Posted by: Calmseas (Mike) | July 9, 2008

Rembrandt, Beethoven, And The Rest Of Us

Night WatchI thoroughly enjoy reading a blog by Miss Music Nerd, so much so that I’ve listed Linda’s site on my blogroll.  She recently had another very interesting post titled, “Hearing With New Ears?” Among others, she asks these thought-provoking questions:

” . . . I wonder, when a piece is as seminal as Mozart 41, is it really possible to hear it differently? Can we come to it with new ears? And if so, how do we do it?

“I’ve been thinking lately how odd it is that we go to the symphony to hear music we’ve already heard before. Why bother? Why get all dressed up, pay for tickets and parking, and fight traffic just to hear music you already know? Do we do the same for other art forms? We go to the movie theater to see the latest release, not something we own on DVD and have watched any number of times, right?”

After thinking quite a bit about this, I finally took the time to formulate and write a reply.  I think that for anyone interested in music and the other arts, these are some important things to think through.  I had this to say:

When I was a very young cub, I had the occasion to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The year was 1976, and I had just finished my first year of studies toward a music degree at my local community college. I was not much acquainted at all with the visual arts. When I walked into the room that displayed Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” I knew immediately that I was in the presence of something great—something much, much larger than myself or my ability to comprehend it. There was so much to absorb from this magnificent painting that I could have stood there all day and not taken it all in, let alone completely understood the work. The textures, the colors, the form, and the sheer magnitude of this work: they completely overwhelmed the senses and the mental processing ability of this young aspiring musician who, up until that time, thought he knew a thing or two about the arts.

I think that it is the same with music, even music that we know very well. There is always more to discover in a well-known work. When I listen to a Beethoven Symphony, or string quartet, concerto, or sonata, it is nearly like listening for the first time, every time, even though I know some of this music so well that I can pick any part and sing along without missing a note. I am in awe of this magnificence, and I appreciate so much more about it at the age of 50 than I ever could have at the age of 20. Some of that deeper insight must come from age. I would not have thought that possible at the age of 20, but clearly see it now. The musical senses become more full-bodied and infused with fine nuances of appreciation and understanding as we age; much like a fine wine that has been allowed to sit on the rack for years.

As to why we go to live performances to hear music that we have heard a hundred times before: A live music performance is to a recording exactly what seeing the “Night Watch” at the Rijksmuseum is to seeing this work in a book at the library.



  1. BTW 15 July (1606) is Rembrandt’s birthday – born in Leiden, Netherlands.

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