Jean Croker Petke

Emotional Cragginess

Emotional Cragginess

I’ve been a fan of Leonard Bernstein since I first saw his Young People’s Concerts in the late 1950’s. By that time I was well into my piano studies. I envied his musical passion.

In The Joy of Music, Bernstein penned these words: These mountains have a quality of majesty and craggy exaltation that suggest Beethoven to me. These words caught my attention because I’ve played much Beethoven and love great mountains.


When I’m learning a Beethoven composition, I often wonder, “What was he thinking? What caused him to write notes like these? How could he even come up with such complications and intricacies?” I’d like to call him up and ask, “How do you do this?” But alas, he’s long dead. I pick Dr. B’s brain occasionally, but beyond the basic structure of the piece, the musical analysis escapes my comprehension.

But there is great emotion in Beethoven. He created some of his music after he lost his hearing, but how does one do that, without having the opportunity to actually play the notes, or hear the notes played, to check them for accuracy of sound? Late at night, I often “play” my memorized music in my head before I fall asleep, but that’s music I already know. Beethoven was making new music. Somehow he had to play it in his head and know the sound was what he wanted. Genius. Pure genius.

I want to go back to Bernstein’s words: a quality of majesty and craggy exaltation.

When I think of Beethoven I think of power and largeness and moments that stop your breathing, bookended by simpler melodies and calmness. It’s like the Pacific Ocean’s great waves, crashing on the Oregon’s rugged coast. Crashing, century after century. Then the water pulls back, gathers into itself, and finally surges again to test the rocks. Like Bernstein says —

it’s majesty, pure majesty and the exaltation of such force is craggy and wild. It’s not always neat or picture perfect. In fact, trying to capture such majesty and exaltation in a photo is nearly impossible. It’s better to just watch and listen and feel the salty spray dampening your face. Let the power touch your imagination, let it take you away to other lands where this water has also been, let it take you beyond yourself to new thoughts and dreams and visions. I’m always reluctant to leave such places. I need more time to watch and listen and ponder.

It’s the same after a musical performance. I want time to let the music stay for a while, to replay the melody, to re-experience the cragginess, to hold the emotion it fostered. We are often too quick to applaud and too quick to move on to the next piece.

As I practice piano, I try to be in the composers head, to feel what he might have felt. I’m coming to understand music is more than playing the notes correctly. I’m trying to transform those black notes into moments of majesty and cragginess and exaltation that perhaps the composer intended.

Until next Tuesday . . .