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Early Evening Thoughts on Listening to Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies

Kurt Vonnegut quoteYears ago I read a collection of essays titled Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. I remember enjoying it well enough, but little else about it. I do have a pretty good recollection of its dimensions and heft–a thinnish trade paperback–and an indistinct notion of its cover’s color scheme. Today it is the inspiration for the title of this post. So it clings to a sort of much-reduced existence at some specific location in my brain.[1]

To turn on its head the snippet of a song that just emerged from its own–now throbbing–location up there, I’ve “remembered all of the useless things and none of the precious ones” about this book. Which assumes it had anything precious to say.[2]

So it goes.[3] The obsessions and passions of days gone by fade and leave us wondering: what did I think was so important about that? Not all things. No. But so much of it. (I’m well aware that I will wonder about much or all of what I’ll write here, and soon: Why those thoughts? What was so important about them?)

Please note: “Today” means yesterday, Sunday, October 20 when I wrote most of this. I spent today proofreading, footnoting, napping, and publishing. My cold is now mostly a memory.

Yes, I listened to all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies today. While feeling under the weather, which breaks a cardinal rule of mine. This rule is to never listen to music I love while feeling ill. But, I broke it. I’m not really that sick anyway. Beyond the usual, at least. I have a baddish but not terrible cold. Colds kill PALS (people with ALS), but this one will pass soon enough and it won’t take me with it. That’s one of the thoughts I had: this won’t kill me…

Some others thoughts I thunk

»  The most profound thought I had, and an entirely unoriginal one, was “truly, the most important thing in our tiny corner of this universe is love.” It is at the center of humankind’s holiest books, if sometimes obscured by much that is irrelevant. Some are hateful irrelevancies, sadly. Why is love so often difficult to practice?

»  The Beatles didn’t really need to drop acid to come up with “All You Need is Love,” and shouldn’t I have written about that in what I recently called a love letter to a friend? Nah, probably not.

»  As I often have, I thought about the three terrible blows of fate absorbed by my sister in quick succession beginning almost 12 years ago: the awful deaths from cancer of her beloved husband Andy (an extraordinary man), her best friend Gabby, and on one brutal day–by drowning–her older son J.P. and his son J.J. And I thought of how she has held up, perhaps at times holding on by her fingernails, and of the amazing job she is doing as a single parent to her younger son. The son who was barely two when his father passed, and who is growing up to be every bit as extraordinary as his dad was.

»  And I thought of the sadness I feel that I am unable to fix what I think of as the consequences of hurtful and continuing misunderstandings between two people I love very much. Knowing, at the same time, that it is all too easy for me as one outside of the relationship to believe that the good hearts of both can overcome the hurt and heal together.

»  Then I thought I need to write my sister, and so I did. I enjoy the fact that we have formed a small book club and are reading some of the same novels (first a Kent Haruf trilogy and now she’s reading a novel that I read and loved a couple of years ago, Ian McEwan’s Atonement).

»  I did think about the symphonies a bit, though as I often do with music, I was treating them with some disrespect and inattention. Not always though. Familiar favorite movements and stretches grabbed me as always, some shutting my eyes and demanding my full attendance. I don’t have the right education to fully understand why some passages in this music can overwhelm me, let alone the language to explain it, but they do. The mystery of it all is okay. I don’t need to understand or explain everything. This is as true of music as it is of life.

»  “It ain’t why, why, why, why, why. It just is. It just is.”[4] Still, I will never stop striving to glimpse more and more of the truth, about music and about life, to the best of my abilities and within the constraints of a human’s limited life span.

»  The mileage I’ve gotten out of these particular recordings of the nine Beethoven symphonies is another thing I pondered. They were the first Beethoven symphonies I owned on CD. Now I have multiple recordings of each symphony (seven of #3, in fact). I don’t often listen now to these “super budget” discs of recordings made by a relatively obscure Hungarian conductor, imagining that my recordings of better-known conductors must necessarily be better. But why? Only in recent years I have learned from Wikipedia and other places that the conductor János Ferencsik was well-regarded in the East and had opportunities to emigrate to the West, but chose not to do so. He died in 1984, so the recordings may be from the 1970s, I don’t know. They still sound good to me, and the reasons I believe I prefer other recordings to them are likely irrelevant, or should be.[5]

»  Before I get back to one last thought about Beethoven, I will recall the break I took between symphonies six and seven so that Joann and I could call and talk to my parents. I could only listen, really, though as always I had to interject a comment or two using my eye-gaze text-to-speech setup. Unfortunately, it is hard for them to decipher this “speech” over the phone, but Joann translates, sometimes reluctantly. Routinely, much of what I try to interject would be best left unsaid. Today I felt it was important to say, in response to their understandable complaints about the high price of gasoline in California, that I felt the price should be much higher. Then, when they talked about the long commutes of friends and relations (at least 150 miles round-trip every day for some), I replied “how stupid is that?” If I could have I’d have talked about what is now the near-certainty that catastrophic human-caused global climate change will leave my grandchildren–their great-grandchildren–a much less human-friendly, much more chaotic Earth on which to live. The possibility of a runaway feedback loop causing human extinction at some not-too-distant time, is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The planet itself will be just fine, of course, if vaguely Venusian. Given a long-enough leash, I might’ve railed about the cost of oil in terms of the countless lives lost in conflicts in the Middle East that, at the very least, are greatly exacerbated by the world’s addiction to oil. What is the true cost of a gallon of gas?

»  Despite what we think we know about Beethoven and his struggles, especially near the end of his life and, in particular, his rage or depression or whatever in regards to his increasing deafness; despite this, his last four symphonies are full of joy. The last movement of his last symphony incorporates Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” poem in a powerful, affirming, celebratory finish. Yet his more personal late string quartets are famously difficult and are even described as torturous. Presumably what is meant by this is that they were torturous to write, not that they are torturous to hear, but I don’t know. They are difficult. I certainly don’t claim to understand them, and I find them tough to love. But I finished a novel just last week that makes much of the last movement of his final quartet, the Opus 135 in F. Beethoven titled the movement “The difficult decision” and built it on a theme of notes that represent (and practically speak) the question and answer, “Must it be? It must be!” This is the kind of hook that I often need to, in my way, begin to appreciate a complex piece of music. In this particular case, and for today at least, this “Must it be? It must be!” fits very well with Van Morrison’s “It ain’t why, why, why, why, why. It just is. It just is.” (See above and footnote #4).[6]


  1. As I knew I would when I wrote about it yesterday, I looked up Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony by Lewis Thomas. It was written in 1980 and is still read (at Goodreads, at least 50 have rated it this year, and a handful have reviewed it in the past couple of years). I read it in 1991. The author died in 1993.[^]
  2. I was thinking here of a lyric from Elvis Costello’s “Hurry Down Doomsday” which goes He’s planting paperbacks for accidental purchase / Containing all the secrets of life and none of the useless things. [^]
  3. “So it goes” is ripped off from Kurt Vonnegut, as is the image at the top of this post. I’ve used the image before, on the solution page for my crossword puzzle So it goes. [^]
  4. The “It ain’t why, why, why, why, why” is from Van the Man’s 15-minute song “Summertime in England” and I’m sure I’ve shorted him a “why” or two. [^]
  5. I don’t really listen to CDs these days. I am physically unable to do so. But I have converted nearly all of my discs to MP3s (including a boatload of Neil Young’s music, which would give him a conniption fit), and they are nearly always just a click away. [^]
  6. For more on Beethoven’s 16th quartet, and for a free MP3 download of a recording of it, see its Wikipedia page. [^]


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