Transcendence: Beethoven’s Seventh

Each week, we’ll look at another example of what I call a “moment of transcendence” – a scene from a show, a passage from a book, or anything else, that I find soul-piercingly resonant: joyful, sad, awe-inspiring, terrifying, or whatever. These moments are highly subjective, so you may not feel the same way I do, but nevertheless I’ll try to convey why I find the fragment so powerful. I hope we can enjoy it together.

“I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Swap out “art” for “music” and this describes me perfectly.

I like Beethoven. Most of his work goes way over my head, but I get feelings when I listen to it, and sometimes – even more shocking – ideas!

With Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, there’s this part about 21 minutes in. I’ll play it for you. This 25-second clip is from Wiener Philharmoniker, directed by Leonard Bernstein.

I listen to this, and it feels like a vast empire falling apart, pillars crumbling, brave men and women making desperate stands and being overwhelmed. But more than that, it feels like destruction that must happen, even if no one person wants it to: not just bad events, but the blind and hidden force of which those events are but a symptom. I think of what W. B. Yeats must have meant when he wrote:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

My last novel, The Counterfeit Emperor, was in large part an attempt to capture that essence. Not sure it worked, but it gave me something to shoot for.

Schroeder would be so proud.

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