Brian Ganz

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How Beethoven's Choral Fantasy Speaks To Our Times

As I prepare to perform Beethoven's great Choral Fantasy later this month at St. Mary's College of Maryland and then in mid May with the Cathedral Choral Society at the National Cathedral in Washington, I am struck by how timely its message is. As the anonymous poet Beethoven sets to music writes (in Stanley Appelbaum's wonderful translation), "Forces that pressed on us roughly and hostilely/reform themselves into feelings of exaltation./ Whenever the magic charms of music hold sway/ and the consecration of words is uttered/ splendid things take shape of necessity,/ night and storms turn into light."

Daily we see evidence in the news of such hostile and rough forces, whether in the tensions and injustices surrounding our national wound of racism or in this unusually volatile election season. The poet's message is a hopeful one, however, and affirms the power of the arts to make a contribution to healing and transformation.

As a society we are still grappling with "night and storms," but each of us has the power to light a candle in the darkness. Of course, any work of art is itself a candle: Its beauty or truth or emotional power needs no further justification or reason for being! But art also has a dual value in its power to inspire. Inspired by a beautiful poem we might be unusually forgiving of our neighbor. Uplifted by a lovely painting we might smile at a stranger. And moved by a beautiful work of music, like the Choral Fantasy, we might write a letter to the editor that touches readers and inspires compassionate action.

I believe it was that dual value that moved Leonard Bernstein to write, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." But my favorite quote about transformation comes from the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin: “Each human being has the eternal duty of transforming what is hard and brutal into a subtle and tender offering, what is crude into refinement, what is ugly into beauty, ignorance into knowledge, confrontation into collaboration, thereby rediscovering the child’s dream of a creative reality incessantly renewed by death, the servant of life, and by life, the servant of love."

As I practice the Choral Fantasy, I can't say that I always hold such lofty thoughts in mind! But I try to return often to the poem Beethoven sets, grounding my practicing in its message of beauty and strength. I hope you will join us on May 15th at the National Cathedral at 4pm as, together with the Cathedral Choral Society under the direction of J. Reilly Lewis, we fill the National Cathedral with Beethoven's luminous music and the poet's "consecration of words."

- Brian Ganz, April 2016