In retrospect, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
When I told my piano teacher I wanted to learn to play the Waldstein, he gave me the look you might give someone who announced an intention to climb Everest. On her hands. Beethoven’s 21st piano sonata is notoriously difficult for professional pianists to play, never mind an amateur like me.
But it’s a piece I love for its driving rhythms, its bursts of sunny melody and exuberant runs up and down the scale, its bold contrasts between dark and bright, and I was determined to give it a shot. All the more determined because 2020 marked the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth (or #BTHVN2020, as the publicists like to call it), and it seemed like just the right time. Unlike my teacher, I like anniversaries and enjoy celebrating them, sometimes to a fault. (My teacher: “All this hype about Beethoven’s 250th gets annoying.” Me, carefully avoiding mention of my pile of semiquincentennial-inspired recordings, biographies, T-shirts, and commemorative stamps: “Oh, definitely.”)
Perhaps the mere fact that it was his 250th anniversary should have warned me about a few things, too. A special year for Ludwig van Beethoven, God rest his turbulent soul, was probably destined to turn catastrophic. The man himself doubtless would have seen it coming. No one knows the potential for cruelly ironic twists of fate like a brilliant composer, a man born to make music, who goes deaf in his prime.
So perhaps it was inevitable that, back when I was looking forward to a summer of attending and reviewing performances of all nine symphonies, it was all about to crash and burn. But my own private disappointment over the loss of those performances—and all the other artistic experiences wiped out by COVID—was the tiniest drop in a vast ocean of loss for the arts community. Musicians, dancers, actors, conductors, directors—not to mention costumers and stage managers and all the other members of the behind-the-scenes army that support every performance—saw their careers stall and their livelihoods vanish.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, back when I was looking forward to a summer of attending and reviewing performances of all nine symphonies, it was all about to crash and burn.
What struck me, and what continues to inspire me, is how so many of these people just didn’t stop doing what they do. They played or sang concerts live online from their apartments. They held drama classes. They read stories via Facebook Live and Instagram. As the pandemic wore on, they started performing plays and creating art installations outdoors. It wasn’t just for money, although it would have been excusable if it had been—few salaries are as unstable as that of an artist, especially an artist whose audience has suddenly been snatched away. For many, it was because they needed to make art, and they knew we needed to receive it. As artist Makoto Fujimura puts it, “If you’re an artist, musician, writer, poet, this is a critical moment. . . . What artists can do to internalise the pain and the fractures of the world and the dark realities of the world can articulate hope for us throughout future generations.”
Meanwhile, with no concert halls to go to and no orchestras to hear live, I consoled myself with the Waldstein. I even had much more time to practice it, now that my daily commute was suspended. With my lessons moving to Facetime and Zoom, I happily pounded away at the sonata. And pounded, and pounded, and pounded.
And then the pain started.
I cannot swear that this pain—which started in the fingers of my left hand and slowly, relentlessly traveled all the way up to my shoulder—came solely from spending so much time practicing the Waldstein. I use my hands for many things, from typing for several hours a day, to infrequently putting in a few more stitches on various long-running cross-stitch projects. But it was, at the least, highly coincidental that right then, with all that left-hand pounding going on, I got a repetitive motion injury that led to my playing the piano with a wrist brace on, and eventually with a frozen shoulder.
For I didn’t stop playing (though I did move on to the second and third movements of the piece, which have a lot less pounding). Through all the chiropractor visits and all the time in the wrist brace and all the pain, I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop, especially not at this particular moment. Sometimes, at the time when you need music (or literature or art or dance) the most, it seems as if all the forces in the world are conspiring to keep it from you. Or even using it to attack you! But during this year that stole so much from us, I simply could not give up my piano.
For all of us, in our own ways, 2020 was the kind of year where you go in expecting magnificent symphonies in concert halls, and end up playing a sonata with a busted arm on a piano that’s so old and worn that the piano tuner refuses to come work on it anymore. You probably have your own personal version of that analogy. Even Beethoven had his, way back in his own time. Arguably the greatest composer who ever lived struggled with relationships, fought with patrons and publishers, and hid in a basement during the French attack on Vienna with pillows over his ears to try to protect what remained of his hearing. At one point, he wrote, he had thoughts of suicide, and only “virtue . . . and my art” kept him from it.
The fact is, great art rarely arises from perfect circumstances. It spills out of the broken places in our lives. Like a candle flame, it shines brighter in times of darkness than it does when the sun is out and everything is going wonderfully. It can, as my favorite composer knew, even save lives. It’s as if God gave us this gift especially for the dark times, when we would need it most. And it’s those dark times that show us—as those artists performing virtual concerts and outdoor plays know—how very deep that need goes.
“The characteristic common to God and man is apparently . . . the desire and the ability to make things,” writes Dorothy L. Sayers in The Mind of the Maker. That desire and ability have shown themselves on stages large and small during this particular dark time, from the orchestras coming together via dozens of Zoom windows to somehow create perfect harmony, to the solitary pianist in a living room, playing for the sheer love of it. And not just for artists, either—the God-given desire to create something lovely revealed itself in every person who put up a Christmas tree early out of sheer need for the extra light and color, or tried a complicated dessert recipe for Thanksgiving to revive some of the excitement that’s supposed to belong to the season.
I played Beethoven this year with a mixture of emotions. Excitement over the chance to tackle a beloved piece. Aggravation and frustration over the injury. A little embarrassment, too, that when I tried to take advantage of the extra time to work on it, my body wasn’t up to the challenge. But mainly, I felt gratitude that this very imperfect pianist with her tired-out piano was given the great gift of laying hands on some the most beautiful music ever written. It’s a memory that will stay with me when the pain and the pandemic are behind us, a hope that beauty can always be found even in the midst of brokenness.