I’ve been researching Beethoven since I’m including his Piano Concerto No. 5, the “Emperor Concerto,” in my novel-in-progress. I learned Beethoven studied with Haydn to master the skill of “counterpoint.” The lyrical second movement in the concerto is a perfect tribute to his mastery.
The melody haunts me. It lives, dancing in my aural memory, much as Beethoven must have experienced as he composed it, for he was losing his hearing in this year of 1809. He never performed the concerto, but left it to be performed by others. The notes are tender, calling one into their beauty. I thought it was sad that he didn’t hear it performed, but then, I suppose, he did in a way. I also learned that he didn’t name it “Emperor,” that others named it, and that he would not have appreciated the title. Alas.
So it was with great interest that I read in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal a review by T. J. Reed of Not I, Memoirs of a German Childhood, by Joachim Fest (1926-2006). The complacency of good Germans during the rise of Hitler has troubled many: If it could happen in Germany, why not anywhere? After all, Germany was “a culture that produced Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Beethoven.” Hitler’s rule, was, to many “good” Germans merely a “Nazi phase.” Things would change soon, surely. They had great pride in their culture, great faith in their own people.
But of course, we know things got worse, a lot worse. As I listen to Beethoven’s piano concerto and am filled with such exquisite joy, I understand how some Germans slid into complacency, thinking they could wait it all out, because of their strong culture. But “high culture,” art for art’s sake, brilliance, excellence, man at his greatest and most noble will never tame the beast within each of us. We shall always have a dark place, a shadowy corner, where something isn’t quite right, where cancer grows. For what happens in a society, happens first in each person’s heart.
Joachim Fest’s family were Catholic dissidents. How did they read the times? What gave Joachim’s father the vision to see what was happening as early as the 1920’s, when his Catholic Centre Party joined with Social Democrats against Communists and Nazis? By 1933 the father lost his headmaster’s job; soon the four children were removed from school; soon friends deserted them. And even with his vision, what gave Joaquim’s father the strength to risk everything to not be complacent, to not look the other way?
I believe (and I hope to find out more in the memoir) that the answer was his faith, his God. The title, Not I, refers to St. Peter’s reply to Christ, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” Just so, Joachim’s father refused to go along.
Excellence, perfection, talent, beauty, accomplishment, achievement. We all want these, whether we are born with talent or not, whether we are born with beauty or not. But their price is often pride, a natural (and deserved, we say defensively) flowering after a budding success. And a great pride means a great fall. As is often said, the higher you are, the farther you fall. Perhaps this pattern occurred in 1930’s Germany, and in the appeasing nations of the West as well, who didn’t want to risk their own peace, and trusted in their own “civilized” European world.
The glories of man – Michelangelo’s sculptures, Rafael’s paintings, the music of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, the stunning canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites, the poetry of Shakespeare, excellence in sports, theater, finance, medicine, or any other human endeavor – all carry the temptation of pride, the temptation to sit back and congratulate oneself, a temptation to be complacent. What corrects, prevents this? What pulls us down from the that peak in time?
Only God can correct, prevent, protect our world, humankind. Only seeing ourselves through our creator’s eyes. Only looking deep into our own hearts and shining a light into the shadowy places to see what lurks there. It is a good exercise of the soul – daily self-examination. What was my attitude today? Was I thankful or complaining? Was I judgmental or forgiving? Was my anger turned to love? Was I lazy? Was I envious? Was I gossipy and perhaps worse, enjoying the gossip?
The list goes on, a well-known catechism of sins the Church helpfully provides from Scripture. And today, on this Pre-Lenten Sexagesima Sunday, we are reminded, through the parable of the sower and the seeds, of our many choices each day, hour, minute. Is the soil of our hearts rich enough to receive a single seed of goodness (Godliness), from God? If yes, do we choose to water the seed with worship, Scripture, sacrament? Do we allow the seed to take root in our lives, in our families and communities?
And when the seed flowers, reaching for the light, and we see that it is good and beautiful and Godly, do we credit ourselves? Do we credit our culture? Or do we credit the sower of the seed? Do we admit our dependence, our powerlessness without the sower?
I think that Joachim Fest’s father knew the sower. Joachim’s father could see into the heart of man just as his creator sees. His heart was rich, loamy, a bed to receive the gifts of vision, strength and courage.
It is tempting, with even the smallest success, to preen like a peacock, feathers in glorious array. But such a temptation is the perfect and necessary time to reflect on sowers and seeds and fertile ground. This is the time to examine, confess, and repent, before climbing any higher. This is the time to conquer false pride with true humility.
We draw closer to Lent. We pray for humility so that we may truly see who we are and who we are meant to be.