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Joni Mitchell on Beethoven Inspiring Her to 'Carry On'
At a low point, she found Ludwig, and identified with him, and then wrote the greatest song ever about him. Here she talks about it.
In this space I have previously called Joni Mitchell’s early 1970s “Judgment of the Moon and Stars” one of her five greatest songs—and the best song anyone has ever written about my hero Beethoven. I’ve re-posted the song/video below, inspired this time by coming across an article on Joni’s site that recounts the importance of Ludwig in her life at a troubled moment (and no doubt since). A key excerpt follows her song, then three LvB classics and our daily cartoon. Enjoy, then subscribe, it’s free!
Mitchell started to pay the emotional price after Blue was released to tremendous success in 1971. It was an album filled with deeply personal songs about relationships gone wrong.
"I was being told that people were horrified by the intimacy of it. People said it was shocking. It wasn't. It was about human nature. It's all I had to work with. It's a soul trying to find itself and seeing its failings and having regrets. What's so horrible about that?"
In the end, the process of opening up her heart and showing it to thousands of people in ever-larger venues wore her down. Badly.
"Some people would call it a nervous breakdown, but I just hit that pocket that everyone does on some point in their journey through their lives. That identity crisis, that, 'Who am I, really?' You're lucky if it hits you early like it did with me."
So at the age of 28, she withdrew to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, to "a little stone house like a monastery where I could just go away and hide.
"I bought every psychology book I could lay my hands on. Jung, Freud, theology, self-help, psychiatry."
One book, published in 1927, stood out above all the rest, a volume called Beethoven: His Spiritual Development.
"It was all about his struggles, and self-doubts and his worries about how his work was being received and what it all meant on a deeper level and, of course, about his going deaf.
"At the time, that's just what I was thinking about too. How am I going to get back in the saddle? And what about the audience? Would you still love me if you knew what I was really like?"
And so she wrote a series of self-revelatory songs on her 1972 album, For the Roses, which fell between her two most commercially successful recordings, Blue and Court and Spark. The ultimate catharsis comes with the final song, "Judgment of the Moon and Stars."
"I spoke to (Beethoven) and to myself at the same time. I said you've got to keep going in spite of your deafness, in spite of everything."
And in a heart-rending moment, Mitchell can't help herself, and she slips into singing, raspy and muted, to be sure, but with a passion time hasn't erased.
"You've got to shake your fists at lightning now
You've got to roar like forest fire.
You've got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky."
As she sings, Mitchell moves her right hand, the one holding the omnipresent cigarette, like a conductor. Her hair is still blond, though swept up instead of hanging straight in the '60s folksinger style she favored for decades. She pauses, then speaks softly to herself: "Keep going, Joan, tap into it." A rueful laugh. "One of my friends calls me Beethoven in drag."
Here we find the great Jackie du Pre (likely one of Joni’s idols) with husband Daniel Barenboim performing the dynamic 2nd movement from LvB’s third cello sonata.
Another woman Joni may love, Helene Grimaud, with one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever, the slow movement from piano concerto No. 5.
Finally, since it’s Sunday, highlights from what some call LvB’s greatest creation, his Missa Solemnis, in a performance I attended in NYC in 2010…
Cartoon of the Day
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