Exquisitely, perfectly sad

In Praise of Community Orchestras | By Gregory Spatz

Gregory Spatz

This winter, the adult-beginner community orchestra where my wife, Caridwen, coaches the violin sections and occasionally conducts, undertook one of the most demanding and profound pieces of music I know of: the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. This is a piece I grew up listening to – at home, at my grandparents’ house in the Berkshires, summer evenings over their outdoor garden speakers, maybe even a time or two at Tanglewood performed by the BSO. My senior year in high school, I undertook a full-blown harmonic analysis of the piece, mainly because I wanted an excuse to dodge math class, but also because I was hoping to get to the bottom of some kind of nostalgia I’d always felt hearing it – to root that out, and maybe distance myself from it by focusing on the music’s underlying calculus and structure, rather than on the feeling-tones and idyllic pictures of willow trees and summer sunsets reflected in my grandparents’ pond, which the music always evoked for me. I doubt the analysis was very good or thorough, and I’m positive it didn’t lead me to a more meaningful appreciation of the music, but for a while after I did feel a special connection to it, a kind of ownership even, because of that attempted harmonic analysis, and I’d always type out final drafts of college papers with it blaring on my dorm room speakers (or on headphones after roommates complained).

And then I stopped listening to it altogether. Until this winter.

What surprised me, hearing it again as Caridwen worked it up, and later as the adult-beginners performed it, was how relevant it all still felt. And still (for me) steeped in nostalgia; and still, I can’t say what’s at the source of that. Some of it now, of course, is the sadness of looking back at a childhood and a whole world of people that no longer exists – feeling all of that evoked in the drama of those chords and fugue-themes and plaintive call-and-answer sections. Some of it may be inherent in the music itself, a consequence of Beethoven’s own sadness/nostalgia for the world of sound (he was mostly deaf at the time of writing it) – very probably it pulses with longing because he would only ever hear it fully in his head, and one can only imagine how badly he must have wanted to hear it played.

But the real surprise for me this winter, was in the way the community orchestra, despite the piece’s technical and emotional challenges, didn’t feel out-classed by or mismatched with the job of playing it. In fact, I felt their playing of the piece struck an earnestness of feeling that you don’t always hear from a professional orchestra, precisely because of inevitable imperfections in the performance. No question about the defects…and therefore no room in the playing for the vanity or high-gloss artistry and perfectionism that can so often cause classical music to sound fossilized, intimidating or inaccessible to the lay-listener. Did they get inside the piece and articulate it in a way Beethoven would have been pleased to hear? Probably not. But there was a pure awe and pleasure in being immersed in the music that was moving to behold. For me, that kind of engagement is the whole point of making music in the first place. I was glad to be reminded of this – and so unexpectedly, imperfectly – to feel again the power and immediacy of one of the most exquisitely, perfectly sad pieces of music I have ever heard.


NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Gregory Spatz has been contributing to NER’s fiction pages since 1992. His most recent book publications are the novel Inukshuk and forthcoming short story collection Half as Happy. He is the recipient of a Washington State Book Award and a 2012 NEA Fellowship in Literature, and plays fiddle in the internationally acclaimed band “John Reischman and the Jaybirds.” Visit www.gregoryspatz.com for more info. 


  1. Susan St.Amour says

    Your mom sent this to me. Yes, I feel a nostalgia when hearing this piece. Achey waves of memory of past days when my husband was alive and well and our family was busy — and of the beauty of the countryside in the Berkshires… This orchestra seems quite good! They play very well together! Their intonation is good!
    Thank you! 🙂