I do not know what my life would be like without the beauty and joy of magnificent music. Fortunately, recordings make so much great music available to one without leaving home, or in the car with playlists, and so on. I subscribe to Apple Music, and hence have access to millions of compositions and often as performed by various artists. One can also use YouTube, and listen and watch as some outstanding musicians share their art with us.
Again and again I return to certain compositions, including the set of Beethoven’s “Late String Quartets,” which number five or six, depending on how one counts the Great Fugue. These quartets constitute the bulk of Beethoven’s last compositions, composed the two years before he died (26 March 1827). For some reason, it is especially the slow movements that have most appealed to me. They bespeak a spirit at rest, after the turmoils of one’s earlier years are over. Here one does not hear the storms and outbursts of younger Beethoven, but soulful meditations composed by a man living on the edge of eternity. The listener is drawn with Beethoven into a realm that is not altogether of this world. And it is quiet bliss into which one enters. I truly thank God that Beethoven suffered as he did, and rose above his sufferings into sublime peace and transcendental love. How far Beethoven’s spirit advanced beyond the rage of the Eroica (Symphony #3 in E-flat, a truly revolutionary accomplishment) into the sublime language of the late Quartets.
As I listen to chamber music such as these string quartets, I often recall the words a fundamentalist preacher spoke to me one day in Iowa. The man was a farmer and a minister, who had attended college, and purportedly had a degree of education. One day when I mentioned the pleasure I take in chamber music, he asked me, “Why would you ever listen to chamber music?” He asked as if I were engaged in some truly bizarre activity, such as bungee jumping off a bridge with nothing but sharp boulders below. His question utterly puzzled me. How does one answer such a question? “Why do you love the ocean?” “Why do you enjoy viewing the greatest works of sculpture?” “Why would you ever read Shakespeare?” The questions are similar: If asked without a living appreciation of such beauty, the one asking is apparently dead (or numb) to the experience of beauty or truth in great works of art or nature. For me, such questions are incomprehensible. “Taste and see for yourself,” perhaps I should have said to him. But he would not have known how or where to begin in order to awaken his appreciation for such works of art. It requires hard work, and many are unwilling to make the effort to climb the mountain.
So much is lacking in American education. I wonder how many adults in Montana, where I live, would be willing to sit and listen to a late Beethoven Quartet, or to a Schubert Trio, or to a Brahms Piano Quartet, or a Bach Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord. Not many, I dare say. Many here think nothing of drinking beer even to the point of drunkenness, or of driving pick-up trucks speeding down a road, or of yelling themselves hoarse at some high school basketball game. But sitting still and listening to musicians perform some of the masterpieces of musical composition is probably beyond the limits of their imagination. They simply have not been exposed to such works, nor have they made the effort to discover them. As I just stated, so much is lacking in American education. We do not know or care to know how dead we are to so much beauty, or to works of philosophy, or to achievements of science. “Professing ourselves wise, we became fools.” Most sadly, education in America often means instruction, if not propagandizing and brain-washing; it rarely means inspiring a human being to seek the truth for himself or herself.
In reality, one must choose to educate his own mind, his own soul. There is no substitution for self-education, and its work requires a lifetime of devotion and hard work. As I reflect back on my years in high school, college, and graduate school, although I am truly thankful to a number of my teachers and professors for the learning they shared, I am also strongly aware that much of what I gained from formal education was done outside the classroom, through browsing library shelves of books, through listening intently to great music, from visiting museums, from sharing thoughts with fellow students, and so on. Formal education is at best a shell, a skeleton. If one is to flesh one’s learning, one must spend years educating oneself in the best that human minds and spirits have brought forth over time. And that requires a searching mind, and discipline, and one of the greatest of all gifts: a genuine love for learning, grounded in a humble awareness of one’s own ignorance, and need for right education. The day one thinks, “I am an educated man,” that day one’s true learning ceases. Learning is watered by the disturbing sense of one’s ignorance and shortcomings, not in pride in one’s accomplishments. “Seek and you will find,” not “Think that you have found, you have arrived.” As I see life: “Baby, you’ve just begun!”
Now, to what shall I turn my attention? There is so much lacking in my knowledge of truth and appreciation of beauty, how shall I begin? Who or what can guide me on the quest out of relative darkness into a greater light, into a deeper and fuller vision of the whole of reality? What little steps shall I now take on this journey of a thousand years?
—Wm. P. McKane
3 August 2019
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