Beethoven and Michelangelo: Colossal Utopianism

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Music, to me, is not merely one of life’s great pleasures but an essential for survival superseded only by air, water, food, shelter and education. All of these, plus music, contribute to good health, which is what survival is all about. Love is a luxury. As I write this on a chilly morning in London, I have music playing on BBC Radio Three. Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto, if you must know.

And yet there are many people who do not, as they live and breathe, consciously have music as part of their lives. Some seek to learn it and I have spent many years teaching it. Not only opera, as you would expect, but classical music.

Regular readers of my Operavore articles know that my musical loves extend far and wide and I use them to inform the way I experience opera and classical music. When I teach, though, I find that there are many people who are not even hooked in to much popular music and, therefore, I need other tools to get my ideas across. I have found, because we are such a visually-oriented world, that works of art are often used effectively to communicate comparable ideas and sensations in the abstraction that is music.

As in any subject, teaching and learning music is about knowing the foundations before going off in more exotic directions. I often catch the attention of those I am teaching, especially young people, by stating “Leonardo da Vinci is to art what Bach is to music. Raphael is to art what Mozart is to music. Michelangelo is to art what Beethoven is to music.” More experienced music lovers, especially those whose ears are much more sensitive than their eyes, may quibble with my formulation, and that is fine. But, believe me, it really works. Even if most of my students have not seen the original works of art, our lives are so saturated with imagery that it is possible to summon in one’s mind Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, Raphael’s sublime depictions of the Madonna and Child, and countless works by Michelangelo.

I plan to write occasional articles for you about the visual arts and opera. Because WQXR is doing a special concentration this month on Beethoven, I wish to begin with him and the man who I see him connected to in so many ways, il divino Michelangelo (1475-1564). This artist was often referred to as divine during his lifetime not only for his awe-inspiring talent but for what seemed a genius linked to God and only possible to have received from God. We speak often of “God-given gifts” (being in good health; having a beautiful voice) but I think that gifts and talents are not the same thing. We must use our gifts to develop our talents. 

Michelangelo and, I believe, Beethoven were seen in their times as almost otherworldly. They were not sociable. Frequently they were dirty and unkempt, seemingly distracted from the conventions of daily life. They were not unconventional or non-conventional in the ways of Klimt or Berlioz, but so off in the realms of their own creativity and beliefs that they almost seemed to lack all cognizance of all that surrounded them. This, of course, is not true. They were brilliant and highly schooled in literature and philosophy but, as the geniuses they were, they took their erudition and produced extraordinary works of art.

Many geniuses are partially blind to the civilized subtleties around them and they concentrate on life’s major truths. They present the truth they see, feel and understand. Beethoven’s music is so life-affirming and we get a sense of the greatness of human potential in his music and in Michelangelo’s art. In the case of Beethoven, I think, this is because he did not always write for courtly types but explored his inner landscape. In a similar way, Michelangelo was among the first freelance visual artists. He did commissions, of course, but filtered them through his own aesthetics and convictions.

Among the many things that connect the Beethoven and Michelangelo I see is what I call Colossal Utopianism. Rather than my defining the term for you, better to find your own way to it by listening to Beethoven’s music and looking at Michelangelo’s art.

Ways of Hearing and Seeing: Examples

You might look at the sculpture of Moses he created for the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Look at this image while listening to some of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The sculpture and the music address human power, potential and, perhaps, limitations.

While many creative artists speak of God, very few seem to offer either a depiction of God or the sensation of what it is like to feel that you have been abandoned by God. Michelangelo and Beethoven certainly did this and, I would venture to say, so did Milton and Blake. Bach and Mozart might give a feeling of God in their music as omnipotent and consoling, but Michelangelo and Beethoven present Him as more volatile and dynamic.

To demonstrate this I often play for students Florestan’s wrenching aria at the start of the second act of Fidelio. He is imprisoned, it is dark and cold and, at first, he has little hope. Then he envisions his wife Leonore as an angel who will save him. As sung by Jon Vickers, you get the fullest sense of “Gott Welch Dunkel Hier” in its pathos and power. I like to show some imagery from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the wall (not the ceiling) of the Sistine Chapel. I do not show many images, but might begin with one that suggests misery followed by one that puts the image in a larger context. Then, as the music progresses, more light and optimism may enter. I will ask you to conjure your own image here rather than my providing one.

Michelangelo’s most famous depiction of God is in the Creation of Man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (above, left). We know it so well (as we do many Beethoven works) that we forget how radical it is. This shows a strong and dynamic image of God as well as man’s potential, not just the beauty of the form. To me, this moment is about the transmission of the Divine Spark, offering opportunity but also marking humans as both perfect and imperfect. That is the story of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

As you listen to recordings or radio transmissions of music, whether symphonic, chamber, solo vocal or opera, try to do it with eyes closed. This will concentrate your perception in your ears. Do not analyze. Then, you might try to conjure or summon imagery that you know. It could be realistic, like a painting, or just a wash of color, light and abstraction. All are valid because they are your truth.

Then, take this one step further. Do not try to conjure or summon imagery. It might be that, with eyes shut, you are in total visual darkness. That is fine. Or the most amazing images might appear on their own. They are your visions, drawn from your innermost recesses. They do not require analysis (though Freud ardently studied composers and artists) but, rather, grateful acceptance. This is the Divine Spark, whether you believe in God or not. And it brings you closer to the sublime and painful experience of what it is to be a creator of something completely new.

Weigh in: What visual artists would you compare to Beethoven?

Above, right: Michelangelo Buonarroti: 'The Last Judgement,' detail. Note: This post has been expanded since it first appeared on Nov. 13.