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The Light of Prometheus, Cleveland, the Orchestra, and Us

By Dr. Arthur Lavin

In a recent post in Real Answers with Dr. Lavin, I took a step away from medicine to share excitement about a grand undertaking right here in Cleveland, the Prometheus Project of The Cleveland Orchestra, in honor of our Orchestra’s great works in Cleveland for now 100 years!

For 10 days in May, Cleveland was treated to what has turned out to be a historic set of discussions, essays, and concerts.  This extraordinary event was conceived, planned, and presented here in Cleveland, then launched to Vienna and then Tokyo to what I will anticipate will be tremendous world-wide acclaim.

What does this 100th Birthday event mean, what is The Prometheus Project, and what does it mean for each of us?

At one level, The Prometheus Project is a 10 day period in which The Cleveland Orchestra presents, in concert, all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, along with 3 overtures, a suite, and the Grosse Fuge.

Just that would be powerful enough, but The Prometheus Project also includes many years, some would say decades, of preparation of thought about music by a great conductor, and by dozens of great musicians, all of whom represent to very top in their professions in the world.   It represents a way of thinking about how Cleveland created a great orchestra, and what having an orchestra of this excellence says about our town.

And, beyond all that, The Prometheus Project challenges me, and all of us, to respond to these 14 pieces by Beethoven, to hear the challenge and hope he places in each of them, to embrace our humanity, to imagine a just world, and more, to work to make the world a place each of us can be fully human.

The Power of Prometheus

The Prometheus Project began for my wife and I the evening of May 9 when we attended, free to the public, a conversation with the extraordinary Maestro of The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, and the great scholar of Beethoven and his music and times, Mark Evan Bonds.

The evening turned out to be incredibly informative, and in many ways transformed how we thought about Beethoven and his music, and most importantly our role in his music.  It also explained why a series of concerts has been termed, The Prometheus Project.  (check it out, it is on streaming video at https://www.facebook.com/clevelandorchestra/videos/10155887686621888/  )

Why Prometheus?

Let me start the answer to that question with a long-distant memory, one I bet many of us have.  When I was about 8 years old I remember getting my first book of Greek myths, and totally falling in love with these stories.

I still remember the thrill of reading about the two brothers, Epimetheus and Prometheus.  They were Titans, part of a generation of Greek gods whose children were to be the gods of Mount Olympus.  The gods rebelled against the Titans who tried to destroy the up and coming gods.  But the Titans Epimetheus and Prometheus stayed out of the squabble, and lived past the gods’ victory over and destruction of, the Titans.

The brothers figured as central figures in two truly extraordinary myths, both relating to simmering grievances the gods, led by Zeus, had with the Titans.  In the first story, Zeus chief of the gods, is furious that Prometheus has created humanity, in particular that certain sacrifices to him from humanity were deemed inadequate.  So Zeus designed the most enticing goddess to be a gift to the brother Epimetheus.  He is immediately smitten and agrees to accept the match, but his brother Prometheus is deeply suspicious.  Turns out Prometheus was right.  Once Pandora enters the home of Epimetheus, a box or jar she carries opens and lets out all the horrible things of life- war, plague, suspicion, hate, you name it.  Prometheus lunges to seal the box or jar, and manages to secure one for humanity’s future, hope.

I have always loved this story because of the meaning of the brothers’ names: Epimetheus means his thinking takes on the perspective of looking back, considering the past, he has no sense of consequence accepting Pandora and all that came with her.  Prometheus means forward thinking, taking into account what might come from an action, and he sees what will happen if Pandora is accepted.  The difference in names is highly dramatic and affected me like so many.  As a young 8 year old child, would I grow up to be short-sighted like Epimetheus, causing unnecessary and serious harm and pain in the world?  Or would I grow up to be forward-thinking like Prometheus, and able to help.  I suspect I am like others in being a combination of both, hopefully more Pro than Epi.

But after this story, Zeus decided to punish humanity directly and took fire away from them.  Prometheus, the Titan who crafted humanity out of clay could not stand by to see his creation plunged into sterile darkness.  He rose up to the land of Zeus, and stole the fire, granting it to humanity.  Zeus was furious and chained Prometheus to a rock where every day an eagle would devour  his liver, and every night it would regrow, to keep him alive to be make sure he could be tortured- forever, or until his escape.

This creation story of humanity compels.  We were fashioned out of the intent of a caring power, Prometheus.  And our very ability to think, to create, to solve, to make good, was granted by this power.  But other powers felt we did not deserve this light, this ability, tried to deny us, punished the power that would dare to grant.   The story of Prometheus is a daring story.  It quite literally dares us to have a fire, to have a spark, to create, to think, to solve, to play.  We are told daring to do such carries severe risks with possible torture, but to not dare dooms us to a darkness in which nothing happens, in which there is no good, or beauty.

This story left me profoundly grateful and profoundly responsible.  From that time on, I have been grateful that we have been given the gift of fire, of our spark, that twinkle we each have in our eye, that insight into the world we all have, that allows us to see, to act, to create, to love.  And like the story with Prometheus, the story challenges us to accept the responsibility that comes with this fire, to know it can be harmful, to use it wisely, and with as much power as possible.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s Prometheus Project

Who doesn’t like the Greek myths?  They are all stories of the psychology of the human mind, of deep aspects of being human.  But what does the story of Prometheus have to do with music written around 1800?

Thanks to the work of The Cleveland Orchestra’s Maestro, Franz Welser-Möst, we can see the connection is quite strong and deep.

I first listened to Beethoven’s symphonies in high school.  I got interested in classical music around then, and one of my very first purchases of music were two sets of Beethoven’s symphonies, one conducted by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, and the other by the monumental George Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra.   Each also included 3 or more overtures, a suite, and a late orchestral piece called the Grosse Fuge.  I would love putting all the albums in a stack, and listening to the whole set of both over many, many hours, often while reading the big Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.   The music was mammoth.  Huge joys, huge rhythms, the most delicate silences and quiet poetry, the most shattering explosions of sound and fury, all signifying actually quite a bit.  I was drawn to this music then, it seemed to be saying far more than I could grasp, but to which I was drawn.  More than any other music I have heard since, it drew me in promising connections and glimpses of the most important insights.

And so it was with literally a lifetime of experience with the story of Prometheus and the symphonies of Beethoven that I approached the announcement that The Cleveland Orchestra was to present all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies and three overtures, a ballet suite, and the Grosse Fuge in a 10 day period in May to celebrate and mark the 100th Anniversary of The Orchestra under the name of Prometheus with wonder and excitement.

How did The Orchestra plan to connect Prometheus and Beethoven, the story and the music I loved so deeply?  How would my view of the story and the music seem when I stopped so many decades after I first was entranced as a child, to look back across much of a lifetime to find out what they meant to me now?

So, of course, we purchased a ticket so we could hear what the Maestro had in mind, and to hear The Music- all of it.

The journey began, as noted above, on May 9 with the Maestro and Professor speaking of Prometheus and Beethoven.  The first thing I learned was that Maestro Welser-Möst did not refer to Prometheus in the sense that Beethoven’s music was such a towering force, godlike in its titanic proportions.  No, he meant that Prometheus would stand for that power in the world that grants each of us the fire.  He stated, “Each of us is Prometheus.”  He planned to perform Beethoven’s symphonies to see, could he awaken the Prometheus in me, and you, in each of us.

They noted that Beethoven’s most famous portrait was a scowl, so many of us think that he was a grumpy man, torn by the passions of his mind, that his music then is one big storm of a raging mind.  Not so, that portrait was a study of his death mask.  In fact, it turns out Beethoven, like us, was a person of much complexity.    At the lecture before the Ninth Symphony (more on that below), we learned that this man visited a grieving mother, who was paralyzed with grief to the point she was unable to cry for a year after the loss of her young child.  Beethoven quietly visited the woman, played improvised music on her piano, during which she wept with all her heart, and then he left.  He left records that he felt he had the power to heal, and deeply was drawn to do so.  At other times Beethoven was the playful uncle, a very close friend, or frequently broken-hearted with failed relationships.  And so it is, Beethoven’s music has deep pathos, but also light chuckly humor, grace, charm, quiet, softness, nearly every voice of what humanity experiences.

I also learned that the symphony is a rather particular, maybe even peculiar form of music.  We tend to think, when we think about Beethoven’s symphonies, that this is the usual nature of classical music.  A big orchestra, no singing, several movements, that is, a symphony.  And what else is classical music to so many, but a symphony?   But the great music of the West includes so many other forms such as song, single or small group instruments that likely go back in their roots at least tens of thousands of years.

But the symphony did not exist as we know it in the Stone Age, or ancient Greece, or in the Italian Renaissance, really not until the 1720’s in Europe, evolving into its own specific genre with 3-4 movements only in the 1770’s.    The art form, symphony, as we know it is not much older than our own young nation.   The concept of a symphony became a dominant form of music from 1759 through the 1800’s, but then faded in the 1900’s.  There are symphonies written by Mahler, Prokofiev, Neilsen, Stravinsky and many others in the classical mode of symphony, but since the 1920’s this form of music has simply not been composed nearly as often as in the prior 2 centuries.  Consider that in the 1700’s alone 16,558 symphonies were written.  That number of compositions has dwindled in recent years dramatically.

This means the symphonies of Beethoven are a form of music that was widely written for only about 180 years, or about 6 generations.

For me this means that Beethoven’s use of symphony is not just another classical composer doing what all have done, this is an art form that Beethoven helped define, certainly elevate.  He took a type of art that was essentially only about 50 to 80 years old when he grabbed hold of it, and fashioned into his own genre, his own creation.  And, most would agree, that his elevation of this art form, so deeply identified with him, remains a pinnacle of the craft of symphony.

And so it is in this sense that Beethoven was Promethean.  He was a giant, like Prometheus was a Titan.  Beethoven was a creative force, like Prometheus created humanity.  And he made light shine on humanity, just as Prometheus brought fire to humanity.

He was a giant in the sense that he took a new art form and shaped it into something new, some say, including Richard Wagner, he took this form to a height no one will ever reach again.  In this same way he is wildly creative.

As for the light, listen to the music, there is much written about how he does it, but no disagreement, Beethoven achieves the sublime, the profound, he touches the infinite, while at the same time giving voice to the most simple and human impulses of our lives.

Listening to these symphonies over the course of my life, I am astounded at how they never wear out.  I hear something new every time.  And every time I hear them in performance I experience feeling inspired, transformed, re-awakened, and most curiously, renewed in purpose.  It is this last quality that Maestro Welser-Möst, I think, means when he says listening to Beethoven’s music makes each of us a Prometheus, a bearer of light.

How does Beethoven stand out as Promethean compared to other composers?  Over the years, I have greatly enjoyed all types of music, like so many people do.  I have listened to a great range of classical composers and performers.  In recent years I have been especially drawn to the music of Mozart, who has the uncanny ability to lead into the great, wide world in all its breadth and depth, with the simplest collection of notes, melodies, and harmonies.    The great interpreter of Mozart, Mitsuko Uchida, could choose any orchestra or hall to perform all of Mozart’s piano concerti, and she chose The Cleveland Orchestra and Severance Hall.  These performances reminded me of why I love Mozart’s music so much.

But the seminar opening the Prometheus Project at The Cleveland Orchestra confirmed something my heart had always felt, Beethoven worked to make his music “fight for the good.”   In this I believe he stands at the top of any list of composers.  Many pieces move us to be good but Beethoven is unusual in the degree to which he consciously worked to inspire each of us to actually do good.  He lived at a truly unique moment in history, a moment when people were convinced for once that their voices could combine to create a good society, a just world, a place where every voice could be heard and every life lived with meaning, purpose, and success.

Beethoven lived during the French Revolution.  We tend to think of this event as a relic of a dim past.  But think about what happened in 1789.  Europe had been ruled by aristocrats and kings for thousands of years.   No one except a tiny sliver of humanity owned anything of value or had a say in the course of their lives, forever.  Then one day, the king is beheaded and most aristocrats too.   From France, the toppling of kings spread across the entire continent of Europe.  Kings were thrown off their thrones and dukes out of their palaces in country after country, the trend only stopping with the Tsar of Russia in 1812.  So from 1789-1812, a time never seen before in the history of humanity exploded on the scene, and ushered in the very peculiar notion that maybe the masses could rule themselves.

The question became, if we get rid of the kings, will the general population be able to govern itself?  It is a question that remains very much alive today.   Chou En Lai, a top minister to one most extreme tyrants of modern times Mao Tse Tung, and later leader of China, was asked what he thought of the French Revolution, and he answered that it was too early to say.  His answer was not only witty, but powerfully true.  Will the American experiment of open democracy ever come to full fruit? Will Europe and even America descend into oligarchic tyranny?  We simply do not know.

It is worth thinking about this question for a moment.   The American and French Revolutions boldly announced that people do not need kings to have a state or empire, and introduced, for the first time in human history, examples of large nations, even empires, being ruled by the people.   That started in 1776.  By 1918, every single country in Europe had its king either eliminated or stripped of all real power.  Exactly a century has passed since the ridding of kings and aristocrats culminated in 1918.  And so, a question for each of us, 100 years later, is how has it worked out?  Some would say not very well.   The history of the period 1918-2018 includes the atrocities of the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsi’s.  And yet, the hope we all have that we can in fact forge governments and societies that are free and just remains vibrant and strong to this day.   Tyrannies have taken hold of nations in these 100 years, but in every instance, the people chafe at the yoke.

Just looking at Beethoven’s Germany, kingship was deposed briefly around 1800, but returned until finally ending in 1918.  During the following 100 years, Germany was a democracy briefly for 15 years.  From 1933-1945 all of Germany fell under the grip of the Nazis, and from 1945-1989 half of it remained under the grip of the Soviet communists.  So, from the first glimmers of hope of people determining their own fate that Beethoven grabbed hold of, and explicitly wrote his symphonies to promote, that hope was never fully realized until 165 years after the Ninth Symphony was first performed, in 1989.  One could say that Beethoven’s hopes were dashed over those 165 years, or they were fulfilled in 1989, it remains for time to tell us which will ultimately prevail.

The central role Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony plays in all of humanity’s hope for a free and just society was dramatically demonstrated when Germany chose a piece of music to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the dawning of the first true, stable German democracy.  Germany chose Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, performed by a German set of symphonies and choirs, and conducted by Leonard Bernstein.    A massive crowd gathered in and outside of the concert hall, near the once forboding Wall, at the Brandenburg Gate, and cheered in true exultation when the final notes sang out.

We learned at the final concert of The Cleveland Orchestra’s season (when the 9th was performed) at the pre-concert lecture by Professor Wong, that students rising up to grasp freedom in China, broadcast the Ode to Joy from the 9th blocks from Tian An Men Square, also in 1989.  Across the world, and across time, people grab hold of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to express the deepest human longing for freedom.

The hope is clearly real.  But the question remains:  can people, as individuals, and as a nation, organize effective and just states?   To this day, Beethoven offered some of the strongest affirmations of this question.  At the very moment when for the first time, masses of regular citizens had even the hope of defining their own fates, he wrote music to inspire them to grab hold of that possibility, with all they had, and that music inspires all of humanity to this end, to this day.

Listen to his symphonies.  You will hear the voices of humanity across the full range of life.  There is brooding danger from violent humanity, there is the joy of a picnic on a sunny day from loving humanity, there is the sound of people laughing, of people at play, of people sharing a quiet moment together.  There is the throbbing of life, the haunting certainty of death, the hope of love, the power of united effort.  There is love and there is hate.  There is sunshine and there is darkness.   In any of his nine symphonies, in this art form we now know Beethoven helped define and create, he weaves all these voices together into moments that declare we are all capable of greatness.  At these moments it sure feels like humanity, as humanity, not only can govern itself, but will do a far better job than any thuggish despot, king, or oligarch.

Every one of his symphonies stirs the human heart and mind, each aspect of how we think and feel is brought to vivid life, and in each symphony those stirrings are woven into a grand statement- Fight for the Good.  That is, fight for the chance of humanity to throw off its shackles and oppressions, to grab hold of life directly, to let our lights shine, and combine to make a great world.  The phrase, “Fight for the Good,” was expressly stated by Beethoven himself as a major purpose of his work.

It is in this way that Beethoven, particularly his symphonies stand out for me.   Listening to them presented all in one 10-day period achieves just what the Maestro intended.  It is the magnificent and overpowering display of the titanic Promethean achievement of one person, Ludwig van Beethoven, and a magnificent and overpowering experience for any listener to have the greatness within each of us stirred to life and inspired to reach out.  To do as Beethoven hoped we all would, “Fight for the Good.”

On hearing The Cleveland Orchestra perform the Beethoven Symphonies

With all that said, a word on attending 5 concerts in 10 days and hearing all nine of the symphonies that Beethoven wrote, as well as 3 overtures, a ballet suite, and the Grosse Fuge.

Extraordinary.

As I wrote before the symphonies were performed, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime event for my wife and me.   It is exceedingly rare for an orchestra of world-class quality to play all these pieces in essentially, little over a week.

Hearing one of Beethoven’s symphonies is a powerful experience.  Hearing them all changes one’s heart, perhaps one’s life.  At some level I really believe this is, or can be, true.

The Cleveland Orchestra has recently been cited by The New York Times as the best orchestra in the United States (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/arts/music/cleveland-orchestra-carnegie-hall.html) and is widely listed as one of the very best in the world.  I don’t know how you actually can measure beauty, but there is no doubt you can really, really hear what exceptional sound and astounding music is in these concerts.  The Maestro, the musicians, the hall combine to create one of the best music experiences in the world.

The music is very familiar to me, as mentioned, I have been listening to these nine symphonies and the overtures nearly all my life, but I have never heard them, or really anything, as sparkling beautiful, as astoundingly beautiful, as moving as in these 10 days.

The strings were so precise, so clear, you could hear every person’s note, each one, together, and as its own sound, in a weave that gave great voice to all the voices of humanity mentioned above.  The quiet passages calmed souls, the plucked notes plucked our heartstrings, the soaring passages caught you up in great rivers of beauty and force.   In every Beethoven symphony, there are times when great swaths of music emerge and crest, and the Orchestra created literally broad currents of oceanic sound that picked you up and carried you away while at the same time propelling every single voice forward in its full integrity.  It is the ability of the violins, violas, celli, and basses to create each of these voices in their full personality, often shifting extremely suddenly and fully that is incredible. It was like being with a large group of people and experiencing each personality intensely across a staggering range of life.

Sitting in the balcony was a rare treat, where you could see how the sounds are created by each musician, and how at times the music physically moves in waves from set of strings to the next as well as from strings to other groups.  These other groups are truly exceptional, astounding as well.  The tympani are the large drums in back that are deliver clear notes and great thumping forces with tremendous precision.  In the Beethoven symphonies, the tympani are yet another range of voices- at times the very heart of darkness, at others part of joyous exultation.  The trumpets and trombones shout out with the clearest clarion calls, demanding immediate attention.  Sometimes their call was like a whip, sharp, immediate.  Sometimes is hung in the air, leaving you pondering, feeling ominous  At other times they lead a bold sustained affirmation of life.  The French horns deliver a mystical wash of glorious music, that brings you into a beautiful place in nature, or soothingly walks with you through very powerful moments.  The voices of the bassoon, clarinet, flute, oboe, and flute were absolutely astonishing.   The range of texture coming out of what are, at any one time, just one note, were incredible.  To a large extent they are the voices in balance with the strings, singing all the voices of humanity, but in this instance each with a distinct personality, each note crafted and delivering an amazing range of sculpted detail.  And for each of these musicians, there are moments in the Beethoven symphonies that the full orchestra seems to, all of a sudden, hold its breath, and then a lonely soloist takes on the entire audience, and the massive momentum of a great Beethoven symphony.  For each of these instruments, the voices they gave at these solo moments were always so moving, so packed with feeling, and meaning, absolutely extraordinary.

Many Thanks to The Cleveland Orchestra

I learned this week that Cleveland is quite unusual for having such a fine Orchestra.  We sell more tickets and achieve more donations to our Orchestra, on a per capita basis, than any other city in the United States.  There are no orchestras, in the whole world, that are this excellent from cities as small as ours, all the others are from mammoth metropolises.  It says something about our town, Cleveland.  At the end of each concert, I heard the audience roar, like it was Progressive Field or Quicken Loans Arena, roar.   It is clear that Cleveland loves it Orchestra, and that the Orchestra loves Cleveland.  I also learned that the first concert of this 100th birthday season was a performance of a Beethoven symphony, but included members of the Cleveland Public School’s high school for music.  The Orchestra was founded largely for the purpose of educating our children about music, how great that it kicked off its season with Beethoven and students the Orchestra prepared for months to join them, and ends it with the full Beethoven symphony cycle.  (Here is a brief clip:  Beethoven and Prometheus: A Hero’s Journey – September 22, 2017)

Having attended Cleveland Orchestra concerts for many years, including all the years of the Directorship of the current, great Maestro, I was deeply impressed at the amazing level of play.  The concept of the music, the feeling of great vision behind how it was to be played, the exceptional quality of the playing, all combined to create a musical experience such as we have never experienced before.  All of us in the Cleveland community should be so grateful to the fact this man of great musical genius, deep caring, clear thinking, has been our Maestro all these years.  And to the musicians of The Orchestra, assembled literally from around the world with one purpose, to explore how to master their craft and achieve the highest level.

I know from many people how rare it is to see an organization truly built to promote excellence, to protect integrity, to bring out the best work in all who join together to work there.  All too often, the conflicting needs of various leaders, of those working in the organization, dominate the progress of the workplace, compromise each person’s ability to excel.   And so, we are grateful to all levels of The Cleveland Orchestra.  To the Executive Director, the head of Education, the head of Marketing, and their and all departments, who create the infrastructure of this organization that does exist to allow its musicians to excel.   To the Maestro for the powerful erudition, passion for music, and yes, care for the community and the world he brings to crafting and sculpting a vision of music for the Orchestra to attain.  And to the musicians, many if not most as good as any in the world, all who have devoted their lives to their craft, and who to this day exert so much effort towards making their craft even more extraordinary.

A final thanks is due to us, the Cleveland community.  By so many measures, our mid-sized town offers support well beyond what any other city in the world offers its orchestras.  This is indeed a 100 year story, beginning with the vision that the Orchestra would be a partner with the people of the community.   In its first acts after formation, the Orchestra went to our children, the children of Cleveland to teach and to inspire.  That tradition continued over the century, and as noted opened the 100th season.

The night of the performance of the 9th and final symphony of Beethoven, just down the street, LeBron James was leading the Cavaliers to a stunning blow-out win.  For so many years Cleveland has longed for a national championship, it got one in 2016.  We should all know, music lovers or not, that the concerts at Severance Hall this year, culminating in the Prometheus Project that now commences a tour around the world, are a world championship level triumph for Cleveland.   The Cleveland Orchestra is a champion not only across the nation, but for the whole world.  We will all hear about this as papers write about what we heard here in Cleveland when it is performed where Beethoven wrote and presented these works, and around the world in Tokyo.  At the end of every concert, the roar of the crowd confirmed the deepest love this city has for its Orchestra.

And so I end this long homage to a 10 day period of greatness in our Orchestra, in the heart of our city, in each of us with profound gratitude, but also with great hope that the humanism it inspires will move us to indeed fight for the good.  And, I promise to get back to writing about medical matters right away!

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