By Dr. David Hilden
“That’s a pretty heavy responsibility, Dad. I’m only 12.”
So said our son, Alex, when I informed him that when I am dying at some distant future time I want him to play a recording of the second movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Even if I am only partially conscious, maybe especially if I am only partially conscious, I want that five-note rhythmic motive to carry me off to wherever one goes at that moment. I’m not joking around here.
A decade later, Alex called me from his Oberlin College dorm room to happily inform me that “They were singing your song!” Singing? What song? Apparently there was an a cappella group singing my favorite Beethoven movement. What a good kid for remembering my wishes. I never did hear that vocal arrangement and I’m not sure what old Ludwig would have thought of people singing the violin part, but there you go.
My fondness for Beethoven goes back a few more years…
While I was in high school in south Minneapolis, there was a hand-painted sign on the cafeteria wall that said “Go to Prom. If The Boss were here, he’d go.” Thus began my lifelong obsession with Bruce Springsteen. My friends and I thought we were oh-so-cool going around with our Boss T-shirts. We also thought our ability to quote lyrics from The Who was super retro and a bit subversive. It’s fair to say that the Minneapolis Public Schools were not exactly a bastion of orchestral music back in 1980.
So it was perhaps a bit strange that it was during high school when I also discovered Ludwig van Beethoven. Somehow there was a guy in our little friend group who had the complete Beethoven set with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. These awesome performances undoubtedly lost a bit of their awesomeness after we had dubbed them from scratchy vinyl records to cassette tapes. I remember road trips listening to bad recordings of the Ninth Symphony on the car cassette and on our Walkman players―of course it had to be the Ninth―and I was blown away.
I marveled at the little tug-of-war between the sections in the opening of the fourth movement when Beethoven teased us with bits of each preceding movement. My heart raced as the strings frenetically played while the full chorus sang. I wondered who Elysium’s daughter was. I held my breath for the looooong “vor Gott” of the chorus. It was glorious.
Still listening on homemade cassettes, I expanded beyond the Ninth and soon came to treasure all of Beethoven’s symphonies. I now know that as perfect as the Ninth is, it is really the Seventh Symphony that is the best piece of music ever written. It’s a fact, look it up. (Although “Born to Run” by The Boss may lay claim to that title as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Some years later, I had a new revelation while listening to my hometown Minnesota Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth in concert at Orchestra Hall. Did anybody know that there is music being played at the end of the third movement? I sure didn’t. I guess I always thought there was just a long pause there, since my cheapo cassette recordings didn’t seem to have any audible music in that section! But I leaned forward in my seat as Osmo Vänskä coaxed out of the musicians the most exquisite pianissimo I had ever heard…only to roar into the finale. Sometime later, I had the chance to speak to Maestro Vänskä in an airport baggage claim (a big thrill for me), and I told him that what most moves me is when the Orchestra plays quietly. He talked about how he works to make that crisp but ever-so-delicate pianissimo sound. Brilliant.
Now, some decades after I first heard the Ninth on that car cassette player, I’ve expanded beyond Beethoven. I’ve come to know the awe of Verdi’s Requiem. Dies irae—my oh my. I marvel at the precision of Tony Ross and the rest of the cellos. I just love it when the bass section—led by women!—draws out those sonorous low notes with huge bow strokes. I just about cry at the horn solo in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. I have learned that Mahler could write a symphony―wow could he ever write a symphony! And most of all I have come to view a violin concerto as one of the greatest achievements of humanity, and to listen to James Ehnes, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn or Erin Keefe with the Minnesota Orchestra is an experience of pure beauty.
So now I have my seat in Orchestra Hall, middle section, just a bit to the left of center (better for soloists!), not too close but not too far back. I go a dozen times a year as a treat to myself. I go by myself not because I don’t have friends―I actually do have a couple friends―but because it is a retreat of sorts for me. I have my routines. Like my secret parking spot in the Hilton underground ramp. I tip the reliably-present accordion player in the skyway on the way into Orchestra Hall. I plant myself in my seat, I read every word of the program notes; I learn a bit about the composers. Sometimes I dress up a bit; often I’m in jeans. Sometimes I close my eyes and sometimes I just watch the left hand of one of the string players and wonder how such intricate movements are possible.
But ultimately the result is always the same, for it is the music that matters. Once again Maestro Vänskä and the incredible musicians remind me of just how grand life can be.
And I’m ever so thankful for that.
Dr. David Hilden, who traveled with the Minnesota Orchestra on its 2016 European Festivals Tour as tour physician, is the Director of Hospital Medicine at Hennepin Healthcare and serves as Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He can be heard on the weekly Healthy Matters radio program on WCCO Radio and he produces a blog at myhealthymatters.org.
Photos by Travis Anderson