About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art

A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]

Monday, February 27, 2012

Beethoven x - as a Shakespearean figure

I tried in my novel Hungry Generations to evoke Beethoven’s perspective on the creative process and on what his creativity might suggest about how we lead our lives (if you wish, click on the Amazon.com site at top of the right column). The novel’s protagonist, Jack Weinstein, is a young composer starting out in a Hollywood studio in 1972 yet devoted to writing serious classical music, and I have him visited by occasional fantasies in which his heroes appear – Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky (the “three bald geniuses”) and especially Beethoven. In writing the few sequences in which Beethoven appears, I liberally and distortedly quote from Beethoven’s own words, and I lace into his comments to Jack a fair number of (pertinent, expressive) echoes of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”  

Here is one sequence from the novel:

The three bald geniuses danced from the raw, gray daylight into the living room. Even the Viennese Jew, serious and aloof, smiled at what Jack played. The thin Russian said: “This is true drunkard's music, yes! Surpassing even the drinking songs of my Hungarian colleague there, sneering in the shadow. It's like the peasant dances I knew as a child; I will illustrate.” He danced and shouted to Jack's wavering beat, stomping his feet, jutting his legs like a Cossack straight out in air, stumbling, and brushing against Beethoven who roared into the room. He glared at the wispy, dancing Russian as short as himself. Karl Beethoven flickered at the door, looking like his uncle's son, the eyes blinking and shifting, even more possessed, a criminal's eyes. His uncle had seen enough and walked toward the piano.

Jack rose from the bench and edged to the table, where he sat before his new notebook, transfixed with alarm and pain and wonder.

Sitting at the piano before the inked sonata pages, Beethoven had an aura of tangled, electric hair sticking out from his head. He hunched before the keys and began to play loud and unhesitating. Obscenities flowed from his lips, snatches of Italian, Russian, Hungarian, and German. His eyes were fixed on Jack's score, and his hands pounded everything, playing wrong notes, extending and further distorting allusions to his own sonatas. The pale Hungarian sat again at the end of the table, the Russian on the couch, the Viennese Jew on the stuffed chair.

At Scherzo's end, Beethoven began to play a wavering snatch of his last sonata, opus 111, the opening of the Arietta. Suddenly he stopped and swung on the piano bench to face them.

“Our whole disassembly present?” he said, bitterly eyeing his nephew who sat on a straight-backed chair he had taken from the table to a corner, between the front door and the entry to the kitchen. Karl frowned there, hang-dog and accusative, looking at them all with punishing resentment.

“See my nephew Karl. I love him like a son, and he hates me. But I know I demand and impose. I am an ass. Write that down,” he said bitterly, and he pointed imperiously to the 1973 journal, its first page open on the table in front of Jack. “Write me down an ass! Write me down an ass-hole! It doesn't matter.” His voice was hoarse and loud with words he could not hear. “What matters is that we seek eternity, that we are condemned to everlasting redemption.”

Against the wind, Jack slowly shepherded himself across Speedway, across the Venice beach, to the shifting sand at the edge of the Pacific. His jacket flew open, and the wind buffeted him. Alone, he faced the dancing wind-driven waves and the wide current eddying far out in the frenzied ocean.

The eloquent irony of being “condemned to everlasting redemption” (this is Shakespeare’s good-willed fool Dogberry’s malaprop phrase) is central to the ambiguities of leading a difficult, even harmed life yet being devoted in music to “seeking eternity.” In my novel, then, I tried briefly to render the character of the disabled Beethoven as a self-aware creator, demanding of others and above all of himself. [The above excerpt is found on pages 88-89 of Hungry Generations; Beethoven makes another Shakespeare-aided appearance on pages 152-3 of the novel.] To get to the Amazon.com page for the novel, click on the cover image at the top of the right column.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Beethoven ix: Deafness and the creative process i

Last fall, I taught a Beethoven biography to first-semester students in a CWRU general education seminar. Edmund Morris’ short book appreciates the music, but it’s out of temper about Beethoven’s personality and behavior, and when the draft versions of the students’ Beethoven paper were submitted, many of the essays presented the composer as brutal and deranged, even psychotic. Granted Beethoven could be impolite, could bristle, but he was (1) deaf and (2) terrifically focused on his work, on realizing his monumental musical ideas.

How to make what is at issue for him evident to the non-musician is a crucial question here. Of course, my students’ drafts were made subtler and less stigmatizing in their final versions, which reflected some added research and at least acknowledged other views. Perhaps they had been intrigued by the notion that a sort of 'monster' or ‘sacred monster’ should have composed the music, or perhaps they were merely offended by a person lacking the adjusted, communal temperament most of them favor. My hope is that in their future lives, further listening to Beethoven’s music will lead them to a more fully complex understanding of the composer.

What listeners hear is, of course, the crucial point about Beethoven’s achievement. They can hear a deep inwardness in his adagios and a triumph of the spirit in his allegros; in the Ninth Symphony’s opening, there is the sound of creation out of the void, and in moments of its finale, listeners hear the music of transcendence – it seems to some the voice of God. In certain movements, there is the deepest utterance of grief, and in others unleashed joy. And almost without exception, there is the sense of an unfolding order in the deaf composer’s works, not merely entertainment or empty occasion, but the presence of meaning. So the listener is confronted with the products of a deeply engaged, wide ranging, and immensely productive imagination, beyond the scope and ken of ordinary creativity.

Beethoven was severely disabled. He became deaf by the time he was in his early thirties, and this disability was a sort of tragic irony, for it is particularly harmful and isolating for a composer of music, and it is a stunning, meaningful paradox that his music should emerge from silence. Of course, in the face of any disability, isolation as well as peculiar compensating behavior frequently ensues. Deafness is an especially isolating disability, particularly in the era long before the development of effective hearing aids. One is cut off from hearing, from receiving communication, from participating in ordinary society. The result is, even in forbearing temperaments, the setting up of added barriers to save one from embarrassment and to compensate for one’s disability. One can seem distracted and absent minded, and so one can seem rude and “truculent” – such is Beethoven’s term in the Heiligenstadt Testament of 1802 in which he explains the trauma of his fate to his brothers and asks for their help. In short, from 1800 to the end of his life in 1827, Beethoven was profoundly disabled by being deaf. This astounding fact intensifies one’s admiration for his achievement.

And so, despite his disability, it was Beethoven’s temperament to demand from himself the highest level of engagement, yielding in him a special forcefulness and intensity and producing music at the highest level of achievement. The demands he made exacted an extraordinary toll on him. The composer’s work differs, of course, from more routine employment, which in good circumstances can be left at the office or factory. Beethoven, however, was continually working out his demanding musical ideas – not merely on walks but continually.

In addition, at the level of basic humanity, this demand resulted partly from the responsibilities he felt toward his younger brothers, earlier toward his parents, and later toward his nephew. He needed to earn a fairly large sum for the purpose of maintaining them, and in the new role of self-employed composer (and an increasingly deaf and thus endangered one) he needed constantly to produce, perform, market, and publish his works. These pressures existed in addition to the creative pressures themselves.

There is much to say about the roles in Beethoven’s creative process of freedom and struggle, of will and fate (“it must be,” he writes in the initial measures of the last movement of his last work). I’ll turn in my next post to the ways in which some of these ideas relate to some of Beethoven’s early and middle period works.