Thursday, May 10, 2007

Beethoven Writes a Gut-Wrenching Chord

Another in a series of somewhat surreal stories from the collection, Stravinsky's Tavern.
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Ludwig van Beethoven sat at his desk, surrounded by papers and pens, the rug underneath (much to his landlord’s dismay) stained by spilled ink. If only he could figure out how to use one of the computer programs all his colleagues talked about using.

The way they explained how it works, you could write a passage, then sequence it in a different key just by hitting a button – it could even play it back to you so you could hear what it sounded like. Beethoven thought this was a cop out: what composer worth his salt needed to have a machine play it back to him? If he couldn’t hear it in his head, should he be composing in the first place? And if he needed to work it out on a “machine,” wasn’t a piano good enough?

No, he shook his head, this new-fangled technology only made it possible for people of little talent to fancy themselves “composers.” It made it too easy. Why, if Vivaldi didn’t have that cut-and-paste function available to him, he might come up with something more interesting than all those endlessly repeated figures in his accompaniments. And that Glass guy – Philip or whatever his name was – it’s just copy-paste paste paste paste paste paste paste...

He turned to his piano and took a typical Glass figure, singing “dah-doo-dee, dah-doo-dee” over and over while he played:
But then he heard, in his inner ear (the true test of anyone’s creative genius), this:

“Hmmm,” he reconsidered, “I should put that aside, that might come in handy some time...”

But today he was supposed to be working on the last movement of his 9th Symphony and it had been giving him an immense amount of trouble, not just figuring out how to begin but where it should go. He had given up the light-hearted finales of his teacher Haydn – too “lah-dee-dah” for him: Mozart had seen to that. A finale needed to be a summing-up, not a cutesy kind of waving bye-bye. He shuddered at the thought, after these first three intense movements he’d struggled with for so long.

No, this needed to start... to start with... uhm... he pondered a while. He wracked his brain a while longer. He sipped his coffee in between ponderings and wrackings. He paced the floor in between sippings. He looked out the window onto the street below in between pacings. After this long, gorgeous, luxuriously unfolding slow movement, he needed to get the listener’s attention, but how?

He sat down heavily at the piano – his poor battered, long-suffering Broadwood piano given to him by a London piano-maker – and crashed his hands down onto the keys in exasperation.

If his downstairs neighbor had been in, she would’ve thought Herr Beethoven had completely lost it, perhaps even passed out, falling across the keyboard, dead on the spot. “Ja ja, I heard it – he collapsed just like that – bang – like a body-slam in wrestling, ja!” She was always watching wrestling on TV – a big fan of Hulk Hoffmeister, she was, too – one of those times Beethoven didn’t mind being deaf, he thought, not having to listen to that racket seeping up through the floor of his music room. People pitied poor Beethoven who couldn’t hear the roar of the traffic outside his apartment or listen to those rock-star wannabees crooning on TV without an ounce of self-respect. The guy next door, who watched every episode of “Austrian Idol,” often wondered what Beethoven had to talk about with his friends if he couldn’t hear what was going on on TV. Pity, that...

But Beethoven felt something. He tried to play that same chord again, just bringing his hands down without really thinking about what they were playing. Yes, he thought, yes! Something deep inside him stirred from the discovery: this was IT – the chord he was looking for!

When he hurried over to his desk to write it down, he felt something else stirring deep inside him: something that snapped and hurt just a little, at first. He hurriedly scribbled down this chord
then felt along the right side of his abdomen... there, just above the belt. Damn... it felt like... well, he’d never had one before, but he figured it had to be one.

A hernia!

He tried to keep working on this chord but the pain in his side distracted him. He was used to being ill but he always hated it. Worse was going to the doctor’s – they’re always bleeding you for something or other, but he figured “what if I just pulled a muscle? What if it’s actually a badly timed attack of appendicitis?” One of his neighbors had a friend who thought he’d had a little gas but when the pain got worse, he went to the hospital only to discover that his appendix was about to explode. Such a silly little thing, an appendix, yet it could kill you if you weren’t observant.

Beethoven kept feeling his side. It hurt when he pressed on it, it hurt when he tried walking but not so bad when he sat down. So it wasn’t continuous – hmm, probably not the appendix. But just in case, he grabbed his coat and shuffled off toward his doctor whose office was a couple streets over, just by the post-office, and he had some things to drop off there, anyway. Off he went, annoyed by the interruption when he was on the cusp of inspiration...

Unfortunately, the nurse he disliked the most was on-duty. Brunnhilde Waffenschlagen had no time for patients and she let them know it. It was her job to keep the office in line with all the government regulations and she did it with the heartlessness and precision of a Prussian field-marshall.

“Ach, Herr Beethoven,” she preened with barely disguised contempt, “vhat zeemz to be bozzering you today, ja?”

“I must see the doctor – I hurt myself... uhm, here,” he said, putting his hand gingerly against his side, “and I’m not sure if it’s a hernia or perhaps appendicitis. Could he take just a few moments to check this out for me?” He hesitated adding “please” for fear it would sound more like he were begging. And Beethoven didn’t beg.

“Und zis pain, ja,” she said, looking down over the glasses resting near the tip of her otherworldly nose, refusing even to glance where Beethoven had placed his hand, “zis happened vhile you vere vorking, ja?”

“Ja,” and he began telling her how he was composing and came up with this incredible chord – well, he wasn’t even sure it was a real chord, because it sounded like a pile-up of dissonances and he hadn’t had a chance to work out how it would all resolve just yet.

Nurse Waffenschlagen’s eyes glazed over. She hated when he started going all technical on her. She would remember to use as much medical jargon on him as her training would allow.

“Zo, zis did not happen vhen you vere valking along ze shtreet or doingk ze dishess – but vhile you vere... compozingk?”

Annoyed to have to explain it all over again, he simply shouted, “Ja!” Then mumbled something he hoped was sufficiently under his breath. Judging from the arch suddenly appearing in Nurse Waffenschlagen’s right eyebrow, it was not.

“Zen, in zat case, ze doctor cannot zee you yet because zis vill be a Vorkman’s Composer Insurance Claim und zat vill reqvire a whole different series of protocols vhich must be followed TO ZE LETTER und zo you must contact your composer’s union representative” – she tapped this out syllable by syllable as if marked staccato molto, her voice becoming more and more shrill – “in order to obtain ze appropriate claim account number for ze file, und zen, ja – und ZEN... ve can talk about setting up ze appointment.” She was clearly enjoying every minute of this.

“But I just want to find out if this is indeed a hernia or something more serious like appendicitis!” Beethoven was close to roaring.

“If zis turns out to be a... khhhhhernia” – she spat this out with a rolling, guttural “h” so thick Beethoven would need to clean his glasses – “zen it vill be covered under ze Vorkman’s Composer Insurance Regulations. If not, zen your own insurances vill cover it, but zat, I am afrrrraidt, vill be a different processss completely, do you underschtand mich?” By now, she had traversed her full range from below the staff to several lines above.

With that she slammed the window shut, stood up to her full 5'2" height and turned toward the photocopier to continue processing insurance forms from last month’s patients.

Beethoven was simply furious. It was not a good start to his day.

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Dr. Dick
© 2007

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