The Heroic Journey and the Song of Life

Beethoven and Boyond: a Four Year Musical Odyssey

Beginning this year, Artistic Director Michael Palmer and the Bellingham Festival of Music embark on a four-year thematic venture entitled The Heroic Journey and the Song of Life. In this article, Mr. Palmer outlines the concept behind this programming initiative, how it is reflected especially in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as the other composers whose works are featured in these Festival concerts, and which inspire us today as audience members and performers.
Throughout history, humans, as the only creatures on earth we know of capable of contemplating their own existence, have sought an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and, more directly and personally, “What is the meaning of my life?” The pursuit of the answer to this question has taken as many different forms as there have been civilizations and cultures to pursue it.

This search for meaning is a compelling and driving force for each of us individually. For some, this preoccupation is totally unconscious. For others, it is quite conscious. For most, it is probably some of both. Our preoccupation with this basic question is a condition of our lives as human beings.

Among the most inspired results of this search for meaning, are the great religions, philosophies, myths, literatures and arts of the world. They are all interconnected and form a precious repository of our history and wisdom. One of the strong currents flowing through this repository is the concept of heroism as an essential element of a meaningful life. That is to say that meaning is derived from the heroism called upon to achieve the many stages of one’s growth and development. A life with meaning requires heroism and becomes a Heroic Journey.

The great artists and composers are driven by their art to live the Heroic Journey. Their creations are inspired by their own particular and unique responses to the experiences of that Journey. These works form a Song of Life and hold for each of us potential messages of inspiration, solace, and joy as we proceed along the path of our personal lives.

From the minds and souls of great creative geniuses, these Songs of Life share with us the riches of discovery forged in the crucible of personal struggle and enlightenment.

A heightened awareness of this relationship between the Heroic Journey and the Song of Life leads to recognition that musical performance is a living art offering much more than simple entertainment.

The repertoire we will perform during our exploration of the Heroic Journey and the Song of Life covers almost three centuries. None of this music has survived history merely because of its entertainment value. Far more: It offers contact with our own potential to rise and respond to the profoundly meaningful in life. In these great works we can find inspiration and sustenance, for our own heroic journey.

Certainly there is no life journey of an artist which required more heroism than that of Ludwig van Beethoven. Although his grandfather, for whom he was named, was a respected court musician, Beethoven came from a poverty-stricken background. He was a child prodigy, whose alcoholic father saw his son’s talent as an asset to be exploited. As a child, Beethoven suffered all of the physical and mental abuse associated with his father’s alcoholism.

Despite these difficult beginnings, Beethoven struggled through, eventually becoming the most sought after young virtuoso pianist in Vienna, and the darling of the Viennese aristocracy. However, his strong sense of independence asserted itself early. He was determined to be valued on his own terms, not just as a piece of aristocratic property. It was his belief in the common man which most interested him and led him to the writings of Goethe, whom he greatly admired.

Tragically, at the apex of his career as a performer, Beethoven was stricken with the worst possible affliction for a musician. Deafness came upon him rapidly, and was nearly complete. He also suffered a completely unfulfilled personal life, including responsibility for a recalcitrant and ungrateful nephew who caused him no end of financial and emotional grief. Beethoven was a man who certainly had every reason to say “No” to life. Instead, he chose a different path.

Beethoven chose the heroic way. Not only did he triumph over personal adversity, but his final message to us is of our own universal ability to triumph over oppression of the human spirit in whatever form we find it, and our universal connection with all mankind through brotherly love.

It is well worth noting that Beethoven did not shrink from the most difficult and dark emotions. Indeed, these provided some of the most colorful and compelling elements of his music; yet his work ultimately serves to reaffirm our potential to triumph in the end, and his individuality of expression allows it to succeed on the most personal and intimate level for each of us.

My fervent hope and expectation is that living closely with the spirit of Beethoven during these four years will be a source of great inspiration to us all.