The lives of great artists often hold deep lessons for the rest of us. This useful understanding comes from the work and life of the great composer Beethoven.
It seems that being deaf, Beethoven could hear the music of the Universe, unheard by the rest of us. The String Quartet No. 14 in C♯ minor, Opus 131, played without pause, seems to gather the slow and steady rise of the sun, mixing it with the unyielding turn of the Earth around the fire in its center. He somehow weaves the discord of all the roots on Earth gripping further in the ground with the harmony of the winds that swirl through the mountains and over the oceans. Within this is the slight pumping of the hearts of all the creatures stunned to be here. Listening to a performance of this quartet, Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Beethoven, remarked, “After this, what is left for us to write?”
Completed in 1826, Opus 131 was considered groundbreaking, offering seven emotionally rising movements instead of the traditional four. Beethoven’s compositions for string quartet rush players into dynamic and intimate relationship through their commitment to the music, the way we can only know the wisdom of experience through actual relationship, learning how to play the music of life together.
This is the inspiring lesson of Beethoven’s Opus 131: it mirrors the non-stop demand of life to have us make music of what we’re given, not knowing what will happen. Inevitably, having to play seven movements without pause, the instruments will go out of tune. With no time to re-tune their strings, musicians have to adjust and improvise within the structure of the music. In this piece, Beethoven insists on allowing both the harmony and discord of life to be present. He challenges musicians to see the movements through, even out of tune.
Likewise, we are challenged every day to say yes to the movements of life, to see it all through, without pause, staying in relationship to the music of life and each other, adjusting as we go, not knowing what will happen. Yet even out of tune, this messy and magnificent practice, so essentially human, will let us hear—briefly—the music of the Universe being the Universe. To hear this larger music while grinding out the smaller music of our lives is what sages of all traditions have called glimpsing eternity.
So, though there are times to rest and times to rehearse, the blessings and resources of life rush into the flawed and raw openings that come when we keep playing without pause, reaching for ways to find the unknown harmonies between us. For all his brilliance of composition, Beethoven’s strength of heart confirms that a moment of meeting life completely is more rewarding than an ounce of perfection. It’s inspiring and helpful to realize that saying yes when we feel depleted and out of tune wakes the sleeping genie of our soul who smiles to say, when looking at our trouble, “I’ve been waiting for this. You have everything you need.”
A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of a time when you had to meet life without pause. In what way were you stretched out of tune? How did you adjust? Did adjusting reveal any unknown qualities to you?