itself.
I recently read a biography of Beethoven. I big book. I had to read it in gulps. There was a lot I just scanned, the stuff about specific keys and chords. Completely over my head. I did learn a lot about the man himself, though. He was convinced at an early age that he had a gift. I wonder if much of his anger and depression and isolation was because he was afraid that his gift would be wasted or would not find its place in the world. All of us are born with a gift and few of us completely fulfil the promise of that gift.
Beethoven lived in the time of the French revolution. He was thrilled by the promise of freedom, of the end to inherited royalty, the end to privileged aristocracy. But then the revolution turned deadly. Hope then depression. Out of that came Napoleon, and Beethoven was again hopeful. A benevolent despot. Freedom, equal opportunity, an end to poverty and hunger. But then Napoleon made himself emperor and began to establish a new aristocracy, a new royal lineage. Napoleon was defeated and a return to the old order brought even greater oppression. Beethoven was once again thrown into depression.
The biographer again and again makes the point that Beethoven’s music begins somberly, then goes through turmoil and warfare and discordance, then ends with joy. Always ends with joy. Beethoven’s life and music were a lifelong search for joy.
This is nowhere more evident than in his last symphony, the ninth, named Choral. It begins with a whisper, uncertainty. It almost sounds like an orchestra tuning up. From there it moves to the suggestion of warfare, of marching armies, of drums and trumpets, of battles and bloodshed. It continues that way, growing ever more discordant and unsettling until…
The fourth movement is where Beethoven was heading all along. (It begins at the 52 minute mark.) Not far into it we encounter an old friend: that simple two note sequence we heard at the beginning. But it sounds more confident, more sure of itself. From there it moves on but this time there is not the sense of armies and battles and bloodshed. This time the music conveys the sense of anticipation, of hope maybe? A sense of something wonderful that is coming. Embedded in the music are little three or four note snippets that give promise of that simple tune we know is coming,
Then it just stops. Well, it doesn’t really stop. Even with headphones you have to turn up the volume to hear it. You can almost feel it rather than hear it. In my hillbilly understanding I call them bass fiddles. They are playing that familiar tune, the one we’ve been waiting for. In both my YouTubes the conductors have been conducting with great zeal and showmanship. Now they, both of them, are standing quietly, just watching and listening. I don’t know. Maybe it’s tradition. Maybe everybody does the ninth that way. But it does lend drama. It makes a statement.
We dance and shout and run the aisles and we think that is where joy comes from. But I think it’s that small voice, that whisper in my ear that can barely be heard. That whisper that says ‘I will heal’, ‘I will provide’, ‘I will protect’, and that one whisper that is more important than all the others. “I’m right here.’
Now instruments of a higher register join in and the cadence steps up a bit. The violins come in an octave higher. Then the brass joins in and we are lifted still higher. Now the phrases in their excitement are tumbling over each other, one beginning before the last one is done. At one point the violins go staccato, Bum Bum Bum, in their ecstasy, in their joy.
And now we come to the choral part. I don’t know how you feel about it but to me German is not a pretty language. But even at that we have been carried up to a place where even the singing transmits the feeling of joy. We have been transported by the music.
The YouTube has closed captioning and the words convey a foggy sense of wellbeing. Beethoven’s religion seems to have been an odd combination of faith and philosophy. His idea of a better life felt something like ‘the fellowship of man’. Better days ahead.
In some parts of the world, especially Japan for some reason, performance of the Ninth is a kind of new year celebration thing. It’s a way to begin the year with a new hope, a vague promise that the next year will be better.
But we don’t depend on vague promises or earthy philosophies. Our joy is not dependent on present or future circumstances. Our joy comes from Jesus, from the Holy Spirit, from God the Father.
It’s likely that the world around us will continue to get worse. People will continue to look for relief in sex and drugs. They will continue to wallow in fear and anger. But we can live above all that, in spite of circumstances. We can live in joy, the unspeakable joy of the Lord.
And then we can say to the world around us ‘Here. This. This is what you’re looking for.’