I've helped myself generously to time, and have spread it thickly with my and others' patience, over the history and meaning of the Eroica, because it seems to me that this symphony is the key to understanding Beethoven's subsequent spiritual journey. Without some insights into the Eroica, this journey has no starting point, and maybe we find ourselves in the same position as early audiences, who found it such a complex work that they needed explanatory hooks to hang it on, if any sense were to be made of it. Very naturally, such aids to understanding by-passed the composer's personal needs, circumstances and preoccupations, and in time they have assumed a patina of legend.
Beethoven himself was ambivalent about Napoleon's influence on the composition of this symphony. His retraction of the name Bonaparte from the title page of his manuscript, probably in the spring of 1804 when Napoleon announced his intention of making himself emperor, has already been told, although the first written accounts of this appear to have surfaced more than 30 years later. Before 1804 Beethoven had supposedly found much to admire in Napoleon, identifying himself particularly with his energy and vitality. For how long Beethoven had entertained these feelings is uncertain.
It was while Napoleon was fighting in Egypt in 1798 that an opportunity apparently arose for Beethoven to express his admiration directly: the ruling Directory in Paris sent Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte as ambassador to Vienna, the first French ambassador since the Austrian Marie Antoinette lost her head under the guillotine some five years before. This Bernadotte was an unusual character, a huge-nosed soldier son of a lawyer from Pau in south-west France, who was created Prince of Pontecorvo by Napoleon and who eventually became king of Sweden. A self-serving and devious man, he rose through the ranks to generalship only a pace or two behind Napoleon, whom he disliked intensely but whom he recognised as the source of power and influence. He showed some talent for cosying up to Napoleon while retaining his own freedom of action, chiefly by marrying (he married one Desirée Clary, whom Napoleon had ditched in favour of the non-nocturnal Joséphine de Beauharnais) into the Bonaparte clan and exercising privileges of kinship.
Bernadotte's ambassadorship was disastrous. It ended with his premature recall following an ill-judged attempt to blackmail the Austrian Foreign Secretary and provocation of a Viennese mob into attempting to storm the French embassy. Several months before he returned to Paris, however, he made the acquaintance of Beethoven. Whatever conversation they had is supposed to have resulted in Bernadotte's invitation to Beethoven to write a great work in honour of Napoleon. This, at the least, is unlikely.
What exactly can Beethoven have admired in Napoleon? Before 1798, when Bernadotte took up his post in Vienna, Napoleon can only have been known as a lightning military commander and political adventurer who had thoroughly outmanoeuvred Austrian troops in northern Italy and had forced a peace settlement which deprived Austria of several territorial possessions including Beethoven's original Low Country and Rhineland homelands. In 1798 Napoleon led a military - and cultural - expedition to Egypt, where his return ticket was denied him by Nelson, who effectively marooned his expedition by destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. (Apparently, Viennese newspapers carried reports that Nelson had been killed in this action.) Napoleon subsequently abandoned his troops - and his savants - in the Near East and slipped back to France. At this stage, for Beethoven to have planned a major composition expressing his homage to Napoleon would have been as improbable as Benjamin Britten producing a 'Rommel' Symphony in 1942.
However, the period of great reforms followed Napoleon's return from Egypt and his assumption of power as First Consul. Napoleon threw his vast energies into reorganising the entire social, political and cultural structure of France, the true fruit of the French Revolution. Beethoven could surely find much to admire here, a truly Promethean spirit of service to mankind, a spirit of heroic, beneficent energy which he could express in music.
Maybe this elevated gossip does nothing more than place a question-mark over Bernadotte's role in the conception of the Eroica. Other commentators, in attempting to explain the symphony, had their two-pennyworth of puzzlement: assuming that Beethoven had painted a detailed, exact portrait of Bonaparte, it was inconvenient that the second movement of the Eroica was a funeral march when the subject was very much alive and would, before anyone was very much older, be training his artillery on the Austrian capital. Remembering that full title of the Eroica was 'Heroic symphony to celebrate the memory of a great man', perhaps other subjects, other great men, were involved? Nelson, perhaps, whose death had been erroneously reported from Aboukir Bay, even though the Battle of the Nile predated composition of the Eroica by some years? Beethoven did not demur. Or the British general Sir Ralph Abercrombie, killed while neutralizing the castaway French army in Egypt in 1801? Beethoven did not deny the possibility. Clearly the biographical path is a tortuous one.
Tuesday, 30 December 2008
I've helped myself generously to time, and have spread it thickly with my and others' patience, over the history and meaning of the Eroica, because it seems to me that this symphony is the key to understanding Beethoven's subsequent spiritual journey. Without some insights into the Eroica, this journey has no starting point, and maybe we find ourselves in the same position as early audiences, who found it such a complex work that they needed explanatory hooks to hang it on, if any sense were to be made of it. Very naturally, such aids to understanding by-passed the composer's personal needs, circumstances and preoccupations, and in time they have assumed a patina of legend.
Saturday, 20 December 2008
First rehearsals of the Eroica do not seem to have been encouraging, and Lobkowitz may well have wondered if he had made a mistake in buying the performance rights. It's not recorded what Caroline von Lobkowitz and her brood had to say about it. What her husband was hearing at rehearsal, however imperfect and unpolished, was hardly in the same vein, or even style, as the orchestral music that had consolidated Beethoven's reputation as an outstanding creative artist over the previous ten years.
(Lobkowitz would not have been alone in expecting something in the same mould as the extrovert, dynamic and entirely approachable 2nd Symphony of the previous year, a benchmark work that became the model for the early symphonies of Schubert, and subsequently of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. In 1816, by which time Beethoven had written all his symphonies except the 9th, a Major-General Kyd called on him to commission a new symphony for the Philharmonic Society of London, whom he represented. The Society offered a generous sum in return for a work in his earlier style. In a passion Beethoven threw the Major-General out.)
We have some fragmentary insights into Beethoven the conductor. His pupil and friend Ferdinand Ries describes the Eroica rehearsals as 'horrible' and goes on to write that Beethoven's time-beating, so important in holding a new work together, was so wayward that the orchestra found it impossible to follow him. The contemporary opera conductor Ignaz von Seyfried, reminiscing more generally, clearly enjoyed Beethoven's rostrum antics:
He was accustomed to indicate a diminuendo by trying to make himself smaller and smaller, and at pianissimo slipped under the conductor's desk, so to say. As the tonal masses increased in volume, he too seemed to swell, as though out of a contraction, and with the entrance of the entire body of instrumental tone he rose on the tips of his toes, grew to well-nigh giant size, and swaying in the air with his arms, seemed to be trying to float up into the clouds.
However, he impressed von Seyfried with his patient attention to detail:
He was very meticulous with regard to expression, the more delicate shadings, an equalized distribution of light and shade...and without betraying the slightest impatience always took pleasure in discussing them individually with the various musicians. And then, when he saw that the musicians had grasped his ideas, and moved, carried away by the magic charm of his tonal creations, were playing together with increasing fervor, his face would be illumined with joy, all his features would radiate happiness and content, a satisfied smile would wreathe his lips, and a thundering Bravi tutti! would reward the successful artistic achievement...When it was a matter of playing at first sight, the players were often obliged to stop to make corrections, and the thread of continuity was severed: even then, however, he was patient. But when, especially in the Scherzos of his symphonies, sudden, unexpected changes of tempo [as in the scherzo of the Eroica] threw all into confusion, he would laugh tremendously, assure the men he had looked for nothing else...and would take almost childish pleasure in the thought that he had been successful in unhorsing such routined orchestral knights.
[Quaint translation from von Seyfried's reminiscences by Alexander Wheelock Thayer, Beethoven's great American biographer.]
One can conjecture (I try to resist using the term 'must have') that Lobkowitz and his routined orchestral knights, and eventually audiences, while raising an eyebrow as to his competence on the rostrum, found Beethoven a changed man. His new 'heroic' symphony was very long, easily the longest purely orchestral work then in existence. The four movements trembled with unfathomable, hitherto undared profundities: the immense structure of the first movement defied formal analysis, but suggested a titanic struggle; the second movement was cast as a gigantic funeral march, a cenotaph in music, rough-hewn in granite, unheard of in a symphony before; the scherzo third movement, the most conventional of the four, revealed Beethoven's tremendous laugh and the sway and stamp of his energy; the fourth turned out to be a set of variations on a tune he had already used in his Prometheus ballet and elsewhere, in which he systematically took apart the components of the tune, worked over them and reassembled them, re-created them, in a final mighty outburst of joy.
On each of the previous three occasions - as a contredanse, in the Prometheus finale, as the theme for the 15 Variations for Piano, Op.35 - Beethoven used this tune, he wrote it in the key of E flat. (It can be played, of course, in any key.) Similarly in the Eroica: it's as though the Prometheus theme gave its key to the whole symphony, and all the Prometheus associations were to colour it, and as though Beethoven's concept of the Prometheus legend, of the hero bringing joy to mankind at heavy cost to himself, was to be the conclusion and the resolution of it all.
At one of the private performances which preceded the public unveiling by some months, Lobkowitz entertained a musically inclined Hohenzollern, Prince Ludwig Ferdinand of Prussia, with the Eroica. According to a report quoted in Marion Scott's Beethoven (London, 1934), whose original source I'm unable to find:
The prince listened to it with tense attention which grew with every moment. At the close he proved his admiration be requesting the favour of an immediate repetition; and, after an hour's pause, as his stay was too limited to admit of another concert, a second. The impression made by the music was general, and its lofty contents were now recognized.
Three Eroicas in one day! Its lofty contents were also recognized by an anonymous critic a year or two later, who wrote of a performance in Leipzig: But one must not always wish merely to be entertained; as if through the Eroica Beethoven had put a crowbar under the purpose and meaning of music and had given it a mighty heave in a new direction.
Tuesday, 16 December 2008
(It's gratifying to be posting this on what was most probably Beethoven's birthday in 1770)
The Eroica symphony was first performed in August 1804 at a private concert in a palace belonging to one of Beethoven's most ardent admirers, Prince Franz Josef Max von Lobkowitz. Lobkowitz, a good amateur violinist, was an amiable Viennese aristocrat who, according to one Countess Lulu von Thürheim, a later Ruritanian gossip, 'devoted himself to music from morning till night and squandered an immense fortune maintaining the most outstanding musicians and singers in Vienna', leaving his seven children destitute. His wife, Princess Caroline von Lobkowitz, was the sister of Karl von Schwarzenberg, an able Austrian army commander who had distinguished himself fighting the French in the Revolutionary and earlier Napoleonic wars. From this one might deduce that glasses were as seldom raised to 'Napoleon Bonaparte' in the Lobkowitz and Schwarzenberg households as cabinet photos of Hitler adorned the mantelpieces of the Mountbattens; and that Beethoven, for all his earlier admiration for Napoleon, was well advised to rip 'Bonaparte' from the title page of the manuscript of the Eroica symphony, if this eased Prince Lobkowitz' purchase of the performing rights for the next three years or so.
Rehearsals were fraught and the players in Lobkowitz' private orchestra found the work difficult and incomprehensible. Beethoven attended some rehearsals, making generally slight amendments from the rostrum, or just behind it. In the context of tried rehearsal tempers not all these corrections found their way into the full score (the first page is shown above) and to this day, as far as I know, there is no definitive critical edition of the Eroica.
In my days as an amateur orchestral percussionist somehow it never fell to me to play the Eroica, but all the same I try to imagine myself sitting on the drum stool of Prince Lobkowitz' timpanist during those first rehearsals. I imagine his konzertmeister, orchestra leader, coming round with the individual parts, produced by the unsung heroes of practical Classical music-making, the copyists whose unenviable job it was to decipher and transform Beethoven's tempestuous manuscript into something musicians could conveniently read.
He would note first of all the key, E flat, and groan: this would mean tuning his right-hand, tenor kettledrum to the E flat below middle C, and his left-hand, bass drum to the B flat below. Both these notes would be slightly higher than the generally conventional notes to which timpani were tuned, and it might therefore be difficult to keep the highly stretched vellum or calfskin drumheads in tune. He would ask his neighbour, probably one of the two trumpets Beethoven required, to play the note E flat for him to tune from. Holding the note in his head, he would tighten the six square-headed screws around the rim of the tenor drum with a T-key, tapping the head with one of his ebony or leather drumsticks until a good, resonant E flat was reached. When he had tuned his bass drum to B flat in the same way he would be ready, having noted from his manuscript part that the first movement of this new symphony was, unusually, in three-time and that he had to play a loud staccato E flat in the first bar and again in the second, and that thereafter he had 34 bars rest, with nothing to play, which he would have to count, silently and to himself, ONE-two-three, TWO-two-three, THREE-two-three right up until THIRTY-FOUR-two-three when he had to play 8 bars'-worth of E flats and B flats very loud and then settle down to counting out another 20 silent bars before coming in again. If anything, his counting had to be more accurate than his playing: the slightest miscount might spell disaster.
He would be looking forward to exploring his way through this new symphony. During the previous four or five years he would have played several of Beethoven's works, including the 1st and 2nd Symphonies, which were masterfully written in a thorough-going, musicianly way, from which it was clear that Haydn's and Mozart's mantle had fallen on Beethoven's shoulders. They were challenging but not over-difficult to play, good to listen to, full of rich invention, life, energy and high spirits and popular with audiences.
I can imagine the stocky figure of Beethoven, hair awry, dark eyes flashing with a nervous truculence, stepping on to a low wooden rostrum. He would indicate with his hand, or with a roll of paper, how fast he wanted the first movement to go: allegro con brio, fast with spirit, at about one bar per second. He would lift his arms shoulder-high, pause, then flick his hands first up in a preparatory beat and then down at the speed he had already shown. At the bottom of the downstroke the whole orchestra would start to play, including the timpanist with his staccato E flat, and those present, Prince Lobkowitz, some of his family and entourage, and one or two of the composer's friends would witness the first faltering, uncertain realisation of a mighty outpouring that Beethoven had only heard in his head.
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
In 1994 Sotheby's, the London auction house, offered for sale a most unusual item: a lock of Beethoven's hair. Its provenance, history and authenticity were well attested. It had been snipped the day after Beethoven's death in 1827 by a 15-year-old lad called Ferdinand Hiller. Hiller, who grew up to become enormously fat, a Christianized Jew and a sort of director of music in that very Cologne whose noxious dust I had been so glad to shake from my sandals, had the hair set in a locket, which eventually he passed on his son. The subsequent history is told in Russell Martin's Beethoven's Hair: An Extraordinary Historical Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery Solved.
The lock of hair, mostly brown with a few strands of grey, was bought by two Americans. A small sample was sent for forensic analysis under the most stringent conditions. The results were extraordinary and utterly unexpected.
Did Beethoven have syphilis? Beethoven commentators have often concluded that syphilis was the underlying cause of his poor health and relatively early death. Before the development of Salvarsan in 1908 and the later discovery of pencillin, the usual treatment for syphilis involved various compounds of mercury. Post-treatment residual mercury lodges in several places in the body including the hair. The Beethoven sample showed no trace whatever of residual mercury.
Throughout his adult life Beethoven complained bitterly of pain, particularly towards the end and during his final illness. In 1827 as today, the most effective pain-killers were opiates, specifically laudanum, a mixture of opium with alcohol, often brandy. Despite laudanum being readily available, there is no record of his doctors, Wawruch and Malfatti, prescribing anything other than iced alcoholic punch. There was no trace, either, of any residual opiate in Beethoven's hair. The conclusion is that he refused pain-killers. Indeed, Wawruch produced a post-mortem report some weeks after Beethoven's death stating that he refused any kind of medication other than the iced punch.
The surprise residual element was lead. The concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair was 42 times greater than that found in control hairs, a vast difference. The conclusion was that by the time of his death and very probably for many years before Beethoven had suffered very severely from lead poisoning. Lead is very toxic. Lead poisoning, also known as saturnism or plumbism, leads to all but one of the symptoms Beethoven complained of. While there have been cases of lead poisoning affecting hearing, the possible link between lead poisoning and Beethoven's deafness remains to be conclusively established.
Where had this concentration of lead in Beethoven's hair come from? It's unlikely to have come from water-pipes, because Beethoven moved from one lodging to another so frequently. His household and kitchen effects, catalogued after his death, included very little containing lead, certainly not in quantities to account for the massive levels of lead Beethoven ingested. The answer probably lies in the amount of wine he drank. In the later years of his life, at least, it was normal for him to drink an entire bottle in the course of a meal. While he was never reported to be drunk, his thirst was notorious among his friends. The effect on his liver was probably no less disastrous than the amount of lead he consumed.
He seems to have been victim of a practice prevalent at times thoughout wine-producing Europe. In years and in areas deprived of enough sunshine to develop the sugar content in the grapes, it was the practice to sweeten the vintage to make it more acceptable to the taste. Before the widespread introduction of cane sugar from the West Indies, there were only two methods of sweetening otherwise bitter foodstuffs. The addition of honey was one, and the other, by which wine kept its characteristic taste and ability to complement certain dishes, and also to keep longer, was to add a bizarre compound: lead oxide (PbO), or litharge, treated with acetic acid, most commonly found in vinegar. The resulting lead acetate or diacetate (Pb(C2H3O2)2), to be exact), is whitish and crystalline, has a sweetish taste - it's sometimes called sugar of lead - and is very toxic.
As far as I know no research has been done into the correlation of sunshine and corresponding strength of natural and artificial sugars in Austrian and Rhenish vintages (Beethoven was particularly fond of wines from his native Rhineland) in Beethoven's wine-drinking lifetime, and it's difficult to imagine how this might be done. We're left with the conjecture that Beethoven did not contract syphilis; that he systematically but unwittingly poisoned himself with lead; that without a tough constitution he might have died earlier; and that lead poisoning may have contributed to or even caused his deafness.
Unconnected with Beethoven's hair, similar tests were carried out in the late 1990s on samples of his bone tissue. If I reveal where they came from, and in what circumstances, it would spoil the end of this account. But the results and the conclusions to be drawn were exactly the same: no mercury, so little likelihood of syphilis; no opiates, so a tendency to put up with pain, or to mask it in some other way; but massive concentrations of lead.
Sunday, 30 November 2008
Extract from a letter Beethoven wrote from Vienna to Dr Franz Wegeler, a friend from his Bonn days, dated 29th June, 1801:
...over the past three years my hearing has become increasingly weaker. It seems that my stomach, which even then [i.e. during Beethoven's youth in Bonn] was in a poor state, as you know, has worsened here. I am plagued continually by colic, and consequently by a dreadful tiredness. This seems to be the cause of my deafness. Frank wanted me to strengthen my body with powerful tonics and my hearing with oil of almond. But Cheers! that did me no good at all, my hearing declined further and my digestive problems stayed the same. This continued all last year until the autumn. Sometimes I was reduced to complete despair... [Despite - or because of - being prescribed cold baths in water from the Danube, Beethoven's hearing deteriorated further] ...This winter I was really in a bad way. I suffered dreadfully from colic, and returned to my former state. This continued until about four weeks ago, when I went to see Vering, as it occurred to me that my condition might really require a surgeon, and in any case he was a man I trusted. He almost managed to stop the violent diarrhoea...I must say I find myself better and stronger now, although my ears buzz and hum all the time, day and night. I may tell you that I lead a wretched life. Over the past two years I have avoided almost all social contact because I can hardly say to people 'I am deaf'. If I practised any other profession things would be easier, but in my profession this is a terrible affliction...
Extract from another letter to Dr Wegeler, dated 16th November 1801
...I am leading a more pleasant life now, and I go about more among my fellow men. You can scarcely imagine how empty and how miserable my life has been over the past two years. My deafness haunted me everywhere, like a ghost, so I avoided people. I must have seemed a misanthrope, which is far from the case. This change has been wrought by an adorable and charming girl who loves me and whom I love. So after two years I can now enjoy a few happy moments, and for the first time I think that marriage might bring happiness. Unfortunately, she is not of my station, so of course I cannot marry her. I must just keep going...
Extract from Beethoven's will, sometimes known as the Heiligenstadt Testament and shown above, dated 6th October 1802 but not found until after his death in 1827.
For my brothers Carl and [empty space] Beethoven
O you men, who think or say I am hostile, obstinate or misanthropic, how unfair you are to me, because you are not aware of the reasons why I may appear so. Since childhood my heart and soul have always been filled with warm feelings of goodwill...but consider that for six years I have suffered with an incurable affliction, made worse by incompetent doctors, disappointed year after year of any hope of improvement, forced now to face the prospect of a permanent disability...My misfortune is doubly hard to bear, because I shall certainly be misunderstood; I can take no pleasure in the fellowship of others, no intelligent conversation, no exchange of ideas...I am forced to live like an outcast.
...Maybe my condition will improve, maybe it will not. I have been obliged - when only in my twenty-eighth year - to become philosophical about this, which is not easy, and harder for an artist than for others. O men, when you read this, consider that you have wronged me...one who, despite the obstacles that nature has placed in his path, has yet done everything in his power to be counted among the ranks of worthy artists and men.
[My translation.] These heart-rending documents, spanning some fifteen months, illustrate the depths of Beethoven's sufferings in 1801 and 1802. By 1800 he was already a famous man in Vienna, celebrated equally as a composer and as a pianist. That deafness should strike him was the cruellest of ironies. The colic that he describes never left him. For the rest of his life he was terribly afflicted, and it led to his premature death at the age of 57. Only one thing eased this condition: wine, which had very likely caused the condition in the first place, in an extraordinarily bizarre and entirely unexpected way that I'll outline in due course.
The 'adorable and charming girl' was a 17-year-old countess called Giulietta Guicciardi. The 30-year-old Beethoven gave her piano lessons (dangerous situation!) and immortalized her as the dedicatee of his 'Moonlight' Sonata. Because of the differences in their social rank their love was doomed. Lost love, lost hearing, lost health: little wonder that the Heiligenstadt Testament is such a desperate outpouring of grief.
Two small points: Beethoven had two younger brothers, Carl and Johann. No one has ever offered any explanation as to why in his will Johann is never mentioned, although spaces are left for his name. It's as though Beethoven had temporarily forgotten his brother's name, and intended to add it later, which seems very unlikely. Then he refers to himself as being 28: I've already mentioned that he believed he had been born in 1772 instead of 1770.
Friday, 21 November 2008
As suspected, there wasn't anything particularly revealing in the story my mother told. It turned out to be a wild and impossible farrago of persons, places and dates. Paring away the inessentials and non sequiturs, it seems likely that she bought it in Hampshire in the spring or summer of 1948 from a temporary bric-à-brac emporium, more a hut than a shop, somewhere between Fareham and Titchfield. When she passed the same way some time later, the place had disappeared, like The Moving Toyshop in Edmund Crispin's direly self-indulgent thriller. She said she'd paid £50 for it, which was a substantial sum in 1948. I think it's more likely that she paid £5. This was all she could remember about it.
But there's another mystery. If you blow up the image of the restored painting above, you may be able to see that although the new frame is perfectly straight, the edges of the canvas aren't. In fact the portrait has been cut a little irregularly from what must once have been a larger canvas, probably with a knife. It has then been glued on to a slightly larger stretcher, one of no great age, with another canvas already in place. So beneath The Dark Lady there may be another painting, which I expect only X-ray photography will reveal. Could The Dark Lady have been stolen from the portrait gallery of some great house? Was The Moving Bric-à-brac Emporium a receiver's outlet?
As we gathered last weekend, family opinion about the identity of The Dark Lady polarised neatly. The men thought it highly likely that she'd been debauched by some Restoration rake like the poet James Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who'd done up his breeches, leapt on to his horse and galloped off whistling; hence her peevish expression. The women thought no, come off it, The Dark Lady is advertising her entirely respectable, indeed desirable, availability; if she looks constipated it's because her sell-by date is approaching far too fast.
We won't ever know, will we?
Monday, 10 November 2008
Many years ago, probably in the late 40s or early 50s, my mother, who was at that time in the antiques business in Hampshire, acquired an oil painting, a portrait of a woman in the costume of a bygone and remote age. So smoke-stained and dirty was the painting that the subject was christened The Dark Lady. There was no clue to her identity.
My mother had a great affection for this painting. It was never put on sale, and it stayed with her long after she retired. She clearly felt a more than aesthetic affinity with it: when asked who the subject was, she would sometimes answer airily, after a swift assessment of her questioner's credulity, 'Oh, an ancestor'. Convinced of basic methods of picture preservation, she would sometimes wash it with soap and water. This lifted the dust, but otherwise did little more than force a caulking of soapy grime between the canvas and the frame.
The painting followed my mother through several house-moves and ended up in the north of Scotland, where it acquired further layers of tarry muck from open fires mostly of resiny pine, larch and spruce logs and occasionally of peat.
It appeared coincidentally, decorated with holly, as a detail in a general photograph of my mother's sitting room one Christmas. I've shown it above. An autumn or two later, disaster struck: the house caught fire. Although my mother wasn't harmed, thanks to the prompt action of a neighbour, many of her possessions were destroyed, everything in the house was begrimed beyond further use by greasy smoke, and the paintings were damaged beyond recognition by smoke and by a heat so ferocious that it boiled the water in the flower vases. Nearest the source of the fire was The Dark Lady, and although badly charred and scorched, with the paint pocked and pitted with burst bubbles of pigment, she didn't actually catch fire.
Afterwards my mother drew a veil of oblivion over the fire, lost interest in what had been damaged and looked to the future. What remained of the now ghostly and insubstantial Dark Lady was taken away, covered in bubble wrap and stored pending a possible restoration.
Last summer I brought it home to the south of France and took it for assessment to a picture restorer in Montpellier that I'd found in Yellow Pages. The restorer turned out to be a dishy and charming blonde, diplomée d'état (with a national diploma) in the restoration of paintings. I left The Dark Lady with her, feeling that she was in safe hands.
In the months that followed the restorer kept me up to date with her painstaking and slow progress and finally last week we went to collect it. What the restorer had done was little short of miraculous: here was The Dark Lady, still dark, but brought to light as she had never been in the last 60 years and probably much more.
We could now see that her off-the-shoulder, décolleté dress, blue-grey with white lace trimmings, red shawl, cream linen underskirt and especially her natural hairstyle dated her to a few years either side of 1670. In a fold of her skirt she has gathered pink roses, complete with stems and leaves. She's wearing a pearl necklace and a pearl earring, but no rings. She's blue-eyed, with a nose whose size she may have felt diffident about; close-mouthed, with an expression either sad or sardonic or bitter. There's no joy in her. In the portrait style of the period, she's leaning on a chest or maybe a sort of altar; to her left there's a column with some folds of drapery above it, and to her right there's a small, heavily clouded landscape, with a suggestion either of evening or of the aftermath of a storm. The shapes silhouetted against the lighter sky may be figures or, more likely, trees.
Who is she? Why was this portrait painted? We've no idea. We didn't expect an artist's signature from a painting of this period. She's evidently English, probably from the south, and the artist seems familiar with the style of Sir Peter Lely, Charles II's court painter. She's a lady of fashion, of some wealth, even. Although amply bosomed, she's no great beauty, nor is she in her first youth. But is there more to her than this?
She's clutching plucked roses in her dress, strategically - and symbolically? - held against what one might call her honour. If the roses had been white, they might have stood for virginity, and if they'd been red, some element of love might have been implied. But they're pink, and they've been ripped from the branch, stem, leaves and all. Is this a painterly metaphor for defloration? Is she pregnant? And she's wearing no wedding ring . . . but maybe we've conjectured more than is good for us. (We could find no information about the customs of ring-wearing in the late 17th century.)
When I told my 97-year-old mother about all this, she listened patiently but with an occasional hint of regret that the painting had passed to me. I asked her where she'd got it from, or if she knew anything else about it. Yes, she said, after a long pause, there was some other information, but it had better remain secret for the time being. She would tell us when next she saw us. So far, so tantalising. (If you're reading this, Dave, I'm sorry to inflict another but quite unintentional cliff-hanger on you.)
We're away to Scotland for several days, so maybe the secret will be unlocked. I'm keeping an open mind about it. Secrets lose their savour as soon as they're broached. I'll try to keep you posted, with a picture of the restored painting, when we come back, before resuming normal service with Beethoven and the pilgrimage to Vienna.
Saturday, 8 November 2008
This was the darkest despair, the lowest ebb I had ever known. I had only been saved from an attempted homosexual rape by an angry cleaner, both harridan and saviour, chasing me out of the station toilets at the end of a wet mop, kicking over her bucket in her savage indignation and screaming abuse as though I was the initiator and not the evil Herr Schniedelwutz, who vanished as though he had never existed. I ran up the steps as fast as my rucksack allowed.
Nor of course was there any sign of Hink. Nor of George. The horrid thought struck me that he might have caught the next train back to Ostend. Solid and loyal friend, easy and undemanding companion, he had finally had enough. He'd really just come along, without any particular interest in to Beethoven, for an adventure that had turned out to be as disagreeable as it was uncomfortable. He must have become increasingly fatigued by my obsession with Adèle: how could I blame him for lebbing off? It was all my fault.
Far from resisting the blandishments of Hink and his dismal catamite, whose nickname (surely?) proclaimed his chief interest, I had sought weakly to ingratiate myself with them. Between them they had stolen my pocket-book with all my Deutschmarks, my return ferry ticket and my precious photo of Adèle. Never was trout more easily tickled: I had let them steal my self-respect as well. I was unslept, filthy, hungry, none the better for at least three glasses of schnapps at 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning. All the make-believe bubble world of German Romantic poetry had burst, had been shown up as a treacherous delusion, zerfliesst wie eitel Schaum, vanished like a vain mist, as the wretched Heine put it, similarly betrayed by his own nature. I sat on my rucksack and could not hold the tears back.
This was how George found me a little later, a new George, determined and quietly assertive. We were getting out. There was a train for Siegburg in forty minutes. I was to get up and follow him to the ticket office. I didn't know where Siegburg was. I thought we were heading down the Rhine, for Bonn and Coblenz. George told me it was south of Cologne, on the way to Karlsruhe, where we could pick up the autobahn that would lead us to Munich, Salzburg and on to Vienna, just as we'd planned.
- I haven't got any money. You know I haven't.
- It doesn't matter. I'll pay.
- I'll pay you back. I don't know how or when, but I will.
- Sure. You can pay me back tomorrow. Just don't worry about it.
- Tomorrow! How will tomorrow be any different?
- You'll see. We'll be out of this shit-hole, for one thing. And for another, how about having a look in the back pocket of your shorts? Your other ones. The ones in your rucksack. Where you hid all those Belgian francs we got in Liège. You can't have forgotten. We'll find a bank or a bureau de change in Siegburg tomorrow.
There was time, after George had bought our tickets, to report the theft, which exercised my German to full stretch. The station policeman to whom I reported it wasn't much interested, but he took my name and home address. I had just enough change in my pocket to buy an orange for each of us - I felt I needed the sharp, sweet scour of fresh orange to cleanse my mouth and my mood - and something from the station bookstall: Beethoven und seine Zeit (Beethoven and his times). I felt as indebted to him as I did to George: if I hadn't been in a position to sing Die Ehre Gottes aus die Natur in Josef Kula's church in Liège, with its resulting shower of money, I would have been in an even worse way.
So we shook the dust of Cologne from our sandals without regret or backward glance. I've never felt any call to go back.
Saturday, 1 November 2008
Nothing in my experience or education had taught me how to cope with the one-legged man who swung himself into a chair opposite George and me, propped his crutches against the vacant chair next to him, smiled broadly and told me he recognised the beret I was wearing. (This was a Royal Air Force beret: in place of the usual brass cap-badge I'd stuck a small Union Jack.) I smiled warily, wondering why this coarse, thick-set man, middle-aged and unclean, should choose ours when there were plenty of other unoccupied tables. He reached across and laid his hand on mine for a moment, before I had time to recoil. I remember grossly filthy and broken fingernails, but I suppose mine at this stage were no less revolting. He spoke a sort of pidgin-German, larded with a few English words: Trink, yes? He swivelled round, snapped his fingers and called zwei Schnapps, bitte to the woman behind the counter. There was no room for refusal.
At this remove it's impossible to give more than the gist of what he said and how he expressed himself. He said he'd lost his leg fighting the Russians in Poland. His comrades had left him behind with a broken leg. He'd been captured by the Russians. They'd taken him to a field hospital. They'd amputated his shattered leg. The Russians were good doctors. The Russians were his friends. He loved his Russian friends. Germans were no good. Every statement was followed by a broad smile.
See, he said, shifting back in his chair and undoing greasy strings and safety pins that held the vacant trouser leg against his thigh, preliminary to showing us a puckered and repellent mess of scarred and knitted skin covering the end of his femur.
- Come, you touch.
Incapable of resistance, I got up and laid an unwilling finger on a patch of skin that still retained a rough pelt of hair: other patches were pale pink and hairless, like newborn rats. George, arms tightly folded across his chest, didn't move.
As he put his trouser leg together again the schnapps arrived. It must be downed in one go, the German said, miming the action. I looked at George: in for a penny, in for a pound, even at 8.30 in the morning. Neither of us had drunk schnapps before. It didn't taste of anything much, but left a searing, cauterizing wake down the throat and oesophagus.
Good, good, the German said. Your friends bomb my house. Cigarette?
I took one from a packet of a brand called Ernte 3 and said Danke schön while he lit it for me, leaning across the table. (George didn't smoke.) This was my first taste of continental tobacco. Whatever taste it may have had was nullified by the effect of the schnapps. The man smiled continually.
- House kaput. All dead. My father, my woman, my dogs. Royal Air Force. Many bombs. All burning.
And still he smiled. I was beginning to feel very awkward.
- Royal Air Force hat. Give, please. I wear it, yes.
He reached forward. Powerless to resist, I took my beret off, cursing myself for ever thinking it would be a sensible thing to wear, and passed it to him.
- I show my friends now. Moment, please.
He laid it on his head, struggled to his crutches and shambled out, smiling still.
- Quick! George said. Let's bugger off before he comes back. Now. Come on.
- What? And lose my beret?
- So what? That bloke's trouble. Come on, never mind hanging about.
George left, I stayed, saying I would catch him up when I'd retrieved my beret. I was stubbing out my Ernte 3 when the German came back in with one of his friends, a small, weaselly, shifty man who called him as 'Hink' or 'Hinki'. Hink returned my beret saying you think I steal your hat, no? - or words to that effect - and asked where my friend was.
- Er musste gehen. Ich auch. Very bad German for 'He had to go. Me too.'
- No, no you stay. Drink, smoke, party, ha-ha-ha.
So the jaws closed. More schnapps arrived. I felt alone, a lamb to the slaughter, exposed, impotent to exercise my will in any way. Hink and his weasel friend, whom he introduced to me formally as Herr Schniedelwutz (a name which I reconstructed conjecturally after deep conversations with German friends many years later: Schniedelwutz means, and has the same infantile overtones as, 'willy' or 'John Thomas') plied me with drink, smiles and assurances that the English were everyone's friends now. Eventually they asked if I had a girlfriend.
There were various documents in my rucksack. I kept my passport out of harms' way at the very bottom, just above The Penguin Book of German Romantic Verse - and what bloody use was that now? - but at the top, just beneath the fastening, there was a thick octavo notebook in which I kept a journal, which accounts for much of the detail in this narrative. Between the pages there were my return ferry ticket, a letter of introduction to an address in Vienna, my photo of Adèle and banknotes totalling about 40 Deutschmarks, which was all the money I had apart from some change in my pocket.
There was no easier meat in Cologne that Sunday morning. I flipped through the pages looking for Adèle, exposing as I did so my modest wad of banknotes. I found her: Hinki took the entire book; said she was beautiful; very beautiful; so very beautiful that he had to show his friends; shambled off, leaving me with Herr Schniedelwutz.
This stoat-like little man said nothing but drummed his fingers on the table. I offered him a cigarette, which he took gracelessly, without thanks. Presently, after four or five minutes, I ventured to ask what had happened to Hinki. Herr Schiedelwutz said komm, gehen wir ihn zu finden (come, let us go and find him). I shouldered my rucksack and followed him. He led me across the concourse. I looked about for George, but I couldn't see him anywhere. Steps led down to the toilets. No one was about. Were Hinki and his friends really down here? Herr Schniedelwutz led me towards the cubicles.
- We buy you drinks, he said. Now you pay.
Monday, 27 October 2008
Cologne, slough of despond.
I woke stiff, dirty and miserable to find George leaning over me. He was just about to wake me, he said. He was going to find the toilets; would I keep an eye on his rucksack? I crooked an arm through a shoulder strap and went back to sleep.
When he came back he said: Watch out if you go into the bogs. There's a mont in there, a seedy little bloke. Or there was, till I caught him with my belt. He tried to climb over the partition, the dirty sod.
'Mont' was a current school term for a predatory homosexual.
I asked George what had happened. On the way in he'd passed a small man leering at him and making suggestive gestures. He'd lashed out at the intruder with the buckle end of his belt when he tried to climb over the cubicle partition. There was a cry of pain, he dropped to the floor and ran off. When George came out there was nobody else about.
This nastiness clouded from the start the pure etherial beauty of my images of Cologne and the uplifting events I imagined happening there. I despaired of any actual contact with Adèle, but there remained certain evocations of her presence to attend to.
A man, even an 18-year-old obsessive, needs an occasional break from Beethoven. An amazing discovery when I was 16, a rising sun in whose warmth I basked, bathing my psyche in every rainbow colour from the white light of its emotional power, was Dichterliebe, Poet's Love, a cycle of 16 songs by Robert Schumann to words by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), an apostle of disillusion and a very individual voice among the German Romantic poets. I fell on these with an insatiable hunger and not so much swallowed them as bolted them.
No.6 of the cycle is set in Cologne:
Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,
Da spiegelt sich in den Well'n,
Mit seinem grossen Dome,
Das grosse, heilige Köln.
In Dom da steht ein Bildnis,
Auf goldenem Leder gemalt;
In meines Lebens Wildnis
Hat's freundlich hinein gestrahlt.
Es schweben Blumen and Eng'lein
Um uns're liebe Frau;
Die Augen, die Lippen, die Lippen, die Wänglein,
Die gleichen der Liebsten genau.
[Cologne, great and holy, with its great cathedral, is mirrored in the waves of the Rhine, the sacred river.
In the cathedral there's a portrait painted on golden leather, which has illuminated the wilderness of my life with kindness.
Flowers and cherubs surround the Virgin Mary; the eyes and lips, the lips and cheeks remind me of the most beloved.]
(My paraphrase. I had problems with this, partly because of the hopeless wetness of the verse - although Schumann's setting has a Bachian majesty to it - and partly because I really didn't want to come out with 'Great Holy Cologne' (Das grosse, heilige Köln) which would sound as though Batman had finally cleared Gotham City of crime and was passing the evening of his Batlife in genteel translation. Heine has no defence at all against ridicule. On with the story.)
It seemed to me that this could only refer to a painting I understood was housed in Cologne cathedral, Stefan Lochner's Madonna of the Rose Bower, a chocolate-box, Christmas-card image (at the top of this post) if ever there was one, but maybe one that has sometimes shed a kindly light on those whose life has become a wilderness. I was more interested in comparing the eyes, lips and cheeks of the painting with Adèle's, the most beloved's; to do so in Cologne cathedral would become a sort of sacrament, a confirmation that our eventual union was recognised elsewhere than in my mind and that all would be well.
I can't remember if George came too. I don't think so. It was hardly something he could share in, even if he'd wanted to. Cologne cathedral stands beside the railway station. Scaffolding covered much of the building. Dirty, unshaven, unkempt, in clothes slept in and unchanged since Ostend I joined a trickle of clean, shaven, kempt and Sunday-best dressed people heading for the main door, I suppose for early Mass. Just inside, a uniformed and beadle or verger barred my way, thumbs stuck aggressively in his heavy belt. He said various things of which I only understood Eintritt verboten, entry forbidden.
Back at the station we went into the same Imbiss Stube we'd frequented the previous night and ordered coffee. Presently a one-legged man, wreathed in smiles, came and sat opposite us.
Wednesday, 8 October 2008
In 1800 Beethoven was commissioned by Salvatore Viganò, an avant-garde choreographer, to write the music for a ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, The Creations (or Creatures) of Prometheus. The book of the ballet is lost, so we can only conjecture what the substance of the ballet was from a surviving Viennese play-bill, and of course from the music. Act 2, for instance, was set on Mt Parnassus and records the apotheosis of Prometheus, who has brought the human beings he has created to Apollo and the nine Muses for cultural and scientific instruction. Whatever the merits of this, Beethoven's music is mostly very fine, and by all accounts the ballet was popular and the music was well received, impressing even the elderly Haydn.
There are some engaging mysteries here. The music consists of an overture, which is occasionally performed, and 16 dance numbers, which very seldom appear on any concert programme. Rarities abound: virtually the only instances of Beethoven's use of the basset horn (a sort of tenor clarinet) and the harp are found here. More intriguingly, there's a very uncommon and curious example of melodic recycling, re-using a tune he'd earlier written for something else. The last Prometheus movement, the finale, features a tune which Beethoven had written perhaps a year before as No.7 of a set of 12 contredanses, formation dances something like Scottish reels. Within the space of two or three years this tune did quadruple duty, as the contredanse (before 1800), in the Prometheus finale (1800), as the theme for 15 Variations and a Fugue for piano, Opus 35 (1802) and finally, in the place where it's best known, in the last movement of the Eroica symphony (1803). It's very unusual to find Beethoven borrowing his own music, let alone anyone else's, so clearly this tune had a particular significance for him.
It's easier to speculate about this from back to front. The Eroica symphony represented a major and definitive statement of Beethoven's entire aesthetic belief, to such an extent that some commentators divide his music into pre- and post-Eroica. Into the Eroica he poured his most mature invention. The last movement of the Eroica is a massive set of variations not only on the famous tune, but on the bass line that accompanies it. So diverse and ambitious are these variations that some listeners find the movement difficult to come to terms with, but the tune has enough characteristic features to stand a lot of pushing and shoving and transforming into other guises, as Beethoven had already discovered with the piano variations of the year before. But why this particular tune?
The answer lies with Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus. How the tune travelled from an obscure contredanse (in fact Beethoven shoehorned in another as well, No.11) to the finale of his ballet we shall probably never know. Possibly Beethoven simply wanted a lively but dignified dance movement to bring Prometheus to a close, and lifted the most suitable out his bag of contredanses. Once the tune had the Prometheus label and connotation it was inalienably identified with the mythical Greek titan, the hero who stole fire from the sun and brought it to mankind hidden in a fennel stalk. For this presumption Zeus had Prometheus bound eternally with chains to a rock in the Caucasus, where eagles and vultures tore at his liver. So the basic legend ran. It was probably much older than classical Greece: although the Greek 'prometheus' can be harnessed to mean 'forethought' it's equally likely that the name derives from the Vedic pra-mathyu-s, meaning a thief. Classical Greek writers present Prometheus very diversely, not just as the Bringer of Fire, but as the creator of mankind from clay, and as the Great Benefactor, bringing his creation joy and happiness, but at heavy cost to himself.
This notion isn't too distant from those concepts of the hero that Beethoven evoked in Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, the Praise of God in Nature, and was to express again in the finale of the 9th symphony. More down to earth, however, was the idea current in Beethoven's generation that there actually seemed to be someone striving then and there to improve the lot of mankind and whose influence was spreading over Europe, if not across the Channel; someone apparently dedicated to universal education, to the widest diffusion of culture and science, to a polity in which everyone had a say, someone unafraid to make sweeping political and social changes on a continental scale to achieve them. A latter-day Prometheus, in fact, although most Anglo-Saxon eyes would see him with a sterner reality as not much of a joy-bringer: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Composition of the Eroica - the Italian for 'heroic' - symphony started shortly after Prometheus. The full title of the symphony is Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festiggiare il sovvenire d'un grand' uomo (Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man). The original manuscript title page had 'Bonaparte' written at the top and 'Luigi van Beethoven' at the foot, and the pairing makes one wonder if Beethoven saw himself as a kind of Prometheus too. So the symbol of Prometheus became the topical reality of the Eroica, and Beethoven made the link obvious by using the same tune in both.
The scales fell from his eyes in 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. When the news was brought to him, Beethoven angrily tore away the offending name 'Bonaparte' from the title page of the Eroica score, saying 'Is he no more than an ordinary human being? Now he too will trample on the rights of man and indulge only his own ambition. He will exalt himself above others, become a tyrant.'
At the gipsy encampment George and I sat hungrily with the whiteshirts and their women and children in the soft light of paraffin lamps and candles, waiting for the promised Abendmahl and wondering what was going to happen. Presently a man dressed in a grey suit whom we hadn't noticed before appeared in the candlelight behind the table and it became immediately clear that some act of worship was about to begin. It turned out to be a Communion service.
I don't know what punishment is reserved for those who take Communion before they've been confirmed. Whatever it is, it will be meted out by priests rather than God-given. At school I strongly resisted confirmation classes, which, it seemed to me, simply led to better ringside seats in a priestly circus that hadn't moved on much from the Barsetshire novels of Anthony Trollope. Confirmation wasn't for me, although I came to love Trollope dearly in due course. (Some of the Barsetshire themes were based on 19th century events - causes célèbres, even - in Rochester Cathedral.) I don't know what George's religious history was or leanings were, if any, but we both accepted the piece of bread and a mouthful of wine without scruple. I learnt much later that it was considered good religious manners to come to the Communion table with an empty stomach.
Afterwards the pastor took us to Cologne. He spoke a little English. Between shaking bouts of laughter and some consequent wobbling of the steering wheel he explained the difference between Abendmahl (Holy Communion) and Abendessen (supper). Some lessons come hard. The white-shirted ones, he said, were Evangelisches fahrendes Volk, evangelical travelling folk. They were good-hearted but often impractical. It was unthinkable that their Saturday night Communion should not have the Light of the World on the altar. He himself would have gone back to Cologne to fetch matches if we hadn't happened to pass by.
He dropped us at about 10.30 at the station. No tall blonde girl in a white dress stood beneath the station clock, but an Imbiss Stube was still open and we ended the day as we'd started it, with Brötchen mit Eier, and found a quiet corner of the concourse to doss down in afterwards, I after my usual post-prandial cigarette.
Sunday, 5 October 2008
. . . George told me sharply to put the bloody thing away and not to be such a cretin. Was I mad? A titch like you? You get out of this kind of jam with your wits, not with a bloody great carving knife that'll end up between your ribs. Put it away this instant, son. And so on.
And of course I did. It was too dark for the whiteshirts to have seen, anyway. I think George was surprised by this display of aggression, a most regrettable streak in my character that used to bubble up from the murky depths now and again. I was often in trouble in my teens and well into my twenties for fighting, although not with knives. I seldom won. Fights I got myself into tended to develop in the manner of The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who continues to bawl defiance even though his arms and his legs have been lopped off one after the other in combat and he's been pruned down to a squirming, cursing trunk threatening to head-butt his opponent. (I had my nose broken in a fight at 22 and lost my front teeth at 25, leaving a terminally weakened canine. This tooth finally fell apart one morning during playground duty in a Southampton school, given its quietus by a piece of Victoria sponge that a Mrs Moss had sent me via her daughter Linda because she thought I looked pale.)
The whiteshirts turned out to be perfectly peaceable, polite and pleasant. Through a series of minor miscalculations that we didn't follow they'd found themselves without any means of making fire. They'd heard us shouting from their fireless, lightless encampment and had run down to the road to see if by any chance these people unexpectedly walking by happened to have a light. Haben Sie Feuer, bitte? - and I was able to answer Feuer? Jawohl! Kein Problem! shaking my box of matches and anxious to lay the shameful ghost of my aggression. (But we couldn't know, could we?) They seemed pathetically grateful: if we would consent to go back with them - it wasn't far - could we light a lamp for them? From that flame they could light others, they could prepare their Abendmahl. They would be honoured if we would agree to share it with them.
Translating Abendmahl as evening meal, I asked George what he thought. Great, he said, he was famished. So was I: the last square meal we'd eaten had been with Josef Kula and his wife in Liège, and we'd only had an apple and some biscuits since breakfast in Aachen that morning. There came into my mind unbidden the Wind in the Willows episode of Toad newly escaped from jail and grossly excited by the irresistible scents of gipsy stew. Were these people gipsies? Could we too expect a glorious stream of hot rich stew gurgling on to our plates? Or, less appealing, would we be served drabbed bawlor, which I understood was the Romany for hedgehog baked en croûte? We accepted eagerly.
We trudged through pasture in the semi-darkness while they asked us questions. Where had we come from? Last night we were in Aachen, we said, but we came from Kent, in England. Where we we going? Vienna, eventually, we said, but we had hoped to be in Cologne that night. It wasn't far to Cologne, a whiteshirt said. That's where their pastor came from.
I didn't pick up the inference of this, either. We reached an encampment of half a dozen vans and trailers arranged in a circle, a sort of laager. No light shone anywhere. A whiteshirt brought a paraffin lamp with a wire-protected glass flue, took my precious box of matches and lit it. He lit some candles as well, returned the matches to me, poured little pools of molten wax on a nearby table top and stood lit candles in them. People moved about lighting more candles and lamps from these, in a sort of arithmetical progression, and presently the laager was suffused with a soft pale light, reflected in van windows and chrome-work. There were a good twenty people there, women and children among the whiteshirts, dark eyes sparkling in lamplight, gold and silver threads twinkling in shawl-weaves, pale flashes from earrings and buckles, and everybody seemed to be smiling. And well dressed. But no one spoke. A whiteshirt brought a blanket smelling of woodsmoke and paraffin, spread it on the grass and invited George and me to sit down like everyone else. Two or three children came and sat by us, staring at us silently and turning away quickly when we looked at them.
There was no sign or scent of anything to eat.
Thursday, 2 October 2008
'Halt!' Someone called. 'Stop!' Someone else. 'Warten sie mal, bitte - '
In the failing light George and I looked towards a field entrance where the shouts appeared to come from. Several swarthy white-shirted figures appeared out of the near-dark, waving and shouting. What was this? An ambush? Were we being attacked? Were we going to be robbed? Instinctively I did something which might have turned out to be very dangerous: down the frame of my rucksack I kept a 10-inch (25cm) kitchen knife, the handle just at the back of my neck for easy access.
A man about whom I remember very little had dropped us, almost the last of a succession of short lifts that day, on a country road somewhere about Kerpen, a village west of Cologne. On picking us up he'd wanted to talk, but extended conversation was far beyond us and we gradually fell silent. Eventually he stopped outside a farm cottage. He claimed he had to visit whoever lived there: it would take some time, he didn't want to hold us back, so if we walked on a kilometre or two we would arrive at the main road to Cologne. If he found us still on the road, he'd pick us up again. We got out, thanked him, said Auf wiedersehn, to which he replied Ja, vielleicht, and shouldered our rucksacks. Not ten seconds later he sped past us, foot down hard on the accelerator, not having made the slightest attempt to contact whoever lived at the cottage. Clearly he just wanted rid of us. We walked on in the gloaming, scandalised by this wretched man's utter despicability. After a good airing of some of the picturesque oaths we were given to at the time, and after some perhapsing and maybeing we concluded that he was in fact Germany's champion bore, that he was in full training for the forthcoming World Narcolepsy Championships, that by chance he'd lit upon these two agreeable young fellows thumbing lifts somewhere east of Düren. Wunderbar! Prima! Here was somebody to practise on . . . and then, imagine his chagrin when he discovered that his two passengers, his captive audience, had so little German that they could barely understand a word he said.
I remember George shouting Wunderbar! Prima! at the top of his voice to the evening sky, and being answered a second or two later by shouts of Halt! Moment, bitte! and the like. What do you do when a gang - there were six or seven of them - of black-a-vised white-shirted men leaps out at you from behind a hedge when it's almost dark? I drew my knife: I wasn't going cheaply . . .
Monday, 29 September 2008
[In his famous essay about the writing of Lolita Vladimir Nabokov mentions the nostalgia certain episodes and passages arouse in him several years after writing. One of them is '...the Kasbeam barber (who cost me a month of work)...' I search, as many others must have done, for the Kasbeam barber, about whom I've forgotten in the plummeting descent of the story, to discover just what made his invention and fleshing-out so time-consuming. And when I eventually find him, on page 213 of the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition, I wonder how on earth he could have taken up so much of Nabokov's time. There's just a finely-crafted passage about him, all of eight lines long. He has nothing to do with the story. It's not local colour. He's not a metaphor for anything else, as far as I can see. The passage is simply a pleasant little cameo. Clearly it sometimes took Nabokov a very long time indeed for his ideas to mature.
I've nothing in common with Nabokov except a more exasperating slowness in working ideas out. The following took me more than a month to put together. Admittedly, there have been family events to lead me gently away from the keyboard. And just occasionally some serious lying in the sun to attend to.]
Having boldly - rashly, maybe - invented the term 'Great Gluckian Revolution', I suppose I'm now obliged to elaborate it. Readers less gripped by musicological thesisry and much more interested in the continuing story of Flaming Adèle, George, the Kerpen gypsies and the evil Cologne Hauptbahnhof predators (who are just around the corner) may prefer to skip, which I confess I often do, to whatever catches the onward-roving eye, dialogue, illustrations or italics, always a surefire eye-catcher.
I've no compunction about heading what follows
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SWEEPING GENERALISATIONS
ALMOST CRIMINAL CONDENSATION
not to mention
Although Beethoven was celebrated as a virtuoso pianist before he made his name as a composer, he had also played the violin and viola from the age of 9. In 1784, when Beethoven was 14 and presumably resembled the child-portrait discovered in 1972, Maximilian Franz, youngest son of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, was sent from Vienna to take up the position of Elector of Cologne. Maximilian Franz was a cultivated and energetic man, with ambitions to make his court in Bonn a European centre of cultural activity. His predecessor, confusingly called Maximilian Friedrich, had built up a strong musical establishment of choir and orchestra, which came to employ three generations of Beethovens at various intervals: grandfather Louis as Kapellmeister, father (and well-known drunk) Johann as choir tenor, and the young Ludwig firstly as organist and harpsichordist and later as viola player.
Under Maximilian Franz the Bonn orchestra flourished mightily. It isn't known to what extent he used his imperial Viennese contacts to poach players from other orchestras, but some of the best instrumentalists of the day found their way to Bonn, among them the flautist Anton Reicha (mentioned above) and Bernard Romberg (cello). These two, young, energetic and outgoing like Beethoven, were also composers and found ready outlets for their music in their new musical milieu.
Commentators are generally too ready to allow Beethoven's extraordinary piano virtuosity to eclipse the impact of his experience as an orchestral player on his development as a composer. (That Beethoven was an orchestral violist will come as tidings of comfort and joy to viola players, traditionally the most put upon of string players and the unfailing butt of orchestra jokes, e.g.: *Q: How do you keep a violin from being stolen? A: Put it in a viola case. *Q: What's the difference between a violist and a seamstress? A: A seamstress tucks up the frills. And so on.) Beethoven played with the Bonn orchestra from 1784 to 1792, with one break in 1787, during which he went to Vienna hoping to receive lessons in composition from Mozart. The 16-year-old Beethoven and the 31-year-old Mozart met, certainly, but whatever passed between them isn't well documented, and in any case Beethoven was recalled to Bonn to his mother's deathbed after a few months.
Beethoven's 8-year orchestral (and chamber music) experience in Bonn could be said to be his grammar school and university education. One of the yawning gaps in Beethoven studies is what the Bonn orchestra played. We know almost as much about their uniform - red trimmed with gold - as about their repertoire, but the little we know is significant. In 1790 Haydn passed through Bonn on his way to London, and the band and choir entertained him with one of his own Masses, but we don't know which one. There's an account by someone called Carl Junker, (who referred, rather implausibly, to the swarthy, four-square viola player as 'the dear, good Bethofen') of a gala concert in 1791: the band played, among other things, an unspecified Mozart symphony, a cello concerto by Bernard Romberg and a symphony by Ignaz Pleyel. (The name Pleyel totters on uncertainly through Ignaz's son Camille, round whose little piano pieces in my childhood unwilling fingers used to get themselves in such a tangle during Associated Board Grade 3 and 4 exams. Maybe they still do.)
What is striking about this fare, a Mozart symphony here, a Haydn Mass there, is its modernity. No orchestra today, however gorgeously dressed and privately funded, could survive on an unvarying diet of avant-garde music. No more could its audiences. Maximilian Franz's Bonn orchestra wasn't unique: the repertoires of other contemporary orchestras, like the famous Mannheim orchestra or that of Prince Nicolas Esterházy, which Haydn directed for so long, are better documented. They lead to the same conclusion: in musical terms, the years 1780-1810 constitute one of those extremely rare periods in Western aesthetic history in which what was new, and immediate, was magnificently crafted, was universally popular and in constant demand. This is partly due to the invention of a new musical language, and Beethoven was at the heart of its development.
As a viola player, he was particularly well placed to observe how earlier composers applied the new language to orchestral writing. As far as I know no one has yet compared playing the viola to riding a motorbike - a pushbike might be a better analogy, given the supposed inability of violists to keep up - in the middle of the road: if you fail to pay attention to the other traffic both on your own side of the road and on the other, you end up as the subject of Viola Joke No. 94: Q: What's the difference between a viola and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead person on the inside. The violist, playing a sort of piggy-in-the-middle tenor line in the middle of the strings, has to be aware of what the cellos and basses are doing below, while keeping an attentive ear on the violins above at the same time, particularly in late 18th century and early 19th century music. Sensitive teamwork is such an important part of good orchestral playing, and violas have to show it in double doses. This requirement becomes yet more imperative in good ensemble playing, in quartets or trios, which was also a feature of Beethoven's Bonn experience. So Beethoven's teens passed in constant music-making with other gifted musicians, happily familiar with the new language, in one of Europe's leading centres of musical excellence. He could hardly have had a more encouraging start.
What was this new musical language? We are so used to it now, and it continues to feature so strongly in our everyday lives, that it's difficult to conceive of the scale of the revolution required to set it going. Basically it was a simplification, a reduction of the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of music to essentials. From its earliest manifestations in the first half of the 18th century it was marked by open, undecorated, balanced and attractive tunes based on simple and closely related chords. For all what we now acknowledge as Bach's genius, his music was all but forgotten by the time of his death in 1750. There were exceptions: Beethoven made his name as a pianist with Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. Bachian and Handelian polyphony, music composed of combinations of vocal or instrumental lines singing or playing much the same thing, had reached a maturity from which there could only be decline.
A new simplified logic of harmony came in, based on a 'home' key and its near neighbours. I daresay some composers didn't know they were doing it: the 550 harpsichord pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, Bach's contemporary, are all constructed on a harmonic framework based on the relations between the chords of the home key (technically the tonic), the chord of the fifth note above (the dominant) and the chord of the fifth note below (the subdominant: if the tonic was C, the dominant would be G and the subdominant F). He called his pieces 'sonatas', and the system of writing music around these key-relationships became known as 'sonata', or 'the sonata principle', or 'sonata form'.
One man knew exactly what he was doing. Christoph Willibald Gluck deliberately and courageously transformed opera, applying the same principles of simplicity and harmonic balance to his productions, creating very expressive tunes from the notes of common chords. If any of the hundreds of minor composers following the new music banners deserves to have the revolution named after him, it is Gluck...
...although Haydn, a generation older than Beethoven, expanded and developed the new language and was perhaps the first to realise what an extraordinary potential for flexibility the new language had. It could with equal success be applied to solo instruments, to groups of woodwind or strings, to choral singing, to orchestras, to operas, to dance music, to virtually any form or musical medium. This was the language Beethoven inherited: it was universal, it spoke equally to the most refined aristocrat and the whistler in the street; it was flexible, capable equally of profound depths of expression and the frothiest musical comedy; it could carry equally dazzling concert-hall virtuosity and homespun cottage-piano music-making; it was elastic, capable of infinite development.
Coincidentally - and very conveniently, as the theme of this chapter is the trumpet - the new harmonic simplicity meant that the natural notes of the trumpet (and the French horn, to a lesser extent) had found a new and very comfortable home. With their capacity for strong, urgent rhythms based on a few notes of common chords the trumpets brought a mettlesome dash, an excitement, a military swagger to orchestral music that hadn't existed before.
Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna in 1792, given salaried leave of absence by Maximilian Franz and his friend Count von Waldstein to study with Haydn. (Mozart had died the year before.) Nothing went right. The promised salary didn't materialise. Haydn was a poor teacher, though kind to Beethoven. Eventually a Viennese aristocrat, Prince Carl Lichnowsky, took him under his wing.
Enormously hard-working and prodigiously productive of compositions in a musical language at first reminiscent of Mozart and Haydn and progressively more and more in his own idiom, Beethoven found towards the end of the decade that his hearing had begun to deteriorate. It would be the most savage of ironies that within a few years he would be unable to hear, even with the aid of the trumpets shown above, the musical language the world identifies him with.
Friday, 8 August 2008
For many years after school and after this Viennese pilgrimage Thursday afternoons were clouded and uneasy, suffused with a lingering sense of bleak tedium and frustration. Not until much later was the ghost of the school CCF, the Combined Cadet Force, and its asinine posturings laid to rest. Attendance was compulsory, although I believe one child, Porpen, was excused on the grounds of being a Quaker; he appeared to spend Thursday afternoons in Mr Golling's tuck-shop while the rest of us, some 400 undeodorised adolescent lads, scurried about tweaking military uniform, brassoed cap-badge to toe-caps so polished you could see your face reflected in them - if you really wanted an extra, gratuitous sight of your adolescent spots - before inspection and parade.
Shortly after being swept up, at the age of thirteen, into this ghastly pantomime I looked for ways to make Thursday afternoons a little more tolerable, to distance myself as far as possible from being shrieked at by jumped-up boy lance-jacks whose sole accomplishment lay in their ability to stamp their impeccable boots very loud on tarmac when coming to attention, and who seemed emasculated when any drill movement had to be carried out on unresounding grass. (Becoming a Quaker was too sophisticated for me at thirteen, and if I'd gone down that road the cathedral authorities would surely have felt justified in withdrawing the scholarship I had from them.)
The escape I chose was to transfer from the army section into the more sophisticated and civilised RAF section, at that time officered by Mr Blee, the music teacher with whom I got on very well, who had at one time been in the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve and who wore a naval sub-lieutenant's uniform on Thursday afternoons. I used to wonder what this man, who led me into the mysteries of sonata form, guided me through the tenor lines of Haydn's The Seasons and shepherded me through O Level music, made of this travesty. However, he supported my application to change my uniform from army khaki to RAF blue, and the following interview with Major Hawke the Corps Commander, ordinarily a maths teacher, took place with Mr Blee present:
Cpl Harmer (whom I sat next to in Latin and sometimes allowed to copy my work): Detail, halt. Salute the officer.
Major Hawke: At ease, soldier. What do you want, Willie Wormy?
Me: I'd like to join the RAF Section, Sir.
Major Hawke: Oh yes? Nancy boy, are you?
Me (not really knowing at thirteen what a nancy boy was, but having my suspicions): I don't think so, Sir. But my uncle was a distinguished RAF officer. And I'm interested, Sir.
Sub-Lieutenant Blee: What better reason?
Major Hawke: Take him away, Lieutenant Blee. We want men in the army, not your bloody pint-sized musicians. Request granted. Dismiss.
Cpl Harmer: Detail, 'shun. Salute the officer. About turn. Quick march, left, right, left, right.
So on Thursday afternoons henceforth I struggled with blue shirt and black tie, tunic and trousers made of a viciously scratchy material, belt and gaiters clarted with a kind of proprietary blue mud called, confusingly, blanco, and RAF blue beret with brass cap-badge. On very cold days we paraded in greatcoats. At the end of my schooldays I handed in all my uniform in except the beret and the greatcoat, a massive cocoon of blanketing, which I claimed to have lost. In the course of various RAF section activities I'd managed to come by two gas-capes, dun-coloured waterproofed capes dating from World War 1 supposedly providing some protection from poison gas. You could button them together to make a rudimentary tent. They served well as groundsheets on our Viennese expedition. The beret I was wearing on the road to Cologne.
The other escape would have been to turn myself into a bloody musician and join the band. This consisted of a drum major who gave commands with a decorated staff, half a dozen drummers, a bass drum resting on a tiger-skin apron played by a fat lad called, onomatopoeically, Coomber, and eight buglers, an establishment dictated by its formation into four ranks, the first two of four buglers each, the third of Coomber, who took up the space of two files, flanked by two drummers, and the four remaining drummers brought up the rear. Alas, the band only took army cadets, and I'd disqualified myself by joining the RAF section. Had I joined the band first I would have learnt at first hand the mysteries of brass instruments and the harmonic series.
Beethoven's trumpets, in essence a longer version of the CCF bugles, had no valves. Known as natural trumpets, they could only play the harmonic series, a range of notes of which Pythagoras had worked out the existence mathematically without ever hearing it. [The two musicians above are playing natural trumpets.] All natural brass instruments have the same characteristic, widely spaced low notes, and a closely-clustered range of high notes that form almost a chromatic scale. This is the clarino register, which Baroque specialist trumpeters exploited through subtle changes of lip-pressure, as subtle as the movements of the tongue in the mouth when you change notes while whistling. The middle notes of the harmonic series, the easiest to play, are predominantly those of major chords, which is why military trumpet calls like Last Post and Reveille sound as they do, clear and direct and with no 'foreign' notes. In the history of the trumpet various expedients were developed to widen the range of available notes, but the full range of the modern trumpet wasn't achieved until valves were introduced in the first half of the 19th century, just too late for Beethoven to take advantage of them. His trumpeters played basically in the key of C, although trumpets pitched in F became standard towards the end of his life. If they were required to play in another key, they needed to insert an extra length of tubing, a crook, to lower the range of notes - the longer the crook, the lower the notes - to the key required. Even this was restrictive: key changes in the course of a movement were virtually impossible.
Beethoven's - and Mozart's and Haydn's - trumpeters were likely to have had military backgrounds, in ethos and practice if not in actual employment. They would not have been full-time orchestral musicians, but ad hoc players brought in for special, one-off performances. Very few complete professional orchestras existed. Those that did were opera orchestras or those maintained by great princes, of which there were fewer and fewer as the effects of the French Revolution spread through Europe. The Baroque style was dead, and with it the art of clarino playing. The much simpler art of the military trumpet took its place not only at a time of universal conflict culminating in the Napoleonic Wars but in the wake of what I call the Great Gluckian Revolution.
Monday, 21 July 2008
Among the terms for day-to-day use, none spoke more clear than Imbiss Stube. We noticed it first as we made our way the next morning from the Westpark to the eastern outskirts of Aachen and the road to Cologne: a menu beside the door of a shop showed that Imbiss Stube painted above meant snack bar. We went in and ordered breakfast with a flowing morning ease - foreign languages always tripping off the tongue more readily in the morning than later in the day - we were inordinately proud of: Zwei Kaffee, bitte, und zwei Brötchen mit Eier (two coffees, please, and two bread rolls with eggs). Brötchen mit Eier turned out to be two fried eggs accompanied by a bread roll with butter. A perfectly good breakfast, heaped with hidden advantages: it was the cheapest on the menu, we would never have to bother with anything else, and fluency in ordering bolstered our linguistic self-confidence. We even became sensitive to those parts of Germany where zwei becomes zwo (like our 'two') and where Brötchen becomes Semmel, as it did later on in Bavaria and Austria.
We talked about the previous evening. The Aachen/Stuttgart confusion apart, we'd had a good time. Max and Freddy and their pals - technical college students, apparently, undertaking a vacation project in Aachen university - had been lively company, German beer, nothing like English bitter, just got better and better with every mouthful and we'd ended the evening well lit up but not so uncomfortable that we were obliged to stagger round the corner and bring it all up again.
But those songs intrigued me. I couldn't fathom what post-war cultural influences had led to a group of intelligent young men amusing themselves by singing surely old-fashioned marching songs in the pub. I couldn't imagine myself and George and half a dozen of our recent sixth-form pals singing Goodbye, Dolly Gray (from the Boer War) or Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag (from WWI) with words regular or rude round our pints of Fremlins' best bitter at the Coopers' Arms in St Margaret's Street in Rochester. For one thing singing in pubs wasn't a common practice, despite some English pubs at the time putting up notices saying NO SINGING (together with NO SPITTING and NO PASSING OF BETTING SLIPS although I have to say my evidence for this comes from dimly remembered Giles cartoons of the period in The Daily Express.)
- We could do with a few signs saying NO AIRING OF AESTHETIC THEORIES, George said.
- What! But I haven't said a word!
- You will, Chris, you will.
So be it. In 1795, the year of Adelaïde and three years after his arrival in Vienna, Beethoven was commissioned to compose the music for the annual masked charity ball in aid of pensioners of the Viennese Society of Painters and Sculptors. Dance music then consisted of minuets (in slow three-time, partner held formally by the finger-tips), contredanses (figured movements in more lively two-time, something like Scottish country dances, indeed sometimes called écossaises), and Deutsche (fast whirling dance in three-time, partner held close round the waist, precursor of the Viennese waltz, sometimes called Ländler).
- I remember a balmy night a couple of weeks ago, really indigo and velvet, at Blossom End - that was the name of Adèle's hosts' house - when we danced Viennese waltzes on their patio. Someone produced a record of Strauss waltzes, played by Mantovani and his orchestra.
- Mantovani? Jesus. How low can you get?
- I know. I tell you this as a trusted friend, confident that it will go no further. But it was all we had. The alternative was Mrs Mills or Winifred Atwell. Or Russ Conway. They had really peculiar musical tastes, Adèle's hosts. When it came to ballroom dances, we both had unusual experiences: when I was 11 or 12, at an all boys' school, I - perhaps because I'm not the tallest bloke you've ever seen - and half the rest of us were made honorary girls, so I learnt to waltz backwards. Adèle was always tall for her age, so they made her an honorary boy in the dance class. So we both did it the wrong way round. It didn't make any difference to the way we held each other, though. I could never fathom what she had on underneath, something ridged and rigid. Maybe it was a suspender belt.
- Oh, get on with Beethoven. We could do with a sign saying NO BLOODY MAUNDERING ON ABOUT FLAMING ADÈLE.
- Not a very romantic soul, are you? You don't seem to realise that these experiences may colour an entire lifetime?
- Suspender belts are not romantic. They're horrible bloody things.
Anyway, it says much for Beethoven's reputation - he was 25, although as we've seen it's very likely he thought he was 23 - as a composer that he was given this commission. He'd written very little orchestral music up till then, just his earliest piano concerto, the one we call No.2, and some accompaniments for choral works. However he scored these dances, 12 Minuets and 12 Deutsche (i.e. German dances) for a basic orchestral line-up, strings, flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani. They're perfectly delicious. Somebody called them the small change of Beethoven's genius. People must have adored them, to listen to and to dance to. Certainly they became very popular. You can always tell how popular music like this became from the arrangements made of it for other instruments and ensembles: Beethoven made his own arrangements, to avoid the pirating endemic in the absence of efficient copyright laws, for piano solo and for two violins and double bass.
So these dances can be taken to be his first solely orchestral work. But here's a curious thing: the trumpet parts are extraordinarily simple, almost as though he expected complete beginners to play them. [I've given the 1st Trumpet part above. It's silent (tacet) for most of the time, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the chief art in trumpet playing in Beethoven's time was counting rests.] In his early days in Vienna Beethoven, as a virtuoso himself, mixed with other virtuosi: Schuppanzigh the violinist, Dragonetti the bass player, Anton Reicha the flautist, Punto the hornist, Ramm the oboist. No trumpet virtuoso, however. No trumpeter ever made his name playing Beethoven's trumpet parts, nor Mozart's, nor Haydn's. Beethoven only uses his trumpets to fill in harmony, to provide a thicker orchestral texture, and to point energetic rhythms, usually of a military cast. In the course of 30 years of mature orchestral composition he took other instruments to the limit and beyond of their known capabilities. His own piano music reaches previously unguessed-at technical heights. His last quartets far transcend previously known string-playing possibilities. His horn writing explores new limits, even his drum parts lead where no timpanist had gone before. But throughout those 30 years his writing for trumpet resisted any development. The final movement of the 9th symphony makes hardly more demands of the trumpets than the 12 Deutsche.
And yet fifty years before trumpet-playing involved mastery of the most florid and intricate melodic lines, generally high up in that part of the trumpet register called clarino. Purcell, Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and their contemporaries made heavy demands of their trumpeters. The unique compass of magnificence achieved by Baroque trumpet-and-drum passages, the equivalent in musical terms of the architecture of Versailles, say, was a sonority unknown to Beethoven. Within two generations of its heyday the art of clarino playing had died out.
We left Aachen behind us. Several lifts, now long overtaken by oblivion, took us across an unsightly and uninteresting plain towards Cologne. Consideration of the death of clarino playing and its implications for the future would have to wait.