“I shall grapple with fate; it shall never pull me down.” Beethoven had a spine of steel and I’m sure that he never hesitated to smack others with it. I don’t claim to be an expert on the life of our dear composer friend, but this much is clear: Beethoven was a hardcore, take-no-garbage-from-anyone, kick-you-in-the-teeth composer extraordinaire. The first very notes of Symphony No. 2 grab the listener by the throat and retain a savage, unrelenting grip throughout the first movement. You pay attention. You have no choice in the matter. This music of steel bled from a man who epitomized hard-fought triumph. His creativity and his very livelihood were threatened by his faltering hearing, yet he was able to compose some of the most brilliant music in existence. He grappled with fate and, ultimately, has emerged victorious.
Then there’s my buddy, Mozart. Under his frivolity lurked a deeply brooding soul. His music was best when he allowed his true emotions to surface, when he “got real.” He stopped selling out by creating happy, sugary compositions purely for public consumption; he wrote music that channeled his angst. He took a chance and bared his heart…and composed music that I can respect. He stopped being the Justin Bieber of his time. He thumbed his nose at expectation and followed his soul. It was a move that the public despised, yet it was one that evoked his greatest and most enduring (but comparatively unpopular at the time) works. He grappled with fate and, ultimately, has emerged victorious.
When Joan Tower, the PSO’s Composer of the Year, wrote Stroke, she was chronicling her brother’s struggle to adjust to an altered life. The devastating experience of a stroke had left half of his body paralyzed. He had to re-learn how to live within a body that now has limited ability. Ms. Tower observed her brother’s perseverance with the frustration and despair, which fueled her music. Stroke was an anxiety-ridden performance; I found myself becoming slightly uneasy as the notes reached an urgent fervor, symbolizing the inevitable frustration from battling with one’s own body. It is completely daunting to be imprisoned by the self, and Stroke portrays this harrowing battle brilliantly. Before the performance, Ms. Tower informed the audience that her brother couldn’t be at Heinz Hall, but was, indeed, there. I had no idea what this meant until I learned that he was watching the entire performance—a piece for which he had been the muse—via Skype. Though severely physically challenged, Joan’s Tower’s brother was still living. He was not permitting his body to prevent him from experiencing his sister’s music. He is adapting to new limitations, but he is staking a claim for his own existence and refuses to relinquish his life to it. He has inspired his sister, and through her music, he inspires the listener, as well. He is grappling with fate and, ultimately, will emerge victorious.