Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beethoven's Christmas Carol: Chapter One

Today is Beethoven's Birthday.

This is the first installment of my parody of Charles Dicken's holiday classic, in this case called "Beethoven's Christmas Carol." It's part of a series of short-stories written for the rather surreal collection, "Stravinsky's Tavern." 

In all, there will be four installments: Chapter Two (Ghost the First) will be posted on Friday, then the remaining two installments next Monday and Wednesday.

CHAPTER ONE: Schindler's Ghost

Schindler was dead, we can be pretty sure of that, doornails aside. He had been Beethoven's assistant – call it what you will – for a year and a half until an argument over finances split them apart and then again, two and a half years later after things were patched over, for another few months up until Beethoven's death. Considering the brief amount of time he had been working for Beethoven, many people thought Schindler had an undue influence over the whole business of Beethoven's life both before his death but especially afterwards.

Yes, for it was Beethoven's misfortune that he would die with Schindler hanging around, protecting the Master's reputation while muddying the waters for future biographers. Whatever Beethoven's complexities might have been, Schindler himself consisted of various bundles of servility and hero-worship, mixed in no doubt with certain amounts of hatred (the Master, genius or not, was impossible to live with from one day to the next). For all his first hand information, he became a notoriously unreliable resource when it came to Beethoven's eternity.

Because, however much he was sure that Schindler was dead, Beethoven lived forever.

It was like any other wintry night, safe from the howling winds and biting snow that blew through the coal region of Eastern Pennsylvania. Snug in the back corner of Stravinsky's Tavern, Beethoven, like many of the regulars there, hated this time of year, so cold and uninviting. Only the Russians seemed truly at home, here.

But, he would think, it's the month of my birthday. Shouldn't that count for something? Yet this year, turning 239 was certainly nothing to feel cheerful about.

Every year, it was always such a fuss: Beethoven's Birthday this; Beethoven's Birthday that, especially during the big anniversary years when people started digging up more biographical material that he wished could just be forgotten. It had all become so commercialized, nobody really remembering the great variety of the music he created in that brief lifetime of his.

Of course, you could complain that it was the same with that other December birthday everybody celebrated one way or another: Christmas.

“Bah,” he mumbled distastefully into his beer, people arguing whether you should say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

He liked to use “Happy Holidays” not because he was denigrating the Meaning of Christmas but because he wanted to include New Years Day as well as the proximity of Channukah, however it was being spelled this year. And whatever this new holiday was which people called Kwanzaa.

“When I was living in Vienna, we hardly celebrated Christmas at all.” It was just another church holiday with a special service, beginning on Christmas Day – not like today with this 40-day period leading up to it and all the shopping and gift-giving and decorating and stuff.

It was mostly the stuff. He shivered thinking about the excess, not to mention the expense. What had once been called Advent, he now viewed as the Opposite of Lent.

What really got him going was all those people – the ones who complained about how the spirit of Christmas was being ruined by people saying “Happy Holidays” – all seemed to have life-sized Santas complete with faux reindeer made out of white-painted wicker outlined in tiny white lights all over their lawns and rooftops.

“Why don't they just call it 'Merry Santamas' instead,” he asked Stravinsky as he brought around another round of drinks.

The tavern's genial proprietor knew better than to get involved with Old Beethoven at this time of year. Besides, he observed the holiday according to the Russian Orthodox Calendar and enjoyed nothing better than going out to the After-Christmas sales to buy all the gifts and cards he needed at greatly reduced prices. He often argued it was as wonderful an excuse to convert as any.

It was a delicate business, Stravinsky sighed, maneuvering through his customers' various personal foibles and delicate egos. Where else on earth could you run a bar that had become the favorite haunt of some of the greatest composers who ever lived? It wasn't unusual to find them sitting at his counter talking about their past creative efforts or arguing about the merits of this musical idea over that one while nibbling away at a burger and fries in one of the booths, or downing a beer with a plate of his special Firebird Wings.

And not only were they alive and lively, but someone like Beethoven didn't have to worry about his deafness any more. He'd been fitted with the latest in hearing aids and now was able to be part of every conversation without feeling left out. He could enjoy everything on television as well without relying on closed captioning. Sometimes, though, he preferred using the mute button a lot, especially during the commercials.

He was still fairly miserly, going into a rage over several lost pennies just this past month, alone. But his latest rage was over the omnipresence of “The Nutcracker.” Even in the small town of Coalton, PA, there were two dance companies who seemed to exist just to put on their holiday production of the ever-popular ballet. One raised money to defray expenses of their year-round season – they did two smaller productions in the fall and spring – while the other primarily raised money to put on “The Nutcracker” every year. You heard it on the radio, even on the pop music stations. It was all over television whether it was part of a campy comedy skit or the background music of a car commercial, set against a winter landscape.

Just then, Tchaikovsky walked into the bar, wearing a stylish black top-coat and top-hat, followed by a young man he introduced as his nephew, Bob Davidov.

Nephew, riiiight... Beethoven noticed there were two empty stools just next to him. Please don't sit next to me, please don't sit next to me...

Tchaikovsky sat down right next to him and nodded hello. Beethoven barely responded, just enough to be civil – well, maybe not exactly civil: let's just say so as not to give the impression of ignoring him.

Ravel, dapperly dressed as usual, came over to say hello and be introduced to the new guy.

“No,” Tchaikovsky laughed, “he really is my nephew. He's in town to visit for a couple of weeks.”

Beethoven couldn't hear the chatter between Ravel and the nephew. Beethoven had not had the greatest experience with nephews.

“We were very disappointed with the vote in the New York legislature a few weeks ago. I would have expected more,” Tchaikovsky mentioned as he ordered some drinks.

Beethoven gathered they were discussing the recent defeat of the latest attempt to legalize Same-Sex Marriage. Please don't ask me what I think about this, please don't ask me what I think about this...

Tchaikovsky turned and asked him, “So, Herr Beethoven, what do you think about this?”

“About what?” he grumbled, knowing full well what he was asking him.

“About New York's voting down the Same-Sex Marriage bill.” Tchaikovsky cocked his head slightly, waiting for a reply.

Nephew Bob piped up that they couldn't rely on the courts or the legislatures to make it legal. They really needed to go to the people, get it on the ballots and then go out to convince everybody that it was a perfectly normal social evolution whose time has come.

Several other patrons in the bar, overhearing this exchange, cheered the young man. Some applauded. Only a few, like Beethoven, for whatever reasons, seemed to ignore him.

Bob and Ravel continued their discussion while Tchaikovsky waited for some response from Beethoven. It wasn't that he was baiting him: he really was genuinely curious.

Beethoven took a long slow swig of his beer and, without turning, said, “I never understood why you people feel it so necessary to get married. I never married... Brahms never married...”

“Ah, but you could have if you'd wanted to,” Tchaikovsky said. “It's not like you weren't allowed to marry...”

“What's the difference,” Beethoven responded cynically. “Today, young people live together out of wedlock all the time: 'living in sin,' they call it. They see no need to marry, even to have children.” He shook his shoulders in disgust. He had a flashback to his brother, marrying that horrid woman. Worse was his having to deal with the scandal of their son – his nephew – being born just a few months later.

“But you couldn't marry her because of the class restrictions, then. Didn't you want to marry the Immortal Beloved, to live together as husband and wife and raise your own family?” He began humming the duet from 'The Magic Flute,' when Papageno and Pamina comment about the joys of wedded bliss, “man and wife.” He knew Beethoven had written a beautiful set of variations on that tune: it was one of his favorite pieces for the cello.

“That was different – and long ago.” He looked at Tchaikovsky with contempt for having brought it up. He tried not to imagine what it would've been like raising a child or two.

Stravinsky tried to lighten things up by passing around a plate of sand tarts and peanut butter cookies. “Vera has been very busy in the kitchen this week, baking all kinds of Christmas cookies and brownies for everyone. Here, have some, Ludwig. Fresh from the oven!”

Beethoven took a small cookie and nibbled at it. It was soft and warm, tasting very pleasant. He nodded his thanks and approval.

“Do you have any gingerbread men,” Nephew Bob asked.

“Anatomically correct gingerbread men, he means,” Tchaikovsky said, nudging his nephew in the ribs. Stravinsky and Ravel both let out hearty laughs.

Beethoven winced, putting his unfinished cookie down and continuing with his beer. A comment like this, he groaned, from the composer of 'Romeo and Juliet' – not 'Romeo and Julian' – which contained one of the most romantic melodies ever written. What is the world coming to?

Just then, Gustav Mahler came over and congratulated Tchaikovsky on the performance he'd seen last night of the Coalton Civic Ballet Company's 'Nutcracker.' “Very nicely done, Peter,” he said, clapping him on the shoulder in genuine enthusiasm.

Mahler, of all people, Mahler of the Universal Symphony with its cosmic spirituality, Mahler fawning over the composer of a little ballet about a piece of wood turning into a handsome prince. What is the world coming to...

“Thanks,” Tchaikovsky responded. “I know it's only because it's Christmas time they're performing it, but still, it is such a thrill to see the look of wonder on those children's faces when the tree begins to grow like that in the first act. Or when the Sugar Plum Fairy dances her solo.”

“Ah, but your music, Pyotr Ilich – don't sell yourself short,” Mahler continued. “That music will be with them no matter how old they grow. Won't it, Herr Beethoven?”

Beethoven thumped at his hearing aid as if it were acting up and he hadn't heard what they said. It didn't always work but this time it seemed it had.

“I wish I had written something that popular and that good,” Mahler chuckled as he started to walk away.

True, it would have made Tchaikovsky's fortune, if he could still collect royalties on it, but it left him feeling a little unfulfilled. Better to be recognized for his operas like Wagner sitting over there or for his symphonies like Mahler or Beethoven. That's what he longed for, that kind of public recognition...

Then Mahler added, “Oh, by the way, Peter – Alma and I will be glad to sign your petition about the Sex and Marriage thing.”

“Uhm, that's Same-Sex Marriage, Herr Maestro, and thank you very much.” Blushing a little, Tchaikovsky turned to Beethoven and asked him if he would consider signing it, as well.

“I do not see the point in it, young man. You can live your life without having to have everyone pat you on the back for it. Why this need to imitate societal conventions when your lifestyle is, by its very nature, unconventional?”

“But surely, Herr Ludwig, can't you understand the human desire to spend your life together with the one whom means the most to you in the whole world and be recognized by your friends as equals?”

Tchaikovsky pressed forward but Beethoven was trying not to relinquish his space and sit back, yielding the point. Becoming more uncomfortable, he sat forward a little more himself until their foreheads almost touched over the plate of cookies.

“And what does love have to do with it?” He surprised himself with his own cynical tone. “Besides, I try not to get involved in politics any more.”

And with that, Beethoven, feeling older and more curmudgeonly than his years, pushed back his empty plate and glass, then wrapped his scarf around him – the bright red scarf with 'Bah Humbug' emblazoned on it – and hurried toward the exit.

Ravel and Tchaikovsky looked after him in disbelief. “Not get involved in politics?” the one said.

“And this from the man who wrote the 'Eroica' and... well, yes, 'Wellington's Victory,' admittedly, but still...” said the other.

Beethoven had barely gotten outside the door, trying to wrap his scarf and coat more tightly around him against the piercing, biting wind, when he felt a tug at his scarf. He looked behind him expecting to see he had caught his scarf in the tavern's door but instead came face to face with the ghost of Anton Schindler peering down at him, quietly disapproving. It was not like Schindler, usually so deferential, to look so bluntly argumentative.

Ah, but it wasn't Schindler, really, that he saw. His scarf had snagged on a little potted pine tree, set in an attempt at holiday cheeriness next to the tavern's entrance, a poor withered little pine tree long since past its particular prime despite its pathetic handful of plastic dime-store lights and decorations. Hovering overhead, taped to the inside of the tavern's dusty window, was a holiday advertisement for Olde Frothingslosh with a jovial Santa Claus touting the virtue of a “pale stale ale” so light, the foam was on the bottom.

Beethoven glowered at the ad – “well, no,” he thought, “you couldn't very well put the Christ Child on that kind of an ad, now, could you?” – wondering how the jolly smiling face had taken on the dour visage of his former assistant.

“Bah! Bilge-water!” he muttered, stopping briefly to think that didn't really sound as good as he had initially hoped. Stepping aside to let a group of young revelers by to enter the bar, he wasn't sure but he thought it was Carl Maria von Weber with a few friends. Since he was still rarely on speaking terms with him, Beethoven saw no reason to respond to the cheerily half-muttered greeting of a Merry Christmas, whoever it might have come from.

He muttered more and more as he pushed his way against the wind, working himself into an even fouler mood by the time he reached his apartment building at the other end of the block. It was a big, lonely old red brick house, renovated into apartments about fifty years ago and hardly refurbished since. Once again, the downstairs apartment was empty and the young man on the third floor was away for the holiday, visiting his family somewhere in the Midwest which to Beethoven could've been anyplace between Ohio and Nevada. His apartment was on the second floor and, letting himself in without looking about, he felt the wind rush past him, chilling the air in the tattered vestibule where the floor was already littered with mail for the previous tenant or his absent neighbor. A number of red or green envelopes no doubt meant someone was getting Christmas cards rather than bills. He rarely checked to see if anyone sent him anything.

The chill seemed to be waiting for him at the top of the stairs as he turned to unlock his door. Though his health got no worse as he aged these past dozen decades or so, he wondered if maybe it wouldn't be wise to move down to the first floor, now that it was vacant. It might possibly be warmer and certainly without the stairs to climb, easier to come and go. But he also thought of people peering in his windows, possibly even breaking in, considering the rash of burglaries that had plagued Coalton in recent years. No, he thought: better to stay put and deal with the familiar. Nothing was so bad it didn't gain acceptability with familiarity.

The thought of burglaries, however, reminded him to double-lock the door and secure the bolt. When he had first moved here, he felt in such a small town as this, such security was over-doing it, but recently it made him feel better, regardless.

The chill wrapped itself around him as he took off his overcoat, then lay his hat and scarf on top of it after draping it over the handlebars of his exercise bike. Perhaps the furnace was having some difficulty again (it wouldn't be the first time) but the place did feel colder than he remembered it from the day before. Cautiously, he made his way through the apartment, checking each window knowing he hadn't opened them in months, anyway: he could not imagine why there should be such a draft as he felt now.

No, not a draft, he thought, but an all pervasive cold that seeped out into the room from the very marrow of his bones. Dinner at Stravinsky's, he'd hoped, would warm him up but whatever affect it had on him and his system must have already worn off.

And so he settled down before the empty fireplace, taking out a book he had long been trying to read. Unfortunately, tonight it failed to hold his interest very long, Alex Ross's much-praised history of 20th Century Music called 'The Rest Is Noise.' He was closing in on the final chapter which he knew was bound to be annoying and he doubted he would even bother with it. “Beethoven Was Wrong,” indeed.

“Bah! Balderdash!” No, that didn't have quite the right ring to it, either.

Just then there was a ringing sound and he immediately went to adjust his hearing aid. “Damn,” he said to no one in particular, “I hate when it does that.”

But that wasn't it, nor was there any other explanation he could find.

It was a small, distant high-pitched bell, a bit like his neighbor's wind chime, except it was only a single note rattling freely without sense of pulse or meter, much like some of the new music he had tried to listen to but quickly dismissed.

It came from the kitchen at the opposite end of the house: a timer, perhaps? Maybe it came from next door, someone busy in the kitchen – like Mrs. Stravinsky – baking Christmas cookies for the holiday feast.

But he had no sooner assumed that and dismissed the noise than he heard a shaking like something vast and ungainly working its way up the steps but no footsteps to speak of. Clanking, perhaps. How very unlike Santa Claus. Had he forgotten to lock the door behind him and some wind had blown it open? It paused on the landing outside his door. All Beethoven could do was sit and stare.

And just as suddenly he was met by a vision, some apparition proceeding gradually through the door, a dim, totally faded image like something he would see when the reception was bad on his old television set, snowy and ill-defined. At first, it was just a head and then an arm, gradually a torso and finally the start of a foot followed by the attached leg. Beethoven swallowed hard.

In a matter of seconds, the entire figure had extricated itself from the doorway and, as if strained by the effort, stood momentarily looking around with some slightly dazed curiosity. He was dressed in an old frock coat, worn shiny and black, its wide collars frayed along the edges, his shirtfront dingy and unkempt, the cravat close to coming undone. The overcoat was tattered by both age and wear, patched on the elbows, the cuffs fringed by loose threads. His hair shown in a crown of spikes and wayward curls, sticking out from under an old wool cap. His eyes were deep and sad, the skin (what one could see of it) sallow and dull. The fingers of both hands, sticking through the numerous holes of long-worthless gloves, fidgeted despite looking as blue as icicles.

But despite the presence standing there, Beethoven could still see the doorknob, the bolt and every lock clear through him!

Around this unlikely visitor was strung a lengthy chain, heavy looking and rusty, from which dangled books and small boxes, here a bottle of wine and there something like a can of beer. It appears he'd been unable to extricate himself from a charm bracelet of vast dimensions that jingled as he moved closer into the room like a walking wind-chime.

“I think I know this face. Who are you?”

The voice was raspy, almost as rusty as the chains which bound him, a voice unused to speaking and hindered by years of bad sinuses.

“Do you not recognize who I once was?”

“No. Not for sure, anyway.”

“But then you died when I was only 32. I followed you in death some thirty-seven years later. You, on the other hand, Master, look remarkably well for someone who's been dead for one hundred and eighty-two years.”

“Schindler!” He recognized the obsequious tone of voice.

The vision smiled perceptibly, revealing a row of bad and crooked teeth.

“I don't need an assistant right now, Herr Schindler, though thank you for thinking of me.”

“That is not why I have come,” the apparition said, waving a hand in admonition and generating a wave of clanking from his chains. Beethoven covered his ears at the racket. “I do not have much time. I see you no longer need your conversation books.”

“No, since modern technology has given me these wonderful hearing aids which help immensely,” Beethoven said, pointing to both his ears.

“I destroyed many of your old ones – the conversation books,” Schindler's ghost continued. Pointing to a length of chain draped across his chest, he added “they have become some of my heaviest charms.”

“You should have destroyed all of them – oh, I'm sorry, except I didn't think they would weigh you down in the afterlife like this.”

“I was only trying to help preserve your image, Master.” He made a slight and clanking bow.

“There has been too much attention paid to things that have no bearing on my music, information no one needs to know. Why didn't you destroy that Immortal Beloved letter, too? You burned all the others to her I'd left behind...”

“Yes, the ones that actually named her – or mentioned the child.”

“Shh! Shhh!” Beethoven waved his arms at him, urging him to keep silence, as if anyone could overhear them.

“Those, I figured, gave too much away: that one added just the right touch of, shall we say... mystery.”

“Sure, until some ass-hole made a movie about it where they linked me with that wretched Queen of the Night and now people the world over think I was madly in love with my sister-in-law. Bah! Tommyrot!”

“Good times, eh, Maestro?” Schindler smiled his broken smile which seemed even more painful through the paleness of his skin and the cold draining off his body like a block of dry ice.

“Good times, not, young man! You have much to answer for but it looks like you have already been dealing with that,” he added, motioning toward the chains. It was then Beethoven noticed Schindler – or rather, his spirit – was standing about six inches off the floor. “I would offer you a seat if you could sit.”

“No need,” he groaned in response. “We shades and shadows rarely need to – how do they say? – 'take a load off'? The chains regardless are very wearying, though.” He sighed. “But I am not paying you a social call to wish you a happy birthday or, for that matter, a cheerful holiday.” The chains dragged across the floor, as substantial as his body was incorporeal.

“What do you wish me, then?” Beethoven stood up and placed the book on the mantle-piece.

“Let's just say I've come to warn you, Maestro.”

“Warn me?” Beethoven scowled. “Warn me about what...!”

“That it's not too late to change – to mend your ways.”

“Schindler, you ass, I'm already dead – it's just that I'm living here in this little coal town in America with all these other dead composers because we continue to live on – if you can call it that – in the minds of our fans through our music. If I could get out of here and be really truly dead, I would...”

Schindler stood and stretched his arms out full, the chains and all his books and boxes and beer cans clattering and clanking along with him. “You would join me, Maestro?”

“But then it really isn't so bad, here, you know, when the sun comes out...”

“Still, as your past social secretary, I have been sent to tell you to expect three visitors. Three...” He began to fade and float back toward the doorway.

“Oh swell... more company...” Beethoven hated the idea of such intrusions. Over the centuries, his solitude had only increased his general misanthropy.

“Three spirits will haunt you, Maestro.”

“Spirits! Ach, even better... a parade of ghosts!” At least they won't drink any of my wine...

Schindler – or rather, all that was left of him – gathered up a strand of the chain which seemed to be growing before Beethoven's eyes, and draped it around his neck and down over his shoulder as deftly as a man might wrap himself in a scarf. “You can expect the first one at the stroke of one.” His voice was faltering as he was being pulled back through the door.

“You used to keep people from coming to bother me when we were alive. Can't you do anything about these guys, now? I mean, at least get them all to come at the same time, get it over with?”

Schindler appeared neither apologetic nor concerned as he began backing through the door, disappearing until all he was was a head, a bit of torso and a pointing arm.

“Three spirits, Maestro – you must receive them all... and maybe you will escape... my...” By this time, all that was left was a pale ice-blue finger pointing directly at him. Then, from the hallway, the chilling drawn-out reverberation of the last word Schindler would speak to him this night: “...fate...”

Beethoven stood there, both speechless and motionless. He expected at any moment to hear the knock at the door.

The sound of wind subsided, the intense chill had already disappeared. He went and checked the door – both locks locked, the bolt still firmly in place, the doorknob, though freezing to the touch, latched and unable to pull the door open.

He was, at least for the moment, alone.

“Bah,” he said, half-heartedly, “Baloney! Heartburn, most likely...”

And with that he turned, changed into his pajamas and crawled into bed, determined to await the arrival of his first guest.

Below, the street was quiet after the last of the tavern's patrons passed beneath Beethoven's window. And soon, amidst the unexpected peacefulness of the night, he fell fast asleep.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© Dec 2009

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