Monday, July 02, 2012

The Doomsday Symphony: Chapter 57

In the previous installment of The Doomsday Symphony, Xaq, after recalling how he'd been mysteriously rescued that one time when he was lost in the woods, is once again lost in the woods, this time abducted by this crazy big guy and the conductor, Rogers Kent-Clarke. Meanwhile, the others try to figure out how to rescue him as well as stop Klangfarben's last chance to kill off some Great Composer of the Past. 

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Chapter 57
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Ah, Beethoven!

Good old Ludwig van…

Ne plus ultra.

I’m not talking about some Saint Bernard, for those of you who grew up enlightened by Hollywood, if anyone remembers that movie and all those sequels (did they ever make it to Beethoven’s Fifth? I forget…)

No, I’m talking the greatest of the Great, the master of maestros, that Beethoven.

After an age of well-manicured powdered wigs, his wild hair breathed freedom and humanity, courageously breaking through a generation of emotional repression.

Where would music be without this Titan striding across the musical consciousness of centuries?

“Here’s a good place to bring up Beethoven’s Fifth,” Kaye whispered, turning to the producer who just rolled his eyes and nodded.

The recording engineer stared straight ahead, wondering if he’d make it to the end.

(This project was almost over, he realized, but damn, if anything was going to kill off the Great Composers, this should do it.)

I don’t know – I mean, who really loves Late Beethoven, those indigestible string quartets? Sure, they’re impressive – he was deaf, for Chris’sake! But maybe that’s why they’re so difficult, just mind-stuff – no real connection to humanity. Sure, he had his good period and his great period, so at the end, you can forgive him some lapse of reality, right?

Don’t you think all that late stuff is overrated? I mean, where’s the raw power, the grand, sweeping gestures, those great thumping tunes? Let’s face it, you can’t sell dog food to the opening of Op. 131…

“Cut!” The producer, clearly displeased, strode over like a tiny titan compared to Beethoven.

“Look,” Manfred Kaye argued before he’d even said a word, “if I’m SHMRG’s Director of Classical, I can direct my own project.”

God knows they’d had this argument many times before. “Stick to the script – facts,” the producer blurted out, “not feelings, especially your feelings.”

It was clear they regarded each other as idiots.

Man Kaye knew, from his vast experience talking to music lovers, what people wanted. They wanted connections, something they could relate to.

The producer wanted “due reverence.”

That was the problem, Kaye thought: here’s a guy who knows his classical music but it’s all dry facts and marble busts. Yet he doesn’t understand the music, not the way most listeners would understand it.

“Besides,” he considered proudly, “I make $50,000 a year.”

“I’m only making $50,000 for this,” the producer thought – “putting up with this crap?”

How could Beethoven have written such music when he was deaf – the Eroica, his “Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door” Fifth Symphony, and especially the Ninth? His genius created music that stormed the heavens even as Fate battered against his soul. Isolated from his friends and alone in the world, his spirit turned inward to find strength in his music, transcending mankind’s universal struggle.

A revolutionary in a tyrannical age, he wrote music – like his only opera Fidelio – espousing human rights and the equality of man. His Sixth and Seventh Symphonies elevated the common folk – Everyman – to an artistic nobility.

Rather than be a musical servant to the aristocratic class like his teacher Haydn, he struggled to become the first free-lance composer. He may have been close to starving but he was a prince among artists.

He was a romantic composer – and we all know what that means (wink wink) – always falling in love with women above his class.

Ah, and then there’s “The Immortal Beloved.” The only thing we know about her comes from a single letter that was discovered in his desk after Beethoven died. (Confiding to the camera in a mock aside: Perhaps he never sent it – what, cold feet?) Was this the love of his life? Who was she? Her name is never mentioned.

While many scholars tried – rather dustily – to promote their candidates and prove their theories, Bernard Rose’s 1994 film The Immortal Beloved proved she was his sister-in-law Johanna and that Beethoven’s nephew Karl was actually his son.

The producer rolled his eyes, thinking perhaps he’d misjudged the whole concept SHMRG was intent on producing – “maybe it’s supposed to be a comedy” – though he had no idea why they filed it under “educational outreach.” It will probably be wildly popular as people buy it, parents and schools showing it to their children. Who would be the wiser? As long as he can keep his name on the credits in fine print, it shouldn’t be too damaging to his career and at least he’ll get the money he’s owed for this annoying two-week stint.

Try as he could, Kaye was unable to get back into his narrator groove. The coffee was cold and the cold nagging him at the back of his throat threatened to erupt into fits of coughing. He was beginning to feel the warmth of a fever spreading across his forehead. Soon, he would look as sick as he felt.

But he knew they couldn’t afford to take a few days off now to give him a day or two to recover. From the aches that bothered him, he realized it wasn’t that kind of cold. He would be out days, maybe weeks, sinuses killing him, head pounding, throat croaking. Suddenly, he related to Beethoven’s deafness: it was awful.

If they couldn’t finish the project now, he knew he’d be blamed for it. Rather than come back to finish it, they’d just shelve it, his best idea left incomplete, a black spot on his personnel review.

Years ago, his father told him not to believe everything he saw in print. Since so few people read any more, wasn’t it easier to convince them you’re right if they saw it in a video? That was the point behind this project, a video-biography of the World’s Greatest Composers: so new listeners could discover what’s behind great music.

The problem was, composers who weren’t licensed to SHMRG weren’t bringing in any revenue to SHMRG: they were as good as dead. So it occurred to him, what’s the point in building the audience for them?

So why not eliminate these unlicensed Great Composers, instead? Once gone, who’d want to listen to their music? They’d be so yesterday!

And then you just replace them with new composers who were licensed to SHMRG.

The problem was two-fold: first, the old composers needed to be done away with; then you chose the new ones who’d replace them.


There were few who’d argued Beethoven’s prominent position among the list of Great Composers. Whether he was “The Greatest” or not wasn’t something entirely dependent on how much you liked his music or preferred someone else’s. In the classical music Pantheon, prominence wasn’t determined like the winners on American Idol. It was determined by the music that came later.

And it wasn’t something decided by a vote of the composers of subsequent generations. There’s no poll telling us 79% of German composers living in the 1880s felt Beethoven was the Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived.

How do you measure something that is immeasurable? Scientifically, there was no way of determining “greatness” without supportive statistics and quantitative polls. Emotional responses, inductive and illogical, had no place in a cognitively verifiable, scientific logic. Beethoven’s 9th may not be the best symphony by definition, according to the rules, yet it always polled well, which scientists found maddening.

There were also too many variables to consider, according to time and cultural context. International politics could also play a major role. Given France’s cultural aversion to Germany, Bach and Beethoven might fail before national pride. Maoist China viewed all Western music as politically suspect: Beethoven’s was “insignificant because it was produced in an age that exploited the worker.”

If a composer like Bach was forgotten after his death, rediscovered only generations later, did one adjust the results, averaging all the data systematically, to compensate for a period where he didn’t even appear on the chart?

Was Bach, regarded as a summation of his era, less significant because he was a compiler rather than an innovator like Beethoven? While you may think Mozart wrote “divine” music, how do you measure Beethoven’s humanity? Do Rameau, Verdi or Tchaikovsky not meet the criteria applied to Bach and Beethoven because their creative output was not comparable in scope?

Couldn’t the French argue this scientific application of abstract criteria automatically benefited Germanic aesthetics? How could you assess the immeasurable and incomparable? Was there no consideration for style, elegance or craft that existed solely for beauty?

Whatever Beethoven’s influence on other composers might be, many of those who are highly regarded composed in defiance of the “Beethoven aesthetic.” They either consciously followed the trail that Beethoven blazed or chose a different path. What would Wagner, Mahler and Schoenberg have been without Beethoven’s expansion of traditional tonality? Without Beethoven and Bach, who would today’s composers deny?

Klangfarben grasped the concept behind Kaye’s absurd-sounding proposal even if he hadn’t understood it. No matter how she tried to explain it, he was as dense as a double fugue and simple-minded as a nursery rhyme. That, he stated flatly, was her problem to solve and why, she’d stated flatly, she was going to be paid the big bucks.

Kaye envisioned the replacement process, TV reality shows like “American Composer,” “So You Think You Can Compose?” and “The Great Classical Wipe-Out.” Winners – viewer chosen – became the New Pantheon, popularly endorsed composers newly licensed by SHMRG.

The older, old-fashioned composers would never submit themselves to such a proposal and so, by boycotting his plan, they’d naturally die out. It wasn’t very different from Mr. Darwin’s idea about the survival of the successful. But younger composers, he knew, were ambitious and would be savvy enough to accept. They would adapt, succeed and, co-incidentally, make SHMRG rich.

Kaye’s vision would completely change the musical landscape, making classical music a viable, popular art form again, reborn without the historical baggage. If nothing else, it would open up the market for fresh new doctoral dissertations.

This was why Dr. Klavdia Klangfarben, forensic musicologist, femme-fatale-for-hire, decided Beethoven, the greatest of the greats, must be destroyed. The question was how.

Should Beethoven never become the composer he did, music history would be irrevocably changed.

If you don’t like the way the history books were written, she realized, why not just rewrite them your way? Who’d notice?

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To be continued

- Dick Strawser

The novel, "The Doomsday Symphony," a music appreciation thriller written between 2010 and 2011, is the sole supposedly intellectual property of its author, Richard Alan Strawser.
© 2012

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