The theme and variations vs. the symphony: on love
I try to do about three miles of brisk walking every day for exercise. On rainy or snowy days, I'm off to the gym and its treadmill, which feels like--well, like being on a treadmill. But on beautiful days or even halfway decent days, I prefer to be outside.
I live in a beautiful area, and there are a wide variety of choices for walking. But, somehow, I almost always end up at the same place: a park by the ocean. It's convenient, only a two-minute drive from my house. I know exactly what route to follow to get in my requisite three miles. It has just the right combination of flats and hills, sun and shade, dogs and owners, parents and children. Part of the walk lies in a wooded area, but most of it is open and within sight of the water, some cliffs and crashing waves, and even a couple of lighthouses. The sort of thing people journey to New England for from all over the world.
So, how could I ever ask for anything more?
And yet, to walk along essentially the same route, day in and day out, for several years? Doesn't it get boring?
Well, every now and then I guess it does get boring--like almost anything can, even dessert. But mostly it's not boring at all, even though it's the same walk and the same scene. Because, like that proverbial river that one never steps in twice, it's somehow ever-changing.
Some of this is due to variations in light and weather. When the sun is out, the place is transformed from the landscape when the sky is overcast. The wind whips the waves on a turbulent day, which is different entirely from a calm sea. The dogs change, although not so much as the weather; the canines and their owners are nothing if not creatures of habit. The babies get older. The seasons work their magic, especially the brilliant falls.
So yes, it's the same park and the same ocean. But it's never really the same. And, although walking repeatedly in the same place is very different from traveling around the world and walking in a new place every day, is it really so very much less varied? It depends on the eye and mind of the beholder; the expansive imagination can find variety in small differences, and the stunted one can find boredom in vast changes.
And I submit that love is like that, too. Some people spend a lifetime with one love, one spouse; plumbing the depths of that single human being and what it means to be in an intimate relationship with him/her. Others go from relationship to relationship, never alighting with one person for very long, craving the variety.
It would seem on the face of it that the second type of person has the more exciting time in love. But it ain't necessarily so. Either of these experiences can be boring or fascinating, depending on what we bring to it: the first experience is a universe in depth, and the second a universe in breadth. But both can contain multitudes.
I'll let author Milan Kundera take over on the subject now, since he was actually my inspiration in the first place (from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting). Here he is describing his musicologist father who, during the last ten years of his life, had lost the ability to speak:
Throughout the ten years of his illness, Papa worked on a big book about Beethoven's sonatas. He probably wrote a little better than he spoke, but even while writing he had more and more trouble finding words, and finally his text had become incomprehensible, consisting of nonexistent words.
He called me into his room one day. Open on the piano was the variations movement of the Opus 111 sonata. "Look," he said, pointing to the music (he could no longer play the piano). And again, "Look," and then, after a prolonged effort, he succeeded in saying, "Now I know!" and kept trying to explain something important to me, but his entire message consisted of unintelligible words, and seeing that I did not understand him, he looked at me in surprise and said, "That's strange."
I know of course what he wanted to talk about, because it was a question he had been asking himself for a long time. Variation form was Beethoven's favorite toward the end of his life. At first glance, it seems the most superficial of forms, a simple showcase of musical technique, work better suited to a lacemaker than to a Beethoven. But Beethoven made it a sovereign form (for the first time in the history of music), inscribing in it his most beautiful meditations.
Yes, all that is well known. But Papa wanted to know how it should be understood. Why exactly choose variations? What meaning is hidden behind it?
That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said, "Now I know!"
And, somehow, Kundera the son finally understood (or thought he understood; the father wasn't telling) what his father meant:
I am going to try to explain it with a comparison. A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensées, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into the other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world hidden in all things.
...Variation form is the form in which the concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.
The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the marvelous depths of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves further and further away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.
Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack that other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach....
It is not surprising that in his later years variations become the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well...that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.