He had hardly found himself back in bed before the bells began to chime again and the room became even chillier than it had been when the other spirits approached. It was not so much that something approached him this time as the walls of his room dissolved only to be replaced by a blackness so intense, there seemed to be no substance anywhere about him, the absence of matter, only void.
And then, something - he could barely tell what - began to form at the foot of the bed.
“Spirit that I can barely see, you swirl of misty, fading light, you are the spirit of Christmas Future?” He felt he should raise his arms as if to protect himself but from what, he had no idea.
After a pause with no response, Beethoven felt himself rising out of his bed. “Where are you taking me? Where are we going?”
This third spirit had not materialized into any recognizable shape but appeared to be merely light – not a bright light, really, but a swirling essence of pale, adumbrated light, gesticulating slowly and moving as if not moving at all, suspended in place as well as time, yet expanding and contracting like breath itself on a wintry day. But still, they seemed to be wafting through space, the infinite darkness of unimaginable emptiness combined with an unbearable lightness of merely being.
“Spirit, you take me where? If your fellow spirits have shown me the past and the present, are you, whatever you are, taking me into the future?”
The light swelled and glowed briefly in response. Then came a voice, a disembodied distant voice echoing down from the heavens beyond. Barely audible, more sensed than heard, it unwound slowly, as if after centuries of disuse it has found it difficult to speak.
They traveled slowly, silently for several minutes – longer, it seemed – wrapped in coruscating mists.
Ahead, Beethoven saw a faint glow. They were headed indirectly toward it, now from the right, then from the left but as they approached, coming in closer, they took a more centerly route. The city – a once large city, judging from the expanse of it – was largely in ruins. Only the churches showed any sign of past prosperity.
There was snow on the ground, not much: perhaps a recent storm had left behind only a few inches, enough to coat the ground and fill the streets and sidewalks. The people he could see on the streets were not rushing about as he was used to seeing. They moved precisely as if regimented yet kept in step without appearing so.
“They all seem to be headed in one direction,” Beethoven noted.
But as they floated over the city, he saw people coming gradually out of the darkened, run-down buildings, all of them headed toward a central point. That point was the only welcoming looking building in the vicinity.
The streets, though snowy, were dark. There were no lights, certainly no Christmas decorations, at least not as he had become used to them. Perhaps it was early morning before the stores opened, but then he saw there were no stores – or rather, few stores: the ones he noticed were not ostentatious, simply designed with simple signs and clear-cut names, offering practical wares and necessities.
And he heard music – familiar Christmas music quietly wafting from the brightly welcoming building, simple arrangements of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” but also others, less interesting and not at all familiar. Above all, he noticed in them a single quality – consistency.
“Where are we, Spirit?” Beethoven was almost afraid to ask.
Slowly the pale, diffuse, long-strained voice unfolded the story.
“This,” it began, “is what is left of New York City after the Revolution.”
“But,” Beethoven protested, “the Revolution was hundreds of years ago: I remember reading about it when I was a young man just getting started in Vienna!”
“Not... that... Revolution.” The spirit proceeded to summarize the years since enough people, afraid of how quickly their world began to change, seized control of government and society to pass laws imposing their views on their fellow citizens. It was all done legally just as, in the past, a new President would be elected in a reaction against the last and then set about dismantling everything that had been changed.
“Yes,” Beethoven nodded, the constant yo-yo effect between the Right and the Left or now as it was trendily described, the Red and the Blue. “It was so tiring, listening to all the bickering: made me long for the days of my deafness...” He sighed. “But that is all part of – what do they call it, 'evolution'? Surely, there must be some way of finding a more balancing consensus!”
“Ah, fortunately the authorities below are unable to hear you, Ludwig, for you have just said one of the Banned Words. You could be arrested for merely speaking it, now.”
“No – 'consensus.'” That other word he'd mentioned no longer existed: like many other words, no one understood it any more since it had no meaning.
Beethoven was silent for a while. They floated over a dilapidated court house with its nativity scene on the front steps. They floated past Carnegie Hall, dark and ruined with great holes in its roof. Lincoln Center had been gutted by numerous fires and bombs where weeds and scruffy saplings grew around the long-silenced fountain, struggling through the blocks of pavement like a wasted field through which the winds of change now whistled ominously. People had been, for many years now, piling their trash there. The place stank.
“The great concert halls, desecrated! A shambles! An outrage!” He felt himself trembling, whether from the cold or the realization, he could not be sure.
“Do not exercise your spirit too much, Ludwig. It will do you no good. They cannot hear you, these people below. And if they could, they would ignore you – or, worse, report you to the authorities. Dissent is not allowed.” The voice sounded sinister in tone despite its seemingly disembodied state.
“That's absurd! What did they fight the French Revolution for, or their own American Revolution or even the Bolshevik Revolution before it went wrong?”
“One person's wrong is another person's right, Ludwig. And it depends on what is left, how well things should survive.”
“One thing I have learned in this world is that all things are temporary: Emperors and dictators fell in the past. Styles change only to come back again in some other guise. It may take time.”
“Perhaps, Ludwig. Perhaps...”
In the generation after the Palin Presidency, things had indeed changed, certainly, but it seemed a very long time to expect any change to revert back to the past he knew. Here, the freedoms they had fought for had gradually been redefined. They had, now, the spirit explained, the fundamental freedom of religion on which, it was often said, this country had been founded, the freedom to worship the one true God but only in the way the government allowed, the freedom from having to deal with dissenting opinions.
It was not just in religion that this great new freedom was being exercised. It manifest itself in all realms of society, of life in general. Here, among the ruins of a once excessive society, people today lived in apparent contentedness knowing their souls were well looked after by a God-fearing government who instilled that fear in their citizens to abide the laws. There were no longer divisions in the churches between Catholic or Protestant – these and their petty disagreements have all been subsumed (the spirit chewed over this word with a mixture of fear and delight) into the O.T.C. – the One True Church – and its political party, the S.O.M.
“Yes, similar to Eve, created out of a bone, an ulna from the right wing of the G.O.P.”
“Does it... stand for anything in particular?” Beethoven was always leery of trendy acronyms and internet-speak with its fatuous abbreviations drove him to distraction when he read his e-mails, especially from people who should know better.
“Yes, it does: it stood originally for the Sanctity of Marriage party. Later, it became more inclusive of other issues to become 'Save Our Morality.' Those people who once joked that it meant 'Serve One Master' no longer exist.”
“Exist? What do you mean...?”
“I mean,” the spirit replied laconically, “they no longer EXIST. You can do the math.”
“But where did they go? What did they do with them?”
“By 'they,' do you mean 'They' who govern or 'they' who are governed? Your questioning will only get you in trouble, Ludwig. By law, you can use an indefinite number of exclamation points, but question marks must be used sparingly. It fosters an attitude with which the government is uncomfortable.”
“Ach! This music is terrible,” Beethoven blurted out, covering his ears. It pervaded everything, wafting over the streets in its innocuous blandness.
“It is not a question of music – or art – being terrible but serving its function. Art, such as it is these days, has a pre-determined role in society. Where as before it had been reduced to being merely entertainment, now it was meant to calm the emotions, to foster a sense of serenity – in short, to control peoples' behavior.”
“Soviet socialist realism! Bah, hogwash!”
“No, Ludwig, it's not the Soviet Union reborn. It is its own.”
Beethoven felt himself shiver.
“I don't even hear anything from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker! I thought that would never lose its popularity!”
“Given its consumerist frivolity, the ballet of which you speak no longer exists. In fact, none of your friend's music does. It has all been banned.”
“Banned!? What the hell for? I mean – sorry – whatever for?”
“Because Tchaikovsky was, they say, a... homosexual.” The spirit whispered this last word in a conspiratorial tone. Apparently it was not a banned word but one said in only a certain tone of voice which, Beethoven thought, the spirit must have captured just right for the implications were most chilling.
“But what does that have to with whether his music is good or not?” Beethoven was beginning to wonder about his quotient of question marks and was trying to think how he could word them so as not to deplete his meager allowance.
The spirit made a deep sigh and seemed to consume itself inwards before expanding again with his cautiously worded reply.
“You see, Ludwig, after the S.O.M. defeated laws and amendments in all those states that tried to promote what was known as 'Same-Sex Marriage,' their followers continued to elect their cohorts to state and local governments and finally took over the Congress and the Presidency. And soon they managed to institute other laws to protect the sanctity of marriage.”
“How could they... uhm, and they did this by... er...” Beethoven could not find the proper wording to make it a declarative statement, so he left his thought unfinished.
First, the spirit began to explain, after building the case on the biblical definition of 'marriage,' the newly reconstituted Congress with its now partisan majority began to pass other faith-based laws, initially with the support of many of the churches who had been so opposed to the Same-Sex Marriage bills and referendums. Once the abortion laws were repealed, there was the new law that made divorce illegal. There was a good deal of contention about this initially but the moderate American public no longer had the support of liberals who had been trounced in the elections and the gay population who saw no reason to stand up against something that didn't concern them: if you couldn't marry, what was the sense of exerting yourself over something else you couldn't do? They chose to repay disinterest in kind.
“The S.O.M.'s motto was 'We Tell You the Truth.'” The spirit veered sharply off to the right and Beethoven found himself scrambling to keep up with it.
“Truth? Whose truth!” Beethoven was incensed. Had he not written a great symphony to a hero only to destroy the dedication to a single man who became a tyrant fortified – deluded, even – by his sense of power? Didn't that single non-musical act turn it into a work of universal understanding about the spirit of the hero that lives within us all?
Eventually, the spirit dolefully continued, the S.O.M., supported by a population expanded by the Quiverfull Movement's success, eliminated the opposition. People who once considered themselves mildly conservative now found themselves branded as liberals by comparison.
“As for the real liberals, well...” the spirit explained, its already weak voice trailing off into the ether. Most of them were reduced to voices crying in the wilderness, the spirit explained, where they escaped to avoid persecution, those that couldn't escape to Canada or Australia or who managed to find some room in the crowded corners of Europe's numerous refugee camps.
Pointing to a barricaded entrance to a subway, the spirit added, “in New York, most of those who stayed went underground. In time, they will all die out completely – if they haven't already.” It shrugged its metaphorical shoulders, two soft undulations of light as if to say “but what could be done about it?”
Soon, the spirit continued to explain, laws were passed to make adultery a criminal offense, sending most of the politicians and many of the preachers to languish in prison along with thousands of fine, otherwise upstanding citizens and public figures. The prisons were too small and too few to hold them all, so they converted the department stores that now stood empty in the shopping malls – the ones that had gone out of business after the economy finally collapsed – or the old libraries which stood empty after most of the books had been burned. “There, these suffering souls are guarded by unmarried menopausal women wearing black robes and hoods who make the memory of those stern, ruler-wielding nuns in Catholic schools across America seem as benign as the Welcome Wagon from days of yore.”
Men who ran the government – since women were now barred from teaching and preaching much less running for public office – enacted more laws concerning virginity and marriage. Seat Belt laws were soon replaced by Chastity Belt laws. Public stoning was brought back as the execution of choice for crimes against morality.
But these were only part of a program to return society to its old moral foundations. Laws against eating lobster and shrimp, for example, may have ruined the fishing industry but, the spirit mentioned under its faint breath, “there was still a healthy underground business in some locations, especially in the remoter parts of Maine, where you could go to a 'speakeasy' to get a good lobster dinner, if you knew the right password – and had enough money.”
“But so many artists, so many musicians and composers are gay. How could art survive in America without them?”
A sweep of a pale, thin arm – a single ray of dessicated light – over the scene below them was his only answer. For a long time, government support for the arts had become a luxury, not a necessity. Who cared if children grew up never hearing an orchestra or acting in a play, painting a picture or singing in a choir? Or even reading the great novels of the past, much less writing one? Now, art has almost ceased unless it had a religious function.
“But, certainly, my music is still played and loved, here,” Beethoven said hoarsely, barely confident that he had now found a declarative statement he could feel fairly sure of.
There was a pause and the swirl of light faded as they descended closer to the ground, passing effortlessly through the roof of a large church. A large group of people, all dressed rather shabbily and similarly, sat there during Morning Prayers on their way to work, the first of three services they were required to attend each day.
Beethoven turned up his hearing aid so he could understand what they were singing. The tune sounded familiar enough.
Faithful, faithful, we surround Thee,
God who gives us everything;
Saving us from Hell's damnation,
God protects the wedding ring.
Banish sin from our surroundings,
Help us understand You well.
Take the evil unbelievers,
Let them burn and rot in Hell.
Beethoven hummed along, proud to know his tune had been chosen as the National Anthem for the European Union. But soon he broke off in utter confusion. “Why,” he declared in amazement, “that's my 'Ode to Joy,' but how could they sing such words to music inspired by love and universal brotherhood?”
“Your music is 'out-of-fashion,' now, Ludwig.” The spirit did not sound terribly concerned about this, despite the look of shock on his guest's face. “Too emotional, too grand, too demanding of the intellect without any true religious merit. Too... controversial!”
Beethoven stood there with his mouth agape.
“And your friend, Mr. Tchaikovsky,” the spirit asked simply: “where do you think he is, now?”
“Probably back at Stravinsky's Tavern sitting at the back end of the bar, I would imagine,” Beethoven grumpled indignantly. “At least, that's where he was earlier tonight, gloating over attending yet another performance of that blasted ballet of his...” Then he thought better of his smugness and shrugged his shoulders. “No, I guess he wouldn't be, then, would he? Not any more...”
“No, Ludwig. There are no bars and night clubs any more in all of America,” the spirit hissed. “They've all been rooted out with all the other Palaces of Sinful Excess.”
Beethoven could feel a rising dislike for this spirit but perhaps it was only for what he was telling him. Even though he could no longer feel the brutal intensity of the cold, he wished this visitation would soon end so he could return to the warmth and comfort of his old familiar rooms.
“And the children with their looks of joy and wonder, dancing to his music, Ludwig: what became of them, now?” The spirit took him away, rising slowly through the brightly lit church windows into the dim streets beyond. “Or to those who'd listened to your own music, whether struggling to play the Moonlight Sonata or listening to your Ninth Symphony...? What's become of them, now?”
“Now?” He thought back on the serious, single-minded faces of those he'd seen singing his melody without expression. “There is no joy in it. They have forgotten.” Suddenly, he felt very sad, his anger changed to dejection. “They have forgotten what art can do.”
A tear formed on his cheek and quickly froze. He wanted to bury his face in his hands out of shame, out of pity.
“Tell me, spirit, if you can speak of this,” Ludwig wanted to know. “These visions you have shown me this cold winter night: are they destined to become fact or may things still be changed?”
The light began to twist slowly and fade off into the distance with a soft moan barely audible over the wind that swirled around them.
“No, don't go, don't leave me here, spirit, alone in this inhospitable world!” Beethoven cried out in fear, clicking his heels together. He closed his eyes and began to chant, “There's no place like home! There's no place like home!”
When he opened his eyes, he was practically fettered by the giant tangles he had made of his bedspread. It was a bright sunny morning and the snow outside his windows sparkled as he looked out on the familiar sight. Craning his neck to the far left side of the bedroom window, with great relief he could see the sign that pointed out his favorite haunt.
“Yes, it's still there. I can still read it! Stravinsky's Tavern hasn't been closed down!”
Jumping for joy in an odd little dance, Beethoven then turned on the television set and heard yet another car commercial with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy tinkling away in the background. Usually, this would have just enraged him and he would have promptly taken out his hearing aids in disgust.
Instead, he thought “what a magical sonority Old Peter has created here – how delicious to have found an instrument that could make such wonderful sounds as that! Oh, to be alive today to be able to hear it!”
He ran to the now empty living room and threw open the window, seeing a young boy building an awkward snowman on the sidewalk below. Knowing the geezer-stooge who lived there was a cantankerous old man, the boy immediately dove for protection behind his snowman.
“You there, young man!” He recognized him as one of the neighbor's sons.
The boy looked around to see whom he was addressing.
“Yes, you, I mean. What day is it? Is it Christmas Day?”
Dumbfounded, the boy nodded that it was.
“Wait there, will you?” And Beethoven shut the window and sat down at his little writing desk beside his old piano. He scribbled out a quick note, stuffed it in a hastily addressed envelope and returned to the window, throwing it down toward the boy.
“Could you deliver this invitation to Tchaikovsky's house over on Floribunda Lane? Hah, I forgot to ask you, 'Please.' It's not far – oh, and wait...” He reached into the wallet he kept in the desk drawer and pulled out some crisp fresh twenties he'd gotten from the MAC-machine last week, and threw them down, too.
“Go to Da Ponte's Market down on the Square and reserve that great roast goose they'd had in their window yesterday. And have them deliver it here this afternoon, along with a plate of stuffing and vegetables – and some cookies – oh, and some gingerbread men,too (hah hah)... And, let's see.... a tray full of sugar plums and... ah!” He pulled out another twenty and threw it down to the gape-mouthed boy. “A plate of oysters, if you please – make sure they're fresh, will you? Would you do that for me, please? I would so appreciate it – and keep the change... no wait,” he stopped to calculate and threw another twenty after the last one, “that should be enough to leave some change for you. Merry... Merry...” His lips struggled to form the word. “Merry Chrillfimm... Merry...”
The boy looked up at him, holding the money in one mittened hand and the envelope in the other. “Merry Christmas, you mean, sir?”
“Yes, yes, that's it. Ha! Merry Christmas! Yes, indeed - that is exactly what I mean: Merry Christmas! Ha ha!”
And as the boy ran off in great amazement, Beethoven pulled the window snuggly shut and began to prepare the shabby little table for his impending guests. He knew there wasn't much space – not even chairs – so he would make it a buffet where people could stand around and talk. He threw a faded old oriental rug over the piano in case he needed any extra space for platters or dishes – at least for the oysters!
He went on-line and e-mailed additional invitations for his afternoon reception, apologizing for the spontaneity of it all. “Let's see,” he said clicking through his address book, “the Mendelssohns (both Felix and Fanny), there's Handel, Brahms... there's Mozart, Stravinsky and... well, he'd said they already signed it, but I'll include the Schumanns, of course, and the Mahlers and the Wagners, too... oh, and Bruckner, he'll do anything Wagner does... and Chopin: certainly he must sign even if he can't bring Georges Sand with him today... Who else...? Ah, I wonder if Britten is in town this weekend? I imagine Old Bach will be far too busy with all of his family, but... well, ask them, anyway.” And when he was done, he clicked on send, then began to search for a small Pennsylvania college he had remembered the second spirit mentioning what seemed like only moments ago.
Meanwhile, across town, there was even more amazement in the wake of the boy's hurried dash, stopping first at Da Ponte's where old Lorenzo smiled not only at his request but at the money he had offered him; then, moments later, at Tchaikovsky's house on the East End of town.
Bob Davidov thanked the boy and took the envelope, its address barely legible, out to the kitchen where his uncle and their friend Ravel were wrestling with the Christmas turkey, arguing about whether the stuffing should be cooked inside the bird or in a separate bowl, entendrés aside.
“Uncle Peter, this just arrived.” He handed it to him with a quizzical expression. “I've no idea who it's from.”
“Why, with ink stains like that, it can only be from one person. Old Beethoven himself! I wonder what is so important he sends a note around on Christmas morning?” He dried his hands off on a dishtowel and carefully opened the seal. Ravel watched as if he half expected it to explode in confetti. The handwriting was difficult enough to read, as it was:
“MY DEAR PYOTR ILICH,
WOULD YOU, YOUR NEPHEW AND ALL YOUR GUESTS TODAY STOP BY AFTER DINNER FOR A RECEPTION AT MY PLACE?
AND PLEASE BRING YOUR PETITION WITH YOU AS I WISH TO SIGN IT AND CONVINCE OTHER FRIENDS TO DO SO, TOO.
L. van BEETHOVEN”
“As I almost live and barely breathe,” Tchaikovsky said, stunned, handing the note to Ravel who promptly brushed his hands off on his apron before receiving the unexpected letter.
Nephew Bob laughed the loudest as Ravel joined in with them.
“I never expected a Christmas present like this,” Tchaikovsky said. And they danced around the kitchen, humming the “Ode to Joy.”
All across town, as people checked their e-mail, there was great surprise to be receiving something from the one they all called Maestro.
The Mendelssohns, the Schumanns and Brahms had all made plans to get together for some chamber music after dinner but they quickly changed them, agreeing it could wait until after Beethoven's reception.
Chopin opened his mail and immediately forwarded it to Georges with the heading, “You must join me! Please? I could never face him alone!”
Bruckner crossed himself and quickly sent a reply, “I would be most honored to attend.”
Britten was also surprised and with an arched eyebrow, called out to the kitchen, “Peter, come look at this!”
That's when Beethoven found what he was looking for. There, in the college's list of students was a junior composition major named Timothy... and only one piano major named Benjamin. “It must be them,” he said to the empty room. He knew they would not be able to open any e-mails from him since mortals beyond the town of Coalton were not able to see or hear these great composers anymore in human form, but he knew the message could be delivered in other ways, by a technology far more ancient than anything the internet had ever dreamed of – inspiration!
So he wrote to him anyway, to Tim, and told him to persevere when reality got him down: if he had doubts, to remember the anguish other composers have had to deal with and overcome. Oh, he knew it sounded all very trite and predictable, the musical equivalent of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, but didn't young musicians everywhere find inspiration in Beethoven's struggles to create his music? If he could only touch this young man, now, and give him some extra courage to face his demons – he was sure a man of 20 with a father like that would have demons, after all. But if he could find inspiration with the one he loved, with this pianist named Ben, who was he to deny him the courage to create what he knew in his brain and felt in his heart?
He sent the e-mail.
And as he did so, Beethoven heard a little ding: he knew, every time you hear a bell, an angel gets his wings.
Later that day, in another small Pennsylvania town, when he stood up from the table after his father had started yelling at him again, Tim walked into his room, slammed the door and looked for his iPod. He chose to listen to his favorite piece – his mother had often said to him “if sound files could wear out like my old LPs did, you'd wear that one out, for sure” – and settled back to find not escape but strength to go on, in the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
When he got to the variation with the solo quartet, he hummed along with the words he knew by heart in German:
Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein;
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
(Whoever has had the great fortune
To be a friend's friend,
Whoever has won a devoted wife,
Join in our jubilation!
Indeed, whoever can call even one soul
His own on this earth!)
That was when the idea came to him. It had nothing to do with Beethoven or his Ode to Joy: it just came to him out of the blue, mid-phrase, one of those unexpected epiphanies. Tim quickly jotted it down and knew right away it was something he could use for that piano concerto he wanted to compose for Ben. “Yes!” he said to himself, pumping his arm: “it's begun!”
As the men from Da Ponte's arrived with boxes of steaming food – Da Ponte himself carried the oysters – Beethoven felt a warmth he had not felt for well over a century. He put out plates and glasses, silverware and things like this he hadn't used for even longer, humming some of his own music, set to some of Schiller's words,
Join in our jubilation!
Indeed, whoever can call even one soul
His own on this earth!
The doorbell rang and Beethoven went down to greet his first guests. “Merry Christmas,” he practiced on the steps, “Merry Christmas! God bless us, every one!”
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