Honouring Beethoven’s Birthday – 22/11/20
Words of Welcome and Chalice Lighting:
Good morning everybody, I’m Sarah Tinker and I’m with Kensington Unitarians on Zoom this autumn morning. Welcome to this time that we spend together, with music, words, silence and the good company of one another. Today’s gathering has been created to honour the 250th anniversary of the birth of composer Ludwig van Beethoven and our very own Harold Lorenzelli will later be exploring what such a life might teach us about being human.
Gatherings like this give us chance to think a bit deeper, we’re taking time out of life’s every days tasks to delve into life’s mysteries. As Unitarians we don’t offer answers but we do value the questions – what makes life meaningful for people, how might we deal with adversity, where does creativity find expression in our lives.
My hope is that there will be something in this service that speaks to you and to your life issues, something that might resonate with you in the week ahead, something that might help you to make sense of the week that has passed. And this hope also applies to all those who’ll be joining us some time in the future by watching this as a video or listening in on a podcast or reading this script.
And so I invite you now to take a moment, take a conscious breath perhaps and when breathing out have a sense of letting go of anything that might stop you from being fully here in the present moment, and breathe in a sense of connectedness through our shared humanity.
As this chalice flame, symbol of our world-wide progressive religious community, as this flame burns brightly – so may we find a path of love that shines for us and helps to kindle the flame of creativity in our own hearts.
Candles of Joy and Concern
Each week when we meet in our building in Notting Hill or here in our online congregation, we share candles of joy and concern, where we invite one another to light a candle and share something that is in our heart. So here in our Zoom service we’ve a good few minutes for some of you to tell us of a joy or a concern, and to light a candle, real or imaginary – visitors you are most welcome to join in. When you are ready to speak you can unmute yourself and speak out so everyone can hear and then re-mute yourself when you’ve finished speaking. Do give it a go if you’d like to, as it’s, and let’s stay aware of how long we’re speaking for so others have chance to speak too. And I suggest we each now switch to gallery view on our own screens so we can see everyone. Our hosts Jane and Jenny will do their best to spot if someone wants to speak and can’t unmute themselves. These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.
Time for Reflection and Prayer
It has just been the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to speak out about the violence inflicted on trans and gender diverse people the world over. Here are some words from someone who has just died, a far more gentle death aged 94 of writer Jan Morris, who in the 1960s underwent gender re-assignment after transitioning from male to female. In her book Conundrum Jan wrote powerfully about her sense of self and the importance of being allowed to be who we know ourselves to be. Here are just a few extracts to lead us into a time for reflection and prayer:
‘I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl … I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.’
‘I had reached the conclusion myself that sex was not a division but a continuum, that almost nobody was altogether of one sex or another, and that the infinite subtlety of the shading from one extreme to the other was one of the most beautiful of nature’s phenomena.’
‘….What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love, and to know ourselves, however peculiar, disconcerting or unclassifiable, at one with the gods and angels.’
Words from writer Jan Morris.
And so let’s join in reflection and prayer now and quietly in our own way align ourselves with that which calls us to be the best that we might be and which accepts us just as we are.
With shame for human cruelty and ignorance let us remember all those who have died violently just for being themselves.
Let us live in hope that our human society might better learn to value diversity, and that we as individuals might find the courage to admit our own lack of understanding of others who seem different from us.
May we dedicate ourselves to the task of learning more in life and of living with creativity and the greatest compassion for everyone – not just those who are like us … and in stillness now for a few moments we can speak our own prayers….
And may these yearnings guide our actions that love might prevail, this day and all days – and to that aspiration we can join in saying Amen – so may it be.
And now let me hand over to Annie Fowler who has a reading for us from Helen Keller about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Helen Keller wrote the following letter to the New York Symphony Orchestra in March 1924. Here’s how she describes listening to Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’ over the radio:
‘Dear Friends: I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’. I do not mean to say that I ‘heard’ the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself.
I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy.
Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music!
The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments!
When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound.
The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth “an ocean of heavenly vibration“ and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.
Of course this was not ‘hearing’, but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sense, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand-swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.
As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marvelled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others, and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.’
Thank you Annie. And for our time of meditation today we’ll have an extended piece of Beethoven’s music – part of his Moonlight Sonata. So let’s ready ourselves now for that, get comfy, you might want to switch off your video for a while or adjust your position – take one of those lovely deep breaths that allow our bodies to relax a bit more, perhaps straighten our backs and roll our shoulders back and down, easing out some of those tensions our bodies take on, that sometime we’re just not aware of. Perhaps the gentle rhythm of our breathing will help our minds rest awhile from their busy churning thoughts and as we listen to Beethoven perhaps new and interesting perceptions will emerge for us. When the music ends, we’ll hold just 30 seconds or so of silence and then Harold will be taking over.
Music for Meditation: Moonlight Sonata
This year is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and it seems only right that we should honour this fact in some small way, which is why we have incorporated some of his music into today’s service. One of the things that occurs to people when we hear his name mentioned is the question: Wasn’t he deaf for a good part of his life? And of course he was…..and this seems an almost incomprehensible fact….that he was able to write music that has inspired people down the years which he himself could not hear, fed only by his imagination or at the most dimly perceived. He wrote of the consequences of this in painful prose. He felt socially isolated from those about him, could indulge in no intelligent conversation, no meaningful exchange with his peers and so rarely ventured out into society. I am, he said, obliged to live as an outcast. As the years advanced and the deafness increased he moved more and more into that inner realm of the imagination where he continued to practice his art. It is hard to imagine the possible catastrophic effect such a loss might have on someone for whom music was the supreme expression of what he saw as a higher realm of experience, if not the highest. Music, he said, is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. It transcended all wisdom and philosophy and led to a revelation of the divine. It was for him the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. It was the way he communicated both with himself and what he saw as a higher reality. It is a unique source of inspiration…..and as he thought, the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents. It is therefore a mark of his indomitable spirit that he continued composition even as his deafness increased with age. Indeed he felt that he had a duty to develop those God-given talents with which he had been endowed. They were a gift which he genuinely felt were from a realm beyond the mundane and whatever the cause may be for his inspiration, no one can doubt his commitment, his burning passion to express what words could never touch.
It is generally recognised that Beethoven’s music created a harmonic realm with a sense of a vast musical space through which the music moves freely, and the development of musical material creates a sense of unfolding drama in this space. In this way, his work creates a story where there are ups and downs, happiness and remorse, good and evil so to say and an ending. Often with his style of composition it is as if a sculptor were dealing with the primeval clay out of which there is fashioned a new creation. There is a sense of struggle, of colliding tectonic plates, of a turbulent world rendered in rhythms which make the heart race and eventually resolve into moments of sublime, serenely lyrical melodies. The clouds part and a new vision appears. For a short time we are taken out of the realm of earthly things. For a few exquisite moments time stands still. Such is the power of his compositions. It is said that his music has a heavier, darker feel than either Haydn or Mozart. This sadder, more sorrowful, style helped define to some extent who Beethoven is for us. His music matters. It has weight, substance and vitality.
Many of his works contain the hint of this darker part of himself and even in his cheery pieces there is usually a part that grabs your attention in a quick, dark manner. But grab us he certainly does. No one who has heard his Ode to Joy can come away unmoved, thrilled by the urgency of the music. His work, like other composers, contains, I think, an essential contradiction which for me mirrors the nature of our existence. His music fills us with a sense of completeness on the one hand, of emotional fulfilment but also with a yearning for something else, an intimation of a reality which lies beyond notes. Call it the spiritual dimension if you like. His music is both personal and universal in its scope and appeal. It calls to the senses and offers a tantalising vision of a world beyond the material. It is both an affirmation and an inspiration. Out of the formless mass of potential melodies he creates a sound picture which helps us focus our yearning for something more than the banal, the everyday, the ready-made. Now this is not the case with all great music. There are composers who challenge us with disturbing visions and who take us on journeys which shock and unnerve. Beethoven’s music is restorative, I believe. It is also honest. By that I mean he acknowledges that nothing that we deem worthwhile in our lives is won easily. Just as he wrestled to express his innermost vision so we too in our own fashion strive to give meaning, shape and substance to our lives. Of course the roads to this are many. Some choose Art, literature, religion. The journey requires courage, both moral and emotional if we are to transcend our condition. We are fortunate indeed that we have been left the legacy of Beethoven’s work as an example of a unique vision.
There’s an opportunity to sing a hymn now but if you would rather just read the words that are going to appear on the screen soon that’s fine. Thanks to Trevor and Peter who have made this special recording for us. It’s a well-known tune – Beethoven’s magnificent Ode to Joy – from his highly regarded and much loved 9th symphony, a choral symphony that has so often been performed since its premiere in Vienna in 1824. That’s the symphony that Helen Keller listened to by feeling the sound vibrations – as we heard in our reading earlier on. The words we’re going to sing are from a humanist hymn – a valiant effort of hymn writing but leaving us a few challenges, as we sing, to fit all the words in on the right notes. Thank goodness we’ll be muted and can sing out loud, safe in the knowledge no-one else will hear us – so do join in and singalonga Trevor, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Joyful, joyful, we are joyful, we have truth in nature found;
Hearts unfold like flowers before us, opening to the sun above.
Melting clouds of fear and sadness; driving the dark of doubt away;
Knowledge is our source of gladness, fills us with the light of day!
All nature’s works with joy surround us, earth and heaven’s distant rays,
Stars and planets arch above us, the sun, the centre of our days.
Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing seas,
Singing bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in peace.
May we be giving and forgiving, ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest.
Father, brother, sister, mother, live in love and peace in time;
Teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.
Friends we join the happy chorus, which the morning stars recall;
Nature’s love is shining on us, kindred love binds each to all.
Ever singing, march we onward, victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us sunward in the triumph song of life.
And so some announcements: My thanks go to Jane and ??? for the crucial background work of hosting today and to Peter Crockford our pianist and Trevor Alexander our soloist. It’s good to spend time with you here today. We’ll be back again for next week’s gathering at 10am here on Zoom, when Jane will be leading our Advent service. You’re also welcome to join our 10.30 coffee morning on Tuesday. We have a virtual coffee time to chat after the service in small groups if you’d like to join in – and we’d like to take a photo of us all as soon as the music ends, so do stick around if you don’t mind being in a photo. We’re going to have some closing words in a moment followed by a Tyrolean song, one of Beethoven’s arrangements of folk songs from various lands – it seems to involve wearing a feather in your cap and I hope it leaves you all in good spirits and with a spring in your step for the day ahead. Those of you with us on Zoom now might like to select gallery view on your screen so that we can all see each other for the closing words and enjoy a feeling of connection in community.
I extinguish our chalice flame but not the warmth of this community. And I send the light of this candle out into the world that all people might be safe in expressing themselves as they truly know themselves to be. And may we in the week ahead be gentle observers of what it is to be human, and allow ourselves opportunities to explore our own creativity, unique individuals that we are and yet also part of the great expression of life itself here on our planet earth home, spinning together in space. Journey well everyone and safely. Amen and blessed be.
Rev. Sarah Tinker and Harold Lorenzelli
22nd November 2020