Family and Friends · music

Westwards From Jingmen (or When Beethoven Met The Migrant Kids)

About the time Li Shangyin and I were meeting in Shenzhen, the drug wars in Central America had intensified. The United States was still a country that drew the oppressed, huddled masses. However, there was a growing sentiment in the country that change was coming too rapidly. America was turning brown and many were afraid. We had heard from the news the stories of migrants entering America, and the forced separation of children from their parents at the border.

“What would Beethoven have said of that?” I asked Shangyin, knowing that in his time travels he had met the maestro.

He puffed on his Dunhill meerschaum pipe, a recently acquired habit.

“It’s hard to say. But one just has to consider the age of the Napoleonic Wars, during which Beethoven wrote the Eroica Symphony. He struck out its dedication to Napoleon, whom he had once admired, because he protested the invasion of Austria. Beethoven was an ubermensch[1], by virtue of not only his music but also his indomitable, empathetic spirit”

I had seen in the news pictures of children in steel cages on concrete floors. America had its dark moments: moments that often concerned people who looked different. I remembered the Japanese internment camps of the Second World War and slavery. Now that immigrants would be on the firing line for a long time in the future, I wondered who could speak for their kids,  caught between their desperate parents and a hostile America government. I recounted this to Shangyin.

“What classical piece”, I asked, ”most represents the story of migrant kids?”

“The Waldstein Sonata, of course,“ he quickly replied. He had recently played the piece. Though it was a halting, non professional performance, and only of the few pages he knew, it had power and pathos.

“Ridiculous,”, I laughed, “How can one relate a single piece of music with immigrants, let alone their children?”

“Think of it. The Waldstein sonata was composed in the summer of 1804, just after Napoleon had begun his conquest of Europe. Ten thousand French soldiers occupied Vienna a few months later. If there were immigrants in Europe, this was the time their numbers would have surged. They would have rushed down the Ringstrasse Boulevard, past the front door of the Pasqualati House  on the Mölker Bastei where Beethovenhe lived – and where we enjoyed a cup of tea together.”


“Beethoven knew about war firsthand, he understood suffering. Personally, he almost committed suicide when he lost his hearing two years earlier. He rebuffed the darker feelings of apathy, and affirmed his artistic goals, which included using the power of music to unite people”

“The first movement of the Waldstein is like daybreak. Then, chords mass and proceed with a terrifying linear momentum. It is the motion of aspiration and ambition, a study in determination. These are what many of those at the American border feel. They have no choice. They didn’t come for ice cream and apple pie. For many, their experience is a real one – of darkness and death behind them. But hope lies ahead.”

I nodded my head, “But the kids… where do they fit in.,”

Not waiting for me to answer, he jumped up, waved his pipe and said “The chorales!”

“Yes, “ I said. “That’s true. The choral sections that occur throughout the first movement. Single chords that sound like hymns from a church. These represent the innocence of a child trapped within the eye of a hurricane.“

“And that terrifying moment continues around them.”, he continued, “The border guards, the cold indifference of bureaucracy and the most narcissistic of presidents are resisted by the throbbing pulse of the music. It continues and then…”


“This amazing lull happens in the second, slow movement.”

“The Largo.”

“”Yes, the adagio is a development of the kids’ voices in the chorales. It is about solitude and pain, but also about transformation. Although it is only about a page of music, it is very slow and seems to presage a special event. Something happens towards the end. From the sadness of the bass notes, the music reaches upwards, and right before the third movement there is this trumpet call that announces a new beginning. “

He went on.

“Then  the third movement begins with a sweet hopeful melody. Each time it sounds it is interrupted by a storm, but it always returns. Huge waves of sound attack it each time and yet it always comes back until, at the very end, it explodes with this great sense of optimism and hope.

I nodded eagerly, “Beethoven has this amazing ability to create an aura of nobility. Magically, a little like in J.S. Bach’s work, his ascending and descending notes symbolize hope and despair respectively. The finale is the happiest of all. People have escaped from their cages and all the power of the preceding music is transformed into something that looks upwards and forwards. “

As I was talking I thought of how Beethoven’s greatest music merges an almost ineffable longing and sadness (that aura of nobility, as Shangyin put it) with hope. There is always hope in his music, whether in the spoken words of the last movement of the 9th Symphony or the benevolent and ecstatic finale of the Waldstein.

Shangyin looked long and hard at me that day. He was thinking of ways in which he could place some of these thoughts in his own creative process. He and I were learning, through the music that we loved, that the greatest art is ultimately hopeful.

“If we ever lose our way in life,” he said to me,” let us remember the Waldstein, and our conversation today. “

Then he laughed, as though he had just woken from an amusing dream.

”I think we’ve had enough to drink. What do you Americans say, Smell the coffee?”

He took out his pipe, lighted it up with a long matchstick, and blew clouds of deep smoke. Soon, the scent of fine tobacco filled the room.


一夕南风一叶危,  yī xī  nán fēng yī yè wēi,

荆云回望夏云时。  jīng yún huí wàng xià yún shí。

人生岂得轻离别,  rén shēng qǐ dé;děi;de qīng  lí bié,

天意何曾忌嶮巇。  tiān yì  hé céng jì xiǎn xī.

骨肉书题安绝徼,  gú ròu shū tí ān jué jiào;jiǎo,

蕙兰蹊径失佳期。  huì lán  xī jìng shī  jiā qī。

洞庭湖阔蛟龙恶,  dòng tíng hú kuò jiāo lóng è;wù;ě,

却羡杨朱泣路岐。  què xiàn yáng zhū qì lù qí。


At sunset, a southerly wind, a small skiff dangerous and free

Turning my head, stranded in the clouds, Jingmen I see

How is it that people so easily disappear?

It’s not that God doesn’t give us plenty to fear!

Peaceful, my flesh, bones, writing this far away

Lost, the orchid path from my nuptial day

Awful are these dragons of Dongting Lake

I admire Yang Zhu, who sobbed over which road to take

Musical Interlude: Ludwig van Beethoven, Sonata No. 53 “Waldstein” (Pianist: Mark Obama Ndesandjo)


[1] Overman, a term used by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to describe a man of greatness. In his 1883 book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche has his character Zarathustra posit the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to set for itself. (Wikipedia)

Image credit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s