Friday, December 18, 2009

Beethoven's Christmas Carol: Chapter Two

In the first installment, Beethoven, having gotten into an uncomfortable discussion with Tchaikovsky at Stravinsky's Tavern earlier in the evening, went home and was visited by the ghost of his former assistant, Anton Schindler, who warns him he will be visited by three spirits before the night is out.

(If this doesn't sound familiar, what planet are you from? Well, a little familiar - it's a parody of Charles Dickens' famous holiday classic. With a twist - or two.)

And now, it's time for


Beethoven awoke with a start in the midst of his pitch-black, freezing room. Nothing had happened: no strangers, no nonsense – it must have all been a dream! He looked at his alarm clock on the night stand, figuring it must be close to 4am but when he managed finally to focus on it, he saw the numbers slowly beginning to roll forward, then backward, then forward again, changing directions so frequently it almost made him dizzy.

“Cheap digital clock – must be a power surge,” he muttered into the air. “Technology... Bah! – ”

But before he could figure out what word to use next, the clock stopped at 12:59 and began to glow. Beethoven stared wide-eyed at the clock, trying to count the seconds. And when the numbers flipped over to 1:00 there was an immediate and simultaneous BONG resounding through his apartment as if the town's biggest church stood across the alleyway and its bell had set the house to vibrating sympathetically. It was so intense, he could feel it through the bedframe.

He let out a whimper as he pulled the cover up to his chin and tried desperately to close his eyes, hoping that if he could do so he would fall back asleep and all should disappear, all that he could barely see and all that he was afraid to see.

He heard it first – odd, after having been deaf most of his life that, now, in death, he could hear the slightest, even the most unwelcome sounds. Not footsteps on the stairs, no creaking open of doors nor lifting up of windows, though he thought sure, as cold as it had become, his spirit-guest must have been entering through an open window.

In fact, when he saw it, he did not see it entering at all: it was just – suddenly – there!

It stood to the side of his bed, at the foot. A strange apparition, surely.

Not knowing what to expect, Beethoven had assumed it would be like Schindler, some disembodied soul that perhaps he would even recognize, either friend or some distant figure he had known in life (Salieri came first to mind).

But no, it was merely a doorframe with its simple patterned, dark brown wooden door standing slightly ajar. There was no room, no closet behind the door but through the crack in it (and the keyhole) he could see the glowing of a dim yet febrile golden light.

For what seemed like several minutes, Beethoven waited for it to say something, anything, by way of introduction. Then impatiently, he began.

“So, spirit... do you come here often?”

No response.

He tried again: “Are you, spirit, the first of the guests on Schindler's list?”

The light began to glow, hesitantly at first but not exactly warming to the topic.

“Yes.” Then, after a pause, he continued. “Yes, I am.”

There was another pause and Beethoven began to feel impatience welling up inside him, along with last night's dinner. Most of my life I was deaf as a post and now I'm trying to talk to someone – some thing – that's as dumb as a doorknob...

“Are you the first of the Three Kings from Orient R?” He had heard how they would travel around Italy, leaving gifts for the children on Christmas Eve.

“No.” Then, it added, “not exactly.”

“Ah. Pity...” He frowned for what seemed a few minutes, fidgeting with the bedspread. “So how many questions do I have to ask before you begin to pick up on this conversation?”

“Sorry,” the faint voice of the spirit said. “I'm a little shy at first.” Then, working up his courage, added, “I am the spirit of... of Time Past.”

“Of Time long past? Wait, not Christmas?”

“Well, yes... okay... now that you mention it, yes. Uhm...”

The spirit seemed a bit confused and Beethoven slipped quietly out of bed, trying to peer between the crack in the doorway, but the spirit turned self-consciously aside and he could see nothing. He was quite sure, however, there was nothing to be seen.

“Fly with me, Herr Ludwig,” the spirit said, leaning forward invitingly.

“But I cannot fly,” the composer protested, drawing back, “despite the flights of fancy I may make when in the throes of inspiration.”

“Then be inspired,” the spirit suggested, “and take hold of my doorknob - here.”

Beethoven did that and immediately found himself levitating off the floor a good half a foot or so. And soon, he and his mysterious but friendly guide passed through the wall of his house and floated over the fields and rivers and mountains that surrounded the town where he now lived. Soon, deep among the clouds, he could no longer see anything below him.

“Where are you taking me,” he asked, but the spirit did not at first respond.

“You will see. And hear.”

Ah, to hear, he thought. What a gift it had been to hear again.

In the distance, he heard a voice, a child's voice, reciting familiar lines. Biblical lines from the story of Christmas:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
'” (Luke 2:8-14)

There was music, then, with the heavenly host, a familiar chorus.

“Ah, Handel, glorious Handel.” It was from his oratorio, Messiah. What Christmas holiday would be complete without at least the first part of Handel's magnificent oratorio? Such beautiful music, such a peaceful message: Peace on earth. So timely when he lived in Vienna, wracked by a generation of Napoleonic wars; so timely today as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to take their seemingly unending tolls...

In a matter of but a few moments, they were descending to a place quite familiar to him but distant in his memory. Why, yes, he responded, looking about, my childhood home – my mother, there, looking after me, bringing me a plate of food. And then, my father, too, pushing it away... “The boy must practice first,” his father growled. His memory soured at the recollection of his abusive, drunken, hateful father and the hours he forced him to practice in hopes his son would become the Next Mozart. Neighbors said they used to see the boy with tears in his eyes, practicing long into the night. The image faded and with it, his initial happiness at its recollection.

There was another voice, young and gentle, reciting other, familiar words: “But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:16)

The only music he heard here was his own awkward practicing of scales and arpeggios. Soon it gave way to more festive music, good for dancing – a steady beat, a lively spring in its melody, the good raw sound of musicians not well trained but playing joyfully from the heart.

It came from the Breunings' house – there was Eleanor and Lenz, two of the children to whom he'd given music lessons, and Stefan who was perhaps one of his closest friends. There was the Breuning's friend, Fräulein Honrath, with whom he'd fallen in love but who would soon disappear (the first of many such). And Dr. Wegeler, only a few years older than himself, who would also remain a life-long friend.

“Those were gay old times,” he nodded pleasantly, then thought perhaps he should correct himself considering the way that word was used in more modern times.

Years flew by among the clouds, skipping without comment over his carriage ride to Vienna with the threat of a French invasion behind him, over Heiligenstadt and the terrible realization of his deafness. When the next clearing came, Beethoven looked down to see the woods around Teplitz, the spa he'd gone to for his vacation in the summer he was 41.

“Ahhh,” he sighed, almost weeping at the realization. “There she is!” Tears welled up in his eyes as he saw his younger self walking with a beautiful woman he would not name but who is known to the rest of us merely as 'The Immortal Belovèd.' It was the summer he completed his Seventh Symphony, full of his most joyous music,

“You loved her, then? She made you happy?” For once, the spirit had spoken up.

“Yes, she made me happier than I ever remember being,” he answered with a certain, uncharacterstically tender warmth.

“But you didn't marry her...”

“No,” Beethoven said, wiping away a tear, “we couldn't...”

“Why not?” The light glowed a bit brighter, the door seemed to open a bit wider.

“I'd rather not talk about it” was all he said in response. The clouds filled in and on they went in silence.

Shortly afterward, Beethoven realized they were approaching the city of Vienna, a house he did not recognize, in fact a Vienna he did not entirely recognize and with good reason. The ghost explained, sensing his guest's confusion, that it was Vienna in 1857, years after Beethoven had died, and the house where lived one he knew very well – perhaps, it might be protested, not well enough.

The family sat around a modest dinner table in the midst of their comfortable apartment, a man aged about 50 with his wife and four of their children, all between the ages of 5 and 22 years of age.

The composer was unable to recognize them until he listened in on their conversation.

“I would not mind drinking to the memory of your uncle, dear husband, since he was, after all, a famous man, but he made your youth a living hell and I think the less said the better.”

“And I in turn,” the husband said, raising his glass, “did the same for him, I'm afraid. Yes, he hated my mother, I know but cannot understand that, for she was trying to be a good woman and mother to me, despite everything he held against her.”

Beethoven began to suspect the direction this was taking. His mouth dropped open in an unsightly gape.

“But,” the man continued, “there was no reason not to name our son after him, after all. And today marks the 30th anniversary of his death. So allow me, instead, to propose a toast to our son, just recently turned 18, and to the memory of our son's namesake – to Ludwig van Beethoven! My uncle always wanted me to think of him as my father, after my father had died - he often addressed me as his 'son,' so I guess, Ludwig, that makes you his honorary grandson!”

And with that, they all raised their glasses – be it wine or milk (young Ludwig was being allowed, in honor of his recent birthday, to have wine with his dinner, now) – even though the wife did so with some reluctance, responding to her husband's toast with a smirk.

“I could not imagine him being 87 if he were alive today,” the husband smiled. “Think of all the music he could have written since then!”

“And would it have made you any richer?” she asked him with no undisguised disdain, setting down her glass as if to end the conversation.

Beethoven burst into sobs and tried to hug the husband whom he now recognized as his nephew Karl, but under the circumstances, being an invisible spirit and all, he went right through him so it proved pointless. Still, seeing him again, all grown up, now, was enough to unnerve him.

“Karl... Karl, my son...” he said in between sobs. “So you have married and have a family – three beautiful daughters and a son! And, alas, a disapproving wife... Imagine...”

“Actually, four daughters,” the ghost chimed in as they rose through the ceiling and out again into the night sky. “The oldest was not present that night, dining instead with her husband's family. But yes, he turned out not too badly, after all you feared. Not a great man but a decent one. No great achiever but not a failure, either.”

“And my namesake, young Ludwig?” the composer asked.

“Ah, well... now there was a... how did they say it then? A 'mauvais sujet,' a 'bad subject.' The girls were all respectable and three of them married comfortable bank-clerks; even the youngest daughter became an established pianist. But the son – ah, he became something of a black sheep, I'm afraid.” Beethoven looked crestfallen. “He styled himself as Baron von Beethoven – using the 'von' instead of 'van,' you know – and in fact he did tell people he was your grandson. But you had sown the seeds for this, yourself, I'm afraid.”

“Yes,” he said with a modest chuckle, wiping away another tear. “I always wanted to believe I was not my father's son, that some member of Bonn's aristocracy had been my true father.” When he was suing his sister-in-law in the courts for custody of her son, he tried to pass himself off as noble-born and the decision against him was quite a blow to his would-be aristocratic pride.

The clouds closed in around him, but in a matter of minutes, Beethoven – citizen, not would-be aristocrat – found himself descending to earth, led by the doorframe that was guiding him. His hand was freezing but he was afraid to let go of the doorknob for fear he would fall.

“It looks like a funeral. Are we still in Vienna?” Beethoven looked around him, aware no one could see or hear him and somehow enjoying the opposite of what he had gone through in life when he was the one who was deaf.

“No, Ludwig. Not Vienna. This is St. Petersburg and many years later.”

“Prince Golitsyn, is it? He still owes me money for those three late string quartets of mine,” he complained with little sense of respect for the otherwise dead.

“No, not Golitsyn. It is your friend and fellow composer, Tchaikovsky, lying there.”

“Ah.” He remained respectfully silent for a moment. “I was just talking to him earlier this evening: he seemed cheerful enough.”

“No, this is his original funeral, when he died of cholera in 1893.”

“I see. He never really talked about that, though. Some of the gossip says he committed suicide.” Beethoven looked around at the sadness in the face of everyone. His Sixth Symphony had been a failure a little over a week earlier: a little extreme to commit suicide over that, he thought.

“No, it wasn't that that caused his death. You see, it was illegal in Russia, then, even if it was rarely enforced but the law was on the books.”

“Law? Which law?”

“The one about being a homosexual. Well, it was probably worded that BEING one was one thing but actually committing homosexual acts was what was illegal. Rumor had it that some nobleman found out Tchaikovsky had had... well, 'relations' with his son (who was probably gay, anyway) and was threatening to take him to court. To avoid the scandal, a bunch of the lawyers he'd graduated with from the Imperial law school said he should 'do the honorable thing,' at least in their eyes, and commit suicide. So people felt his drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic was his way of following through on it.”

“I've heard about that – ghastly! And did the aristocrat order his son to commit suicide, also?”

“Let's say that information has not come down to us...”

In the distance, he could hear the voice of a child, intoning more biblical lines, the steady reading of scriptures audible through the soft, soothing winds.

Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the LORD your God.
“And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the LORD which sanctify you. 

“For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him. 

“And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. 

“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:7-10, 13)

“I know he was depressed about many things during his life – all that tormented, anguished music, especially that last symphony of his – but really, is that any way for a genius to end his days?” Beethoven sighed. It was bad enough about the trivial things that had happened to many of his colleagues, beyond things like old age or disease: Franck dying after getting hit by a bus or Chausson falling from his bike on a sunny Sunday morning ride. And Tchaikovsky was only 53 when he died, despite his white hair and serious expression. One thinks of Schubert dying at 31 or Mozart at 35. One forgets those who died, like himself, in middle age...

The bells began to toll – deep Russian bells, layers of bells with different ranges, each tolling in slow rhythms, a texture of undulating tempos according to their registers. This was a sound unlike any Beethoven had ever heard when he was a young man in Vienna. It had been the sounds of nature – bird calls and shepherd song – he had missed most, aside from the music and the conversation of his daily life, but the bells had always seemed to him a voice from Heaven that found resonance here on earth to speak with the tongues of angels. These Russian bells were especially deep and reverberant: you could feel the lowest of them as well as hear them. No wonder a composer like Mussorgsky loved to imitate the bells of Russia in his music.

Gradually the bells began to fade, the bass notes disappearing and the higher ones going higher still, sounding more tinkly, like little brass wind chimes that finally dissolved into a distant nothingness. Before he realized what had happened, he was back in his own room again, sitting in his arm chair before the cold and empty fireplace.

“How did I get here?” he exclaimed. “I was sure I had gone to bed long ago!” But then he remembered – the face of his friend Stefan von Breuning and then his nephew Karl (ah, how wonderful to see how he had grown up, after all, everything so much better after that bleak miserable day he had attempted to commit suicide)... and then the pale sad faces of the mourners beside Tchaikovsky's casket, surrounded by candles. And the bells. Yes, he remembered all that – but it must have been a dream, right?

“How could it have been otherwise? Guided through the skies of space and time by a flying closet door! Really,” he chuckled at the thought. “Bah! Pathetic!” And he trundled heavily back to bed.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2009

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