The first classical album I ever owned was a copy of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that I bought for 99 cents from the used album shelf in the old Urban Outfitters warehouse in West Philadelphia. I needed background music to study for the MCAT, and the 9th was alternately thoughtful and lively, good for absorbing chemistry and physics.
Before that, classical music meant the Hungarian Rhapsodies played in Bugs Bunny cartoons, and the aria from Pagliacci that I learned in fourth grade as a member of the West Orange Top Twenty Choir, that we performed, dressed as Italian peasant children, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn with the New Jersey State Opera.
I added the 5th and the 3rd and the Pastorale, the Violin Concerto, the Emperor Piano Concerto, and the Kreutzer and Spring sonatas. Beethoven led to Mozart and Bach, then Mendellsohn, Schumann and Chopin and Mahler. I listened to a CD of the Brahms D Minor piano concerto over and over on a long plane trip, which a year later let me hold my own talking to a pretty New England Conservatory student one afternoon in Boston. But that’s a story for another time.
I saw the Atlanta Symphony and Choir perform the 9th at Avery Fisher Hall during my chief resident year. Watching the orchestra, the string sections passing the melodies to each other, the winds and percussion adding punctuation, the themes introduced and recalled in different ways, I saw the architecture of the symphony as a whole, how it methodically build from the sunrise of the opening notes through the turbulence of the middle sections to the cellos’ first whispering of the Ode to Joy theme, which gets passed from section to section, from individual voice to small group to chorus, merging loud with strong, fireworks with exclamation points.
I approached music differently after that. No longer content to let it just pass through me on a journey from one side of the room to the other, I held on to it for a while, looked for the big picture, for theme and variation, key and tempo changes, the unique structures of a concerto versus a sonata versus a symphony, and how the language of a trio differed from that of a quartet or duet. I took apart pieces of music and put them back together like a kid playing with an old toaster. I saw the structure of DNA in the violin and viola duets of Mozart’s Symphony Concertante, and the chaos and aftermath of battle in the third movement of Brahms’ first piano sonata. I even found Bach hiding in the opening chords of The Beach Boys’ California Girls.
Two to the fifth came and went. I finished medical training, met and fell in love with Priya. My friends and I grew older, shared joy and sorrow, succeeded sometimes and failed sometimes and eventually stopped keeping track. Nikhil and Tarana arrived, filling our world. My parents passed away.
The Boston Symphony performed Beethoven’s 9th at Tanglewood last summer, and the four of us spread blankets on the lawn under a tree and settled in. I had only seen it that one time 32 years before, and had not heard it played start to finish since. I looked forward to watching it unfold, and comparing it to how I remember seeing it so long ago.
But instead of watching and analyzing, I closed my eyes and I listened, and I stopped thinking, and I just felt. Instead of locking my gaze on the different orchestra sections just before I knew they would pick up a melody or add a harmony, I blurred my vision and let the music come to me, as a whole. Priya was a few feet in front of me and just to the right, Tarana next to her and Nikhil sat at my side, his head occasionally leaning into my shoulder. The symphony surrounded and enveloped us, lifting us a tiny bit off of the grass. For the next hour the world was just the four of us in the sunshine, and the 9th: no conductor, no audience, no musicians, no stage.
The 9th Symphony was first played in 1824, in Vienna. Beethoven died three years later, on March 26th, exactly 137 years to the day before I was born. Thirty-two years after that I saw the 9th performed. Then thirty two years later, for the first time, I truly heard the ode to joy.
A happy two to the sixth to all who celebrate.
David Sable MD
writer, teacher, fund manager and retired reproductive endocrinologist