When my grandmother's appendix burst, I thought of Beethoven. At college, I was preparing for an evening of listening to the college orchestra when my sister called and told me that I needed to come home, that my grandma was dying and that I need to see her.
The long, cold drive from southeastern Minnesota to Bismarck, N.D., took six hours, often with my lead foot pushing harder on the pedal: I needed to see my grandmother — the woman who taught me to play cards, bake cookies, who was my teammate in Trivial Pursuit against ten of my cousins (of course we won) — before she died.
20 miles before Bismarck there are a series of hills rolling up and down. The city appears flirtatious: you can only catch a golden glimpse before plunging back down below the black horizon. This is when I placed a CD in my player and turned to the third movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Beethoven — that bombastic, brash, and sometimes belligerent man — may seem like the wrong choice when confronted with the death of a loved one. After all, the Fur Elise is too lilting, too fluid to provide a sturdy frame of tonal support; the Fifth Symphony, too joyous, too jarring in moments of reflection; the Waldstein Sonata too motion driven, too fast.
When many of us think about the Ninth Symphony we, of course, leap to the moment of choral bliss, singing Schiller's "An die Freude" with the bass solo signifying the "Turkish March" section of the symphony — but this is not where my mind leapt when I was driving to see my grandmother. Beethoven is little thought of for his serene, slow movements — those moments where listeners hold their breaths, following the music in gradual crescendos, and returning just to the moment just how the movement began: slow and ephemeral.
I skipped the first and second movements, halting before the final fourth, and sank into the sonorous harmonies of the third movement. The movement begins with a choir of woodwinds — bassoon, clarinet — lulling the listener into a lush harmonic world. The movement bobs and sways in 4/4, flowing into 12/8, with variations of 3/4. Violins ebb and swell. A theme and variations swirls between violins, violas, cellos.
Perhaps I played this piece to imagine my grandmother dancing again, to see her gently flowing to Beethoven's music. I swayed, too, in the car, thinking of the woman who taught me to waltz, how to follow the music — which is maybe the reason we listen to music anyway.
In the third movement, as the slight tension builds between the woodwind choir and the pizzicato strings, a horn solo breaks through, ascending and descending. At the time of Beethoven's writing, this solo was nearly impossible, even for skilled horn players. This was the reason I listened to this movement: I needed to listen to that heavenly ascent, sink in the rich tone of the horn, and remember that part of the reason we listen to music is to remember a way back to ourselves, to connect to the eternal, to slip away from the world of sorrow if only for awhile.
I sat with my grandmother, read her poems, watched her breathing grow faint in her dying. I thought of Beethoven as I gave her kisses, listening to the gentle in-out of her breathing, pulsing and flowing like the music that comforted me.
Taylor Brorby is a writer, environmentalist, and GLBT rights activist. He received his M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in 2013, and is currently a graduate student at Iowa State University in Creative Writing and Environment.