Monday, December 21, 2009

Beethoven's Christmas Carol: Chapter Three

In the previous installments (Chapter One and Chapter Two), Beethoven, following an uncomfortable discussion with Tchaikovsky at Stravinsky's Tavern and a visit from Anton Schindler's ghost, was visited by the first of three spirits which took him on a quick flight through the past. But now, as this parody of Charles Dickens' holiday classic continues, it is time for the appearance of the next visitor Beethoven is to receive this cold winter's night...


In the midst of a deep snore, Beethoven once again awoke to a sense of chill in the air. His room was silent, there was nothing he could see or, he noticed, hear, not even the faint sound of bells he recalled from what could only have been moments ago. Not a creature, he was certain, was stirring, not even that mouse he occasionally heard scrabbling around in the ceiling.

But gradually a light began to show underneath the frame of his bedroom door. Someone was moving around in his living room. What is this neighborhood coming to that some low-life would break into someone's home to rob them on Christmas Eve?

Quietly, he got out of bed and tip-toed to the door, turning the knob as noiselessly as possible so he could surprise the intruder.

It was not what he expected, someone dressed in black with his grubby hands on the TV set. Instead, the room was completely different from any way he had ever seen it before, decked in boughs of holly with ornaments and candles everywhere he looked. There was a tree covered in lights and tinsel in the corner, a miniature train circling a tiny village beneath it. Plates of cookies and a bowl of punch filled the elegant mahogany coffee table with its scrolled edges replacing the cheap and well-worn bench he had long been using. There was even a stocking marked “LUDWIG” hung by the chimney with care.

And in the midst of the room stood a handsome young man, jolly and blond and dapperly dressed in what clearly was gay apparel designed by Don Wienauer.

Beethoven stood in the doorway in amazement at how his room had been transformed.

“Oh, hi – you must be Beethoven,” the young man said when he turned and saw the grumpy old man in his night-shirt.

“And you, I take it, are my second visitor tonight?” he said, half wearily.

“That's right: I'm your Christmas Present!” He threw his arms out in a well-practiced theatrical gesture and beamed. “Ta-daaah!”

“Hrmmph,” Beethoven said, shuffling over to the tray of sweets. “I hope you mean the 'Ghost of Christmas Present.' Otherwise, I would prefer it if you were a young lass named Helga.”

“I can do that! But seriously, honey, if I had any lesbians working for me tonight, I'd've been done here in half the time! You've got to try one of these brownies. They're faaaabulous!” Beethoven nibbled at it cautiously, careful not to be standing under any mistletoe, but nodded his approval enthusiastically as he reached for another one.

“Mmmm,” he groaned, “speaking of sin: these are delicious!”

“Ah! Time to join the party,” the spirit said and rose a foot or so off the floor. “Here,” he said, holding out his scarf, “hold on to this: careful, it's classic Gucci – silk, too!”

Classics, he understood; Gucci and silk combined with scarf meant nothing to him. Young people, these days...

And in a moment, they had left the would-be party behind. The building he lived in disappeared beneath them but soon they arrived at another house, a newly built one in the pricey subdivision across town. It wasn't necessarily more stately or lavish as more detailed and elegant than the rest. Inside, the rooms were beautifully painted: the parlor with its marble fireplace had walls painted a shade of rich, deep red, almost purple but not as intense, offset by blindingly white trim and silver decorations. Even the tree was decorated in silver. The dining table had been expanded to accommodate everyone and was piled high with the remains of a great feast, much like Beethoven's simpler room had been when they so suddenly left it.

It was Tchaikovsky's house and he sat at the head of the table, his nephew Bob Davidov to his right and his close friend Camille Saint-Saëns to his left. Beethoven realized it was almost entirely men, with the exception of Dame Ethel Smyth dressed rather manishly and almost unnoticeable amidst the likes of Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn, Poulenc, Schubert and Telemann, making in all an even dozen, whether it read like a Naughty List or not.

Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns were laughing about their performance of Pygmalion and Galatea, the French composer playing the leading lady complete with tutu, while Nikolai Rubinstein played the piano for them on the empty stage of the Moscow Conservatory after-hours.

“And your 'Swan,' of course, is one of the most beautifully danceable melodies every written,” Tchaikovsky concluded.

“What is one swan to a lake full of them, my friend. But you wounded me, you know,” Saint-Saëns added with a mock-serious tone, waving his fork at him, “when you came to Paris the next year and ignored me.”

“You had just married that nineteen-year-old woman, you know – what's her name” (and at that, several of them laughed), “so I figured the last thing you wanted to be reminded of was your little Pygmalion!”

“And who would have guessed the year after that that you yourself would have gotten married!?” Saint-Saëns left out a great guffaw. “But then, in those days, women were all we could marry, you know,” he turned, looking down the table toward the others.

“I would have been very happy marrying a woman,” Dame Ethel announced quite seriously and again they all laughed.

“Yes, yes, all well and good,” Ravel began once the hilarity died down, “and here we are, over 130 years after your little pas de deux, and women are still all you could marry – no offense, Ethel.”

“What was that sign I saw on the news last week,” Poulenc interjected, “one of the protesters in New York – 'If I can't marry my boyfriend, then I'll marry your daughter'? I loved that!” He raised his wine glass in a toast which was answered by several of the guests.

“Well, you've all signed my petition about this Same-Sex Marriage bill, not that it will do any good, I'm sure.” Tchaikovsky put his wine glass down and everyone became quiet.

“If they really want to protect the 'sanctity of marriage,'” Reynaldo Hahn interposed, placing quotation marks around the expression with his fingers, “perhaps we should propose they pass legislation abolishing divorce and making adultery a criminal offense?”

That would get rid of most of the politicians!” There seemed to be general agreement that, realistic or not, the idea would present the legislators with a conundrum.

“No, no,” Davidov piped up, indignant at the argument. “We don't need any fatuous gestures like that, wasting our energy and losing focus on the real argument. We need to get everybody motivated to get out and campaign for it, get it on the ballots and convince everybody to vote for it – that's how democracy works in this country.”

“And it worked so well in California and Maine, didn't it?” Saint-Saëns answered with clear disdain.

“If it hadn't been on the ballot in Ohio in 2004, John Kerry might have become President,” Samuel Barber pointed out.

“But how can a bunch of dead composers influence the American political process,” Schubert asked, “even with our American friends, here?” Barber was clearly delighted to have been acknowledged by the master of German Song even though he was reluctant to get involved in politics, alive or dead.

“That didn't stop those Utah Morons from campaigning in California and Maine!” Ms. Smyth was getting hot under her collar.

“I believe you mean Mormons, Dame Ethel,” Poulenc corrected her with a twinkle. Even Beethoven, standing in the corner beside his guide, enjoyed that one.

“Please, please, I prefer ballets to ballots, myself,” Tchaikovsky pleaded, clinking a fork against his wine glass for their attention. “Just yesterday, we were sitting in the tavern – Bob and I – and Mahler said he and Alma would sign our petition; Wagner and Cosima, too. Schumann was rather reluctant to get involved but Clara picked up the pen and signed both their names.”

“Good old Clara – always did wear the pants in that family,” Ravel interjected.

Tchaikovsky looked pleased with the progress they had been making and added, “Why, I think even Old Beethoven might come around.”

“Wha'!? You're joking?!” Saint-Saëns was dumbfounded.

That old curmudgeon? I would've thought he had no interest in this!” Telemann spoke up distastefully. “I am so glad, I can tell you, that my career was over long before Beethoven was around: how you guys had to deal with his legacy, I'll never know.”

“Beethoven will never sign. All that stuff about Napoleon this and Eroica that – that was the old Beethoven. He has no stomach for politics today, I'm afraid. Sits on his laurels, these days.”

“But, Dame Ethel, that is all we can do, these days,” Saint-Saëns said, shrugging his shoulders at her. He thought of all the symphonies and operas he could have been writing in the eighty-eight years since he died.

“It's been a while since all those articles had come out about his own potential homosexual tendencies,” Ravel joked. “He's probably forgotten what it's like to under a microscope.”

“Homosexual tendencies? Ludwig? Do tell!”

“Oh, the fact he never married and had this thing for his nephew. Some of these modern psychologists even think because he had all this inner turmoil, he was conflicted about his sexuality, for some reason.”

“Well, I got married and I can assure you, it didn't mean I was straight!” Saint-Saëns poured himself some more wine.

“Hey, Beethoven could be a jovial enough guy, hanging out with his friends in the pub. It was rough, being deaf and all that,” Schubert added in his defense.

“Do we even know for certain if the Immortal Beloved WAS a woman?”

“Oooh, now there's an interesting twist,” Ravel chuckled. “Maybe we can plant a letter in some dusty archive somewhere with all masculine pronouns in it, instead! That'll give these scholars something to chew on for a while!”

“Please, please, it's Christmas,” Tchaikovsky said, trying to tone down the conversation. “A toast – to Beethoven!”

Several joined in with enthusiasm, others with reluctance.

“He's a genius, I'll grant you that, given all that incredible music he wrote,” Saint-Saëns said between sips.

Ravel raised his glass again. “And they called you the 'French Beethoven.' You should be honored”

“Hey, everybody remembers Beethoven's birthday: does anyone even recall that I died on the same date? Do they?”

And with that, the spirit shook his silk Gucci scarf at Beethoven, suggesting he take hold. As the conversation continued around the table, they rose back into the afternoon sky, a crisp sunny day even if he felt, at the moment, a bit deflated.

“They used to call me Herr Dumpling, my friends at the tavern...”

In the distance, he could hear the voice continuing to intone words from the Bible. The spirit motioned to him to be silent and listen. Beethoven realized the innocent voice of the child had long strayed from the original Christmas story.

Let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians: 14:34-35.)

The spirit, now in a more serious mood, commented how, today, scholars argued that these misogynistic statements conflicted with many of Paul's general statements about the equality of men and women standing before Jesus. Things like this were probably interpolated into the Bible by religious leaders in the first few centuries of the developing church. Did that reflect the society during the time of Christ or during the Dark Ages when the Church Fathers no doubt saw it is a reaction against Roman liberalism? If that is the case, who was “playing fast and loose” with God's Word when?

Beethoven was silent, not knowing what exactly this had to do with Christmas or, for that matter, with him.

The voice continued reciting:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

Beethoven thought for a moment: are not politicians like thieves? Does not all this worship of the Bottom Line make more than just some corporate executives greedy? How many people are getting drunk this week? Are not tabloid publishers, politicians and commercial writers also slanderers and swindlers, much less all that promiscuity and adultery that is part of our television entertainment? You never hear anything about them, no legislation to protect us from them. “One must move with the times,” he often heard.

They arrived at a house he did not recognize in a town he had never heard of with people he had never seen before sitting around a dinner table much like his own. It was smaller and far simpler than the one he had recently seen at Tchaikovsky's Christmas Dinner, but filled with a suitable feast for the family reunion on such a day. The home was simply decorated but the spirit of love between them all needed no such excuse to be expressed.

“Spirit,” he asked, “are these friends of mine that I have lost track of over the years, or people whom I might have met somehow?”

“The young man, there – his name is Tim – wants to be a composer some day and he studies at a small college in Pennsylvania. In his childhood bedroom, he had a bust of you on his desk and a volume of your piano sonatas on his piano at all times. They're still there.”

Tim had just turned 20, the oldest of the three children: the others were Beth and Brenda, both still in their teens. Their father's parents had joined them for the day and the mother and grandmother had spent much of the morning preparing the feast with the ample assistance of all three of the children. Tim, it seemed, was growing into a knowledgeable cook and his mother was duly proud of him if for no other reason than, as she thought to herself, he would make someone a fine husband some day.

But the dinner discussion, as often happened, was beginning to turn sour when it hit upon a subject Tim knew was coming.

He missed his lover, Ben, a pianist he had met when they'd first started college. They had fallen in love from the very beginning. Together, they dreamed some day of being able to get married, but the recent news – from California, from Maine and just the other week, New York – disappointed them. Still, they made their plans to spend their lives together even if there was no piece of paper to make them 'legal' in the eyes of society. On the wall of their off-campus apartment (since it had been too risky to share a dorm-room, given the jocks on the floor who would certainly make their lives miserable), they had hung posters of composers and performers like John Corigliano, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and, over the faux fireplace, a portrait of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. Tim's big dream, by this time next year, was that he could finish a piano concerto to present to Ben for Christmas which he could perform with the school orchestra in the Spring of their senior year.

His mother knew much about this without having been told and what she didn't know, she sensed, the way mothers do. Today, especially, she felt a tear in her eye, fearing how things will no doubt eventually turn since her husband strongly disapproved of Tim's chosen profession, not to mention his chosen lifestyle (if one 'chooses' either). Like his own father, her husband had raised his son, he constantly reminded him, to be a man, as if that were all his argument needed to stop his son's opposition.

Not long after Beethoven arrived, his guiding spirit now no longer as flamboyant as he'd first appeared, the arguments began. It was painful to see the young man brow-beaten by his own father, especially in front of the entire family, but Beethoven knew of this first-hand himself. He had hated his father and would see no reason to believe why Tim shouldn't hate his.

“The boy is 20, now, you say, yet he still lives with his parents. Why doesn't he leave and go out on his own?”

“In America, there is a small thing called College Tuition – well, not a small thing – but the general sense is, if the parents are still footing the bill, the child is still under their control, one way or another. Independence at 18 is only in the eyes of the law – well, some of them – since they're still not legally adults until they are 21. Oh, I know – they can die in the Army when they're 18 and even vote in a Presidential election but they aren't considered mature enough to drink in a bar for three more years – but many things don't seem fair or make logical sense.” Turning to Beethoven, he added, “Did they ever?”

Beethoven shook his head.

Along with the father's rising arguments, Beethoven now heard the voice of the child reciting scripture again:

Suppose a man marries a woman, but after sleeping with her, he turns against her and publicly accuses her of shameful conduct, saying, ‘When I married this woman, I discovered she was not a virgin.’ ...But suppose the man’s accusations are true, and he can show that she was not a virgin. The woman must be taken to the door of her father’s home, and there the men of the town must stone her to death, for she has committed a disgraceful crime in Israel by being promiscuous while living in her parents’ home. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-14, 20-21)

“But the argument is flawed,” Beethoven admitted.

“All arguments are flawed, Herr Ludwig. Climate Science, according to one side, is a myth; the Holocaust, according to one side, is a myth; that man landed on the moon, according to some, could be an elaborate hoax created in a TV studio... How are we to know, even if we see it with our own eyes?”

The spirit pointed, focusing Beethoven's attention back to the dinner table.

“And yet,” he continued, “Tim's mother knows his sister Beth, who's 16, is already having sex with her boyfriend. She just wishes her daughter would be careful but can find nothing to say against it, considering she herself had not been a virgin on her wedding night (her husband had seen to that). In fact, she was born only four months after her own parents' wedding.”

True, Beethoven had been outraged when his brother's wife gave birth to their son – his nephew Karl – only four months after their wedding. He constantly threw this back at her, this Queen of the Night, he called her, especially when he was suing her for custody of the child. And rightly so, he thought. She was still bringing her lovers into the house when the boy was sleeping. What kind of morality is that for a child to grow up in!? But still, it didn't seem enough to kill her for it.

The spirit continued. “It didn't seem like such a big deal, but Tim's mother wished her husband didn't think it was the end of the world that their son should prefer boys over girls: she just wanted him to be happy. There was enough to worry about in their lives – this seemed almost trivial, considering.”

She also knew there was a gift her husband had made her wrap for the boy – a rifle, of all things – despite the fact he was horrified of guns and violence. If anything, she feared the boy would lose his mind and shoot his father with it or, worse, himself.

Tim was trying to explain for the thousandth time why he wanted to be a composer, despite the fact it probably wasn't a very lucrative career choice. He also tried to explain about one of his favorite composers, Benjamin Britten, who'd lived together with his 'life partner,' Peter Pears, for forty years.

“Aw, isn't that too bad, forty years,” he chided in a childish little voice, “and no children.”

“I don't know, Dad, there's Peter Grimes and Albert Herring and A Midsummer Night's Dream and... and Death in Venice and...”

“Jesus Christ! What the hell is that?”

“They're operas that Britten wrote for his lover to sing – he created them for him and they're some of the best operas written in the 20th Century.”

Beethoven nodded in agreement on that one: he always envied Britten his talent for writing operas.

The father threw down his knife and fork and made a face, acting like a sissy and speaking in a high, falsetto voice. “Ooooh, opera!! Lah de daaaah!” The grandfather laughed but even the girls lowered their eyes in embarrassment.

“I raised you to be a man, boy, not to be some rotten little homo picking up fruits in a fag bar,” the father now shouted at his son.

Tim tried to control himself, and when he stood up, he was tempted to drop his pants and yell “Well, I AM a man, Dad, how d'you like those apples, speaking of fruit?!”

But instead he said “God bless us, every one!” and excused himself, going up to his room, slamming the door behind him and looking to his iPod for consolation. He suspected, meanwhile, Ben was going through a similar scene around his family's dinner table. And with that idea in his mind, he felt the warmth of love and friendship in his blood.

“You'll burn in hell, ya know – the Bible says so!”

“Dear, please,” the mother tried to protest, “it's Christmas.”

“And Christ would be pleased to see us sitting here celebrating his birthday with some little faggot? Jesus!”

Beethoven, indignant, raised his arms and intoned at the top of his lungs,

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!
Brüder, über'm Sternenzelt
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.

Be embraced, millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.

Climactic lines from Schiller's Ode to Joy - but when he realized no one could hear him in this room today, his hands fell limply to his side. In the distance the reciting voice of the child continued:

"This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds. Then he adds, 'Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.' And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” (Hebrews 10:16-18)

“The New Covenant – that's right, the New Testament replaced the Old Testament's covenant and laws!”

Beethoven seem surprised to realize this, since so many Christians throw the Old Testament laws around at anything they disapproved of. It may still be a sin but there is a new covenant in effect – and that, he realized, is part of what they're celebrating on this feast day, not Santa Claus or how much money you can spend on gifts, not just the birthday of a boy, even if that boy was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but the birth of a whole new world, one built on – dare he say it in the presence of this particular father? – love and forgiveness.

The radio in the background had been playing Christmas carols but then a newscast crackled into prominence. The announcer continued, “And in other news this Christmas weekend, in Uganda, the legislators debated a bill that could sentence men to death for being homosexuals in an attempt to curb the spread of AIDS. Friends, family, even landlords and neighbors could be liable for seven years' imprisonment for failing to report them to the authorities. As one legislator commented, 'It is what we are told to do when our communities are struck by Mad Cow Disease or Avian Flu – kill anything that could be infected with the virus to keep it from spreading...'”

“No,” Beethoven shouted, “take me away from here, spirit, take me away!”

And with that, the spirit handed Beethoven the edge of his Gucci silk scarf, and off they flew, into the darkest night.

They stood in his living room as if they had never left his simple little apartment in downtown Coalton. The tables were still packed with food and bottles of wine – including something he hadn't noticed before: a plate of oysters!

“As I live and breathe,” he said to the spirit, “I love oysters! I thought how wonderful it would be to live someplace other than Vienna – perhaps Trieste which had the best, freshest oysters!”

“Well, dear, you got part of your wish – you are living someplace other than Vienna and these are fresh! I brought them myself.”

The distant recitation continued:

These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat. And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you: They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination. Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.” (Leviticus 11:9-12)

Beethoven was about to pour some wine when he stopped to listen. “Whatsoever hath not fins and scales is an abomination? What does that mean!”

The spirit was busy filling up a plate and said nonchalantly, “oh, that just means you can't eat shrimp or lobster – or oysters, for that matter. Here, have some of this awesome pork roast!”

“Tell me, spirit, what will happen to Tim and his... his lover – Ben, is it? Will they be able to survive in a world so full of hate? I mean... as a couple...?”

The spirit looked at him and said sourly, “Why do these people feel the need to get married? Can't they just live their lives without having to have everyone pat them on the back for it? Why this need to imitate societal conventions...?”

Hearing his own words thrown back at him, he realized the room began to turn all wavy as the music swooped up and down the scale like a slowly building alarm. In a moment, everything went black.

To be continued...

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2009

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