Impressions, part 1
If you’ve not read the links above, please do. I did, and spent the week wondering what to write. We’re discussing impressions now—not, what do we think about such and so, but what does such and so make us think? This week it’s beauty. What impression does that word have on us, on me?
What impression does it have on you?
I’ve been swamped in an unbeautiful amount of work, lately. Which has created unbeauty—if that’s a word. Clenched shoulders and strained eyes and running headache and stacks and heaps and piles of books and laundry and dishes. It’s all very well to talk about the practice of the presence of God, and finding the Beautiful and the True whilst peeling potatoes, but Brother Lawrence didn’t have four thousand more words to finish up by 1700 on Friday, now did he?
Jenna and Masha talk of beautiful rituals, and readings, and silences. Icons and candlelight. All things that I cherish myself. All things in strikingly short supply this week.
So last night I sat exhausted on the couch, and took out a book about icons. I stared at the icons sleepily, flipped back and forth through the pages. What do I think, I thought, when I first think of beauty? In a life dominated by texts, frankly, the first thing I think of was the word itself, a string of Roman characters. But it didn’t seem sufficient just to blog
B E A U T Y
under a post titled ‘beauty’. And that’s not a particularly appealing string of letters, anyway.
What do I think, I thought sleepily, of beauty. In painting and literature Beauty’s a woman, mostly. But that’s not the first thing I think. Not my first impression. I think the word.
So I wondered if I actually saw the word, if that would help. I dolefully thumbed through the pages looking for that particular string of characters, the solemn, cryptic faces of the icons staring out at me. I looked, and kept looking, and couldn’t find it.
Then I realised.
The little book about icons was by Henri Nouwen. The title was printed by the page numbers.
Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons
‘Beauty’ was on every page.
Today, when I thought of that, for some reason, I thought of this. It didn’t happen this way, probably. But it should have.
If it happened at all, it happened in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Edvard Grieg was still a young man and a music student. He was already beginning to write one of his greatest works, the Piano Concerto no. 1. It was unlike anything he or anyone else had written, the great musical flourish that would play so large a part in the careen from the staid harmonies of the 19th century to the wild cacophonies of the 20th. The work is still revered in the repertoire and secures Grieg’s place among the great masters of his art. But at the time it was a few scribbles and hesitant marks of bits of foolscap—an audacious project by a young musician still unconvinced of his greatness.
Unsure if this bold folly was worth continuing, Grieg sought out a friend, the lauded celebrity performer, Franz Liszt. He asked him to play his manuscript.
Imagine, if you will, the tableau of the two musicians standing at the piano. They are in the salon, a high-ceilinged room redolent of the era, the curtains heavy, the carpet lush, the great piano forte in the centre of the room. The scribbled bits of foolscap are spread across it. Grieg, the slight, delicate youth, his clothes somewhat shabby his moustache neat to the point of compulsion. He looks, as a friend would later describe, like a tatty and vaguely worried ‘mini-Viking’. Beside him towers the elegant figure of Liszt, not yet showing the approach of age, languorous and leonine, his hair a mane about his shoulders, his exquisitely clothed and abnormally tall frame dwarfing the anxious student beside him. He has all the elegance and arrogance of an aesthete, a confident charisma that holds the world in awe. There has been no such meeting of musical minds since Mozart, hearing the young Beethoven perform, remarked that this young man would revolutionise music. There will not be another until the day that Paul suggests to John that they try the chorus again, this time a third ‘Yeah.’ In one long, supple hand, Liszt delicately balances a cigar. With the other, he thunders out Grieg’s Piano Concerto no. 1, performing certainly the most powerful premiere of this complex and daunting work, single-handed.
Nervously, the young Grieg listens to the familiar, uncertain notes, until Liszt reaches the faltering end of the manuscript. Then great man straightens up, knocks the ash from his cigar, and considers.
‘Go on with it, Ed,’ he says. ‘You’ve got the stuff.’
It probably didn’t happen that way.
But it should have.
And now it did.