Even in a city replete with extraordinary structures, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is astonishing, first of all for its size. A massive building that consumes 601 feet in length, with an interior nave ceiling reaching upwards of 124 feet, it is located on the former site of an orphanage on Manhattan’s upper Amsterdam Avenue and is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Its designs were drawn up in about 1888 and construction was begun four years later, just as Ellis Island was opened. Progress was slow – among the first problems encountered was the deepness of the anchoring bedrock below – and frictions over the design, along with the death of a pivotal architect, led to substantial changes in its style: what had been Byzantine-Romanesque ultimately became mostly Gothic, with touches of the Romanesque, Byzantine and Norman thrown in for good measure.
The Cathedral’s enormous nave was first opened to the public immediately before World War II, which largely put a halt to further work on its towers and on the statuary still missing from the western facade. Only in the 1970’s was an effort made to train local youths in the stone-carving techniques needed to further the Cathedral’s construction, although the success of this program was limited. Presumably following a fundraising campaign, construction on its south tower was continued about ten years later but never completed. Since the mid-1990’s no further building work has been done, leading to a nickname of “St. John the Unfinished.” But the work of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is not defined by its outward appearance; indeed, its activities are surprisingly eclectic and encompassing of the community and beyond and include diverse programs for those in need, such as counseling services.
It even has artists-in-residence that include Philip Petit, the high-wire performer, Edgar Winter and Judy Collins. Elie Weisel and Kurt Masur are among the “Cathedral Colleagues,” and it houses a major textile laboratory, arising out the need to maintain its own important textile collection.
I had been living in New York for quite a number of years before first visiting the Cathedral and recall my earliest fascination with its grandeur and activities, most vividly a yearly blessing of the animals for which people from throughout New York City bring in dogs, cats, snakes, ferrets, birds, and even bacteria in petri dishes. The various chapels – one dedicated to education on protecting the environment, another for firefighters, yet another for victims of AIDS – were compelling. I even played a violin recital in one of the side chapels towards the front (and imagine the sound still ringing around inside in various nooks and crannies). The Cathedral’s bookstore and gift shop, featuring miscellaneous items from throughout the world, were a favorite destination, too, for holiday presents. I was, therefore, enormously saddened when a large fire broke out in December 2001 that destroyed the north transept and closed the Cathedral; that this took place so shortly after the traumas of September 11 added to the severe blow. It took nearly seven years for the Cathedral to reopen.
When his Ninth Symphony was premiered in 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven had been totally deaf for over ten years. By then he had composed hundreds of works encompassing songs to piano sonatas and concerti, chamber music for piano, strings, woodwinds, an opera, sonatas and a concerto for violin, and much more. Technological developments to the piano and the violin bow at the end of the 18th century had helped lead to music that was increasingly self-expressive as it transitioned away from the Classical into the Romantic style, with Beethoven at the helm. Over time he had become somewhat resigned to his deafness, although not without a struggle; it was in 1802 that he wrote a letter to his brothers that revealed the despair he felt at losing his hearing, in which he stated that only art restrained him from taking his own life. In the years thereafter, Beethoven continued to suffer from various illnesses, family problems and tragic love affairs, all of which impeded his ability to compose music but, perhaps, deepened his artistic sensitivities. In 1822, he received two commissions; one for a set of string quartets and one for a symphony, which would be his Ninth. In reality, he had been working out ideas for this symphony for a number of years. A poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 – “An die Freude,” normally translated as “Ode to Joy” – had captured Beethoven’s imagination when he was in his early twenties, and he decided to use it as a motto or theme set to music written for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. Schiller’s translated text includes these words:
All the world’s creatures
Draw joy from nature’s breast
Both the good and the evil
Follow her rose-strewn path.
Be embraced, Millions!
Take this kiss for all the world!
Brothers, surely a loving Father
Dwells above the canopy of stars.
Do you sink before him, Millions?
World, do you sense your Creator?
Seek him then beyond the stars!
He must dwell beyond the stars.
The Ninth Symphony consists of four movements, the first of which can be characterized as stormy and unsettled in demeanor; it is followed by a Scherzo, also in the “agitated” key of D Minor. The third movement, a set of variations, changes the mood; it is in a major key and lyrical in its nature, giving a sense of calm to the music. The final movement, which alone lasts about 24 minutes, is a synopsis of what has preceded. After revisiting the ideas and moods of the previous movements, it gives way to the famed “Ode to Joy” in all of its triumphant glory, with vocal soloists and chorus lending their voices to the orchestra as it blazes away. Beethoven himself directed the premiere performance on May 7, 1824; it is said that he was not facing the audience and that when the conclusion was met with thunderous applause, he had to be turned around by one of the vocal soloists in order to see the ovation and recognize the success of his work.
Beethoven wrote no more symphonies after the Ninth; rather, he focused on writing string quartets that even today remain enigmatic and disturbing in their combinations of imagination, power and intimacy. His health continued to decline and death is said to have occurred during a thunderstorm on March 26, 1827.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2010, the American Classical Orchestra is “devoted to preserving and performing the repertoire of 17th- to 19th-century composers, playing the works on original or reproduced period instruments. The musicians use historic performance practice techniques and pass these skills down to future generations through concert performances and educational programs” (National Endowment for the Arts website). It was founded by music director Thomas Crawford, who has worked tirelessly over the years on its behalf, and consists of the finest period instrument players in the United States. It has been my great pleasure to perform as soloist on many occasions with the ACO; every time I return, I am deeply aware of the privilege of working with wonderful musicians who not only truly love their art but are also very sympathetic collaborators.
About six weeks ago the American Classical Orchestra commemorated its silver anniversary with, in classical music terms, the ne plus ultra of works: it performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the nave of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Two thousand people filled the vast interior (including some European travelers stranded by a volcano in Iceland), projection screens provided close-up views to those further back, and a chorus plus four vocal soloists massed behind the orchestra. I was lucky enough to attend and brought along a friend.
The Ninth Symphony was reserved for the second half of the concert; the first half consisted of delightful Coronation Anthems by Handel. At first, I thought the usual things: great turnout, the amplification – necessary for this venue – was quite good for the orchestra, and I also wondered just how it felt to conduct music of this magnitude, which turned into even deeper admiration for Tom Crawford, who remained seemingly unfazed. Despite its massive proportions – which mirror those of the Cathedral’s nave – as I listened to Beethoven’s music I was increasingly struck by what seems to be the autobiographical nature of the work. It is as if he is expressing his own struggles through life – the discomforts and storminess, yearnings, disappointments, difficulties – but with an inward turn in the third movement that revels in nature and expresses appreciation for what music, and life, offer. The final movement, the ‘Ode to Joy,” looks beyond the individual into the collective and, ultimately, the divine.
On the welcome page of the printed program, Thomas Crawford writes of “a glorious journey” with the American Classical Orchestra and his belief that “we are changed by the vibrations (of music) and that the cumulative effect on our bodies and souls is both subtle and profound. The harmonious vibrations become sympathetic, and are passed on eternally.” As I sat in the nave listening to Beethoven’s masterpiece, I thought of his own life struggles leading to this fulfillment (that he could not physically hear), the “unfinished” Cathedral and its history of marvelous accomplishments despite its own troubles, and the committed playing by the orchestra under Tom’s direction, representing a triumph in today’s distressed cultural environment. And I felt greatly moved and inspired by the unity of these forces.
Over the next few days, it seemed like a kind of magic was in the air: as I was leaving following a day of teaching at NYU, I had to step over a guitarist and several friends who were seated on the floor of a corridor. He was picking out a few notes, trying to find the right key, and after a moment I recognized that it was the “Ode to Joy” theme. A day or two later, I heard someone whistling it in the street below my apartment window.
A grimmer reality intruded shortly thereafter, as an oil leak in the gulf revealed a deadly intransigence and someone attempted to bomb Times Square. Beethoven’s message of brotherly love and spirituality now feels more distant, yet I recall the sounds of that majestic night – perhaps as he recalled the beloved sounds he could no longer hear – and feel a fleeting peace.