THE REDEMPTIVE POWER OF MUSIC

Personal Essay by Ren Michael

I’ve always found music to have healing powers. That’s probably why I play it and why anyone plays it, let alone listens to it. It’s what I think about when I hear classical music in particular. I think about it’s ability to heal, empower, lift people out from the darkness of their times or individual situations and believe in something enough to keep moving forward, embracing imperfection a little better than they did before, while simultaneously striving to improve. 

Europe has a long history that embodies that very human struggle, as so much of it is well-documented for us to read about and learn from so that we can walk forward ourselves with a greater understanding of who we are. It’s no surprise then that classical music is so inextricably tied to European history and to a specific region in particular, whose own history proved no less volatile at the time classical music reached its creative height. 

I’m talking about Central Europe; and when you consider the fact that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Strauss, Schubert, Chopin, and Liszt were all born in this region—either in Germany, Austria, Poland or Hungary. Nearly all of them within the same hundred-year period, you cannot help but reflect on the state of the continent at that point in time, or at the very least, wonder whether there was something in the water. It was a time, after all, that witnessed the Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon, among other historical milestones. 

"AS A MUSICIAN, IT KICKED OPEN THEDOOR TO A UNIVERSE FAR GREATERTHAN ANY I'D EXPECTED TO FIND"

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Anyway, it was inevitable, as I walked down the streets of Vienna on a clear and beautiful morning, that I reflected on that history. I put on my headphones and started listening to Mozart’s 41st “Jupiter” Symphony, as the cool morning breeze brushed against my face,  I headed into town. 

For anyone arriving into Vienna for the first time, pick your favorite composer, make a playlist, put on some headphones and press play. Trust me, man. You owe it to yourself. 

I’d just arrived from Budapest very late the previous evening, so I was only getting acquainted with Vienna for the first time that morning. From the way I was strutting, classical music might have seemed to be the last thing I was listening to in favor of Bruno Mars or maybe even, by the looks of me, Stayin’ Alive by the Beegees. But no, I was listening to Mozart. 

I was on a music high. Just two nights ago, I’d gone to see my first orchestra play in Budapest at the State Opera House. I knew it then, just as I know it now, that the experience was life-changing. As a musician, it kicked open the door to a universe far greater than any I’d expected to find. The musicians, of course, played in perfect harmony, with illustrious style and profound feeling, and revealed to me in the span of an hour, a world of limitless creative possibility. And yet more than anything, I remembered just how deeply the music was rooted in history, in the collective human experience. 

"...HEARING THE KEYS OF A PIANOSOUNDING THROUGHOUT THE STAIRWELLBEING PLAYED BY A MASTER..."

It was in that spirit that I progressed onward into Vienna, this city that became the uncontested capital of the art form, the seat of the former Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nearly all of the musicians and composers I previously mentioned lived and worked here. In particular, two of my favorite composers who also, at least arguably, might be the most recognized: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven.

Beethoven’s apartment, where he lived and worked for the better part of ten years and composed some of his most exceptional work, is in the middle of town. The floorboards still creak. The staircase is windy. The building is well-kept but still smells musty enough to make it easy imagining living there at the time, hearing the keys of a piano sounding throughout the stairwell, being played by a master, slowly losing his hearing and yet still earning his living, still finding the will to continue, as ever, perfecting his craft. 

"FOR ME, THE EXPERIENCEWAS SURREAL."

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If you walk in, you’ll find the piano still remains, as well innumerable drafts and sketches of compositions, preserved in cases of glass for anyone to come in and read. For me, the experience was surreal. 

I knew that Mozart’s former apartment was still in the city and available to see, but I never did get to it. In fact, I figured the more worthwhile experience might actually be in his hometown of Salzburg, stepping into the house where he was born and raised and instructed in music by his father, who himself was a musician. 

view-of-hohensalzburg-fortress-salzburg-old-city

For one thing, Salzburg is most definitely aware of its heritage and favorite son, as the several souvenir shops around town will show; along with its “Sound of Music” fame, but that’s for another kind of trip. When you walk inside the old apartment, you’ll find a few trinkets the young Mozart would have played with, not least of which include his own violin, as well as other household items and furniture used by the family in those early years. You’ll step into the very room in which he was born. You can read letters exchanged between him and his family during those years where he played for kings, clerics, and noblemen, traveling around the continent before eventually moving to Vienna.   

"THESE MEN WERE, ULTIMATELY, JUSTPEOPLE. IT'S ONE VERY SIMPLE YETCRUCIAL FACT I TOOK AWAY FROMMY TIME IN CENTRAL EUROPE."

When you hear something like that, it might seem especially preposterous even to consider that Mozart and Beethoven, each recognized globally as a genius in their own right, could still have led lives that were in any way similar to our own. But for me, that was actually the greatest souvenir. When you step into a place where someone lived and worked, it has a funny way of bringing you closer to them, rather than farther away. 

These men were, ultimately, just people. It’s one very simple yet crucial fact I took away from my time in Central Europe. 

For one thing, greatness is a matter of perspective. But if we define it simply in finding joy and self-affirmation in doing what you love. While simultaneously creating some component of that feeling for anyone who happens to see or hear what you do, and be moved by it, inspired by it like I was hearing that orchestra play in Budapest. Then maybe greatness isn’t quite as inaccessible as we tell ourselves. It takes practice and work, and when you remember that these men were constantly working on their craft and likely experienced the same doubts we all experience, it’s something that brings you closer to both the artist and, if you listen just right, to humanity as well.

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