A plug for Beethoven and company in times of stress …

I was always someone who recognized the critical value of diligently providing for personal solitude as an element of leadership effectiveness. (There is a pretty good book on this subject if you are unconvinced: Lead Yourself First, by Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin).

The coronavirus pandemic would seem to have made solitude the new norm. But this enforced solitude is no guarantee of productive solitude.

Yes, we find ourselves in isolation, but the very technology that is the basis for sustaining some semblance of business continuity during this period of social distancing and stay-at-home orders (in my experience, at least) is actually increasing the noise and distraction. (How many hours did you spend on Zoom today?)

This 24/7 connectivity coupled with the natural yearning for human engagement is making it harder to do precisely what is demanded of us now as leaders in the face of such massive external disruption and existential personal and professional jeopardy. In crisis, our responsibility as leaders demands that we make space and step back to ensure that we are not merely reacting in the moment. Reflection is necessary to making difficult decisions wisely, with analytical clarity, creativity, emotional balance and moral courage.  

Exercise, meditation, prayer, and music are the frequent escape routes to such deep reflection.  

Many people who don’t normally listen to “classical” music may already be listening to it more in these stressful times. Its meditative qualities are obvious even if you know nothing about its nature, historical context, style or structure (as endlessly fascinating and absorbing as those things are to some people, myself included). 

If this is unfamiliar territory for you, a few words of advice to help you find your way.

First and most important: don’t buy into the big lie: that you need to study, learn and become an expert before you can enjoy or benefit from this music.  That is a fallacy promoted by cultural elitists to feed their need to feel superior. Music (all music) speaks directly to the soul and speaks in something other than words. Its power and content are accessible to anyone who is open to it.

True, the words used to describe the different forms and elements of classical music can be a little intimidating, like the unfamiliar language used to describe the offerings on a menu when you try a new style of restaurant for the first time.  But it need not frighten you. 

A symphony is just a single work for orchestra. It is made up of separate movements (often, but not always, four in number). Movements are just like chapters in a book.  

A concerto is really just a symphony with a featured solo instrument. Again, it is generally made up of multiple movements (often, but not always three in number), organized like chapters in a book.

A sonata is a single work for a specific instrument (without orchestral accompaniment) consisting of multiple movements. (The same term is also used to describe the internal structure of some musical forms, but you need not bother yourself with that.)

Nothing to be afraid of there. And nothing you really needed to know before tapping into the restorative potential of the music.

But I point it out only to make you aware that there is a reason the composer combined those separate “tracks” into a multi-part work. You can choose to read a single chapter in a book and find it edifying. Same with a single movement from a symphony, concerto or sonata. But realize that you are sampling just an excerpt of something larger.  The composer didn’t just throw random pieces of music together in random order and call it a symphony, any more than an author threw together random chapters in random order and called it a book. I’ll come back to this, but sometimes just an excerpt is like small plates in a restaurant – tasty, but you are missing the satisfaction of a planned, full menu, where carefully chosen appetizer is paired with salad, followed by a main course, and topped with dessert.  

Next, you are faced with the (very often Italian) words used as titles for individual movements within a larger work.  These are merely descriptions of the musical content of that “chapter.” Words like adagio, allegro, scherzo, etc. do have specific meanings related to the technical nature of the music. (Grossly oversimplifying: adagio means played slowly, allegro means played fast, scherzo means light and playful, and so on.) But again, you don’t need to know why its tagged that way to respond to the music itself. I only point it out because, it might be helpful in identifying more music from the vast classical catalog that you would like. (To use yet another food analogy, you don’t need to know that a specific seasoning or ingredient is what makes you like a particular dish so much. But knowing you like that ingredient could help you find new dishes you will probably also like.)

So here are my suggestion:

  • Look at the late 18th through the 19th century (generally labelled the classical and romantic periods). There are exceptions, of course, but the music of these periods is characterized by its accessibility. It has heavily influenced the music written for many movie soundtracks and if you loved Game of Thrones or Star Wars or Schindler’s List or The Godfather much of it will have a familiar feel.
  • Some people find earlier music of the 17th and early 18th centuries (the baroque period) more abstract, and some of it can be austere. But don’t hesitate to sample it. There is music of deep profundity to be found here too, as well as music of exquisite exuberance, if you need a pick me up.  (Again, the determining factor is what you respond to, not what some “expert” suggests you “need” to appreciate.) 
  • Go ahead and start with the big names (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc.) and the popular hits so often packaged in those “100 Masterpiece” collections that used to be advertised on late night TV. There are reasons people who may have heard nothing else by Beethoven immediately recognize the opening of the fifth symphony. This is not a time for cultural snobbery – just because its popular doesn’t mean you lack musical refinement. It’s still great music.
  • Look for the adagios.  These aren’t the big, dramatic, heroic movements from longer works that you are most likely to have heard before. They are generally the gentlest, calmest and most soothing movement within multi-movement compositions.  Try, for example, the third movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony (the “Choral” symphony) or the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto (the “Emperor” concerto). Both are adagios.
  • If you find something that speaks to you, look for more by the same composer, or movements that are similarly labeled, or works in the same musical format. For example, if you find solo piano speaks to you more than orchestral works, stick with piano in your search. If vocal music sends you shrieking for the door, skip opera and stick with the orchestral stuff. If the adagio from one Mozart piano concerto appealed to you, most of his other 22 concertos also have an adagio movement you could check out.

These are useful signposts, not absolutes. Just because Mahler (who falls outside any of the historical periods of music cited above) wrote incredibly moving adagios doesn’t mean you’ll respond equally to anything else he wrote. Maybe Bach leaves you cold. That’s OK, too. Personally, I would feel impoverished without either of them. But that’s just me. You’re exploring what works for you, not seeking a degree in musical appreciation.

  • Finally, if you want to engage in the music as something more than a pleasant background soundtrack, once you have found your way into a larger, multi-movement work that speaks to you, continue on into the next chapter. That is, keep listening to the next track – the movement or section that follows your excerpt.  In the case of both the Beethoven adagios cited above, these serene movements lead naturally, organically and convincingly into the next movements, which are of considerable vigor and dramatic effect.  

That is instructive too, because we can’t just retreat and remain in solitude: having regained our equilibrium, these spiritual sabbaticals need to feed energy, focus and clarity into action, just as, in Beethoven, the dreamy adagio sets up the stormy and triumphant finale. 

[And a note begging forbearance from any reader knowledgeable about music. Every categorical statement above can be picked apart. Music is immensely vaster and more complex than these generalizations suggest. There are 20th century compositions as accessible as anything from the classical or romantic periods. There are obscure composers whose music is as accessible as anything Beethoven or Mozart ever wrote. There are scherzos that are anything but light and playful and adagios that are positively nightmarish. These are matters for connoisseurs to delight in; they need not create a barrier to those new to this music.]