The Art and The Hours – Recollection, Gift, and Hope

by Br. Gilbert Heater, OSB

Franz Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat minor was composed shortly before his death at the age of 31. He was experiencing a time of great personal sorrow resulting from the death of his hero Beethoven, deteriorating health, and an onset of great melancholy and depression. It was also a period marked by an inspired outpouring of his greatest music, of which this Impromptu is an evocative example. Its simple searching melody and misty amorphous accompaniment convey a kind of elegiac solitude. And yet, in the sadness, there is still an abundance of beauty, of hope, and of reminiscence.

And this piece, composed with the premonition of death, is one of the last performed by the legendary Vladimir Horowitz shortly before his own passing. After suffering from severe depression that forced him to withdraw from public performances for nearly twenty years, he returned for a final concert tour and we see a maturity that comes not merely from the passing of time, but from experiencing the darkness and poverty of his own humanity. The charismatic fire and furor of his early career has seasoned into something pensive and plaintive, something tranquil and profound.

This performance often brings tears to my eyes and in a sense, perhaps the word “performance” is not really accurate. Horowitz is not really playing Schubert’s music. He becomes Schubert’s music. This is one of those sublime and mystical moments when music transcends our universe and enters into a timeless realm where two musicians become . . . harmonized. This is not merely an artistic synthesis. I think it is no coincidence that Horowitz is, at the end of his life, playing a piece composed at the end of Schubert’s. They are both aware that their life is now far spent and that there is something in the past worth recalling, worth reliving – an anamnesis of sound and sorrow, of melody and memory.

I am moved by the depth and dignity so evident in Horowitz. He has nothing to prove but everything to give. Like a living statue he sits with elegance and noble grace; even his hands seem scarcely to stir. And yet, this physical reserve is what allows the music to flow from his fingers with an unrestrained condensation of beauty, every note effortless yet pure, precise, and perfect. I think this is an offering to us, an intimate and defenceless expression of everything he is. It is exquisite, immediate, and timeless. It is a distillation of eighty-four years of joy and pain, sorrow and struggle, contentment and peace. Horowitz is recollecting himself, revealing and inviting us into his heart in a way that music alone makes possible.

These seven minutes are so profound and wonderful because they are an expression of what it means to be human. It is a participation in something great and beautiful, eternal and transcendent. It is an example of the communion and vulnerability that we are all created for and called to. We may express it through music or any number of individual gifts, but we all have a heart that longs to be shared . . . to be loved and received and reciprocated. Like Schubert and Horowitz, we are all shaped by our experiences. We are tinged with the vast and vibrant spectrum of passion and encounter, and it is through this that we discover our own humanity and recognize it in those around us.

As you listen to Horowitz and Schubert, let it be an opportunity to listen to yourself. There is a place here for suffering and sorrow, for joy and pleasure. There is room to rest in the past, be at peace in the present, and full of hope for the future. It is a reminder that in the depths of our hearts we all possess a profound and prophetic beauty. The transcendent connection we share through this music may be temporary, but it is a foretaste of that infinite expression of love that encompasses and embraces all we are, and all we wish to be.