As with anyone who lived through that day and was old enough to comprehend its historic gravity, the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 are as firmly etched into my mind as if they had occurred only yesterday: Warm summer morning, getting ready for school, my mother running out of the shower and screaming frantically about something she had heard on the radio, turning on the television just in time to see the second plane hit live, then the Pentagon, the subsequent collapses. Later that day I remember the empty streets in Downtown Los Angeles at midday, shops and restaurants closed early in Pasadena, convenience stores with their shelves depleted of the hard liquor that only hours before had filled them.
Such was the magnitude of the horror on display, repeated again and again on network after network for the next two weeks, that the 2,800 miles separating Los Angeles from New York City seemed to vanish instantly. There was no protective buffer from the reaches of the long shadow of fear that loomed over the nation. Politicians and statesmen were incapable of powerful oratory that could comfort as well as rouse a nation from the torpor of its newly discovered collective vulnerability. Whether through sheer ineptitude or deliberate intent, their pronouncements rang hollow, serving only to further stoke the flames of fear. Culture, both “high”and “low,” could mostly only muster saccharine responses, when not downright sadistic. (Though reviewing footage of the day some weeks ago, I found myself surprised at how articulate people in 2001 were in comparison to today.)
If refuge could be found, then it was only by seeking it within one’s self.
Because of the somewhat unusual fashion in which I was introduced to classical music, I started with the mid-20th century avant-garde at age 12, then worked my way backwards. By the age of 21, I had finally begun to appreciate and enjoy the music of Beethoven, among others. Barriers remained, nonetheless. A number of his works, such as the Eroica, with its structural rigor, impressed me as being feats of intellectual prowess meant to be admired more than loved.
It was not until I was on the bus ride back from Downtown earlier in the day that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 became more to me than a landmark in musical history.
With all the suddenness of the twin thunderclaps that open the work, the symphony which I had once taken to be chiseled out of white marble, hewn with a cool and impassive face, now took on the color of living flesh, pulsating with the lifeblood that animates some of the greatest human achievements. It was a work of profound personal significance for Beethoven himself, certainly, but also for the terrified 21-year-old sitting in the back of the 81, who worried about suitcase nukes, dirty bombs, and whether he was about to be drafted into a war thousands of miles away. The Eroica—its stride, the sting of its tragedy, the promise of hope that the music proclaims can be wrested from its depths, its confidence and strength which are reflected in the very same architecture that had once made the work appear unapproachable to me—seemed to call from across the vastness of the ages, taking on a directness of utterance that felt simultaneously contemporary and ageless. Amidst the ringing trumpet calls that climax the “Marcia funebre,” the whooping horns in the scherzo’s trio, the ecstatic tutti shout that brings the finale to its close, Beethoven, at least for me, eloquently expressed what needed to be heard that day.
“Reflect,” the music seemed to say. “But never retreat.”
(For those who were wondering, the recording of Beethoven’s Eroica I heard that day was Erich Kleiber’s 1951 Concertgebouw recording on Decca.)