The Musician’s Table

Posted by Jill Carattini, on January 20, 2018
Topic: A Slice of Infinity

An important manuscript long thought lost was rediscovered hiding in a Pennsylvania seminary on a forgotten archival shelf. The recovered manuscript was a working score for a piano version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” which means “grand fugue.” Apparently, grand is an understatement. The work is known as a monument of classical music and described by historians as a “symphonic poem” or a “leviathan”—an achievement on the scale of the finale of his Ninth Symphony. The work is one of the last pieces Beethoven composed, during the period when he was completely deaf. The markings throughout the manuscript are in the composer’s own hand.

In fact, such markings are a particular trademark of Beethoven, who was known for his near obsessive editing. Unlike Mozart, who typically produced large scores in nearly finished form, Beethoven’s mind was so full of ideas that it was never made up. Never satisfied, he honed his ideas brutally.

A look at the recovered score portrays exactly that. Groups of measures throughout the 80-page manuscript are furiously canceled out with cross-marks. Remnants of red sealing wax, used to adhere long corrections to an already scuffed up page, remain like scars. There are smudges where he rubbed away ink while it was still wet and abrasions where he erased notes with a needle. Dated changes and omissions are scattered throughout the score, many of these markings dating to the final months before his death in 1827.

Juan Gris, The Musician’s Table, oil on canvas, 1926.

I think there is something encouraging about the labored work of an artist chasing after genius. Beethoven wrestled notes onto the page. For him composing music was a messy, physical process. Ink was splattered, wax burned, erasers wore holes in the paper. What started as a clean page became a muddled, textured mess of a masterpiece ever unfinished.

I am jarred by the finality of certain sentences on the ancient lips of those who evoke the mystery of faith: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”(1) The Greek wording here carries with it the force of an expletive. Translators use the word “behold” to convey the finality that Paul speaks with force. If it were a statement given as a contemporary text it would have come in all caps: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ: NEW CREATION. Paul is emphatic. The Christian in Christ has been made by the Spirit into something new. Calling on Christ, to use his own words from the cross, it’s finished. Before she has even tried to live well, before she has even labored as a disciple, the marred and muddied scene of her heart has been made abruptly and finally clean and new. The Father has handed us the masterpiece of his Son and told us that when God looks at us God sees perfection.

Though I stand amazed at this mysterious, nearly violent grace, it is also easy for me to stumble at the thought of it. I imagine God handing me a clean paper and asking me to hold it in a world full of ink and dirt and choices. And I immediately wish I would have been more careful. I picture the white page given to me and think of all of the smudges and eraser marks I’ve added to it, some of them from lessons learned the hard way, others merely from bumping into life as I walked along.

Life is far more disheveled than we would like it to be. People get angry and depressed and sick. We struggle with remaining hopeful in the dark, seeing through bouts of self-deception, believing both the deceptive insecurities and the inflated depositions we hold on ourselves. Our lives don’t turn out how we planned them, and the roads we choose aren’t as straight as we would like them to be. Even so, Paul seems to say, the Christian’s vital truth is that God is kind and faithful through the mess because Christ himself has come into the very midst of it. “For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”(2)

Someone has called Beethoven’s masterpieces works of “three-dimensional” art. There is a texture and a character to his manuscripts that display an artist who went beyond merely writing the notes, but stretched himself, and the page itself, to make a symphony. All the more mellifluous is the work of Christ. Life in Christ is fleshed out of us. But it is first his own flesh. Our scuffs and blotches are wrought with the work of human one who descends into the mess of life to shape us. Like a composer willing to labor over his pages, the potter’s hands have not been afraid to get dirty. Our lives, which may seem glued with corrections and shaped with notations, are finally marked with the signs of the master whose work in making NEW CREATION is decisive.

 

Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

 

(1) 2 Corinthians 5:17.
(2) Romans 8:28.