Monday, 28 December 2009

Magi! Magi! Magi! Out! Out! Out!

If the tradition of present giving at Christmas originates in the visit of the three kings, or magi, to the infant Jesus, then Pieter Brueghel, the great unmasker of vanities, has some pretty sharp things to say about it in his Adoration of the Magi, above*.

On the French news this morning, the second item - the first was about airport security - reported the roaring trade on e-bay in unwanted Christmas presents. This seemed to me to be so sad, a terrible indictment of overblown giving and receiving. It occurred to me at that moment that the very same thing was happening in Brueghel's Adoration of the Magi: the man standing to the right of Joseph in Brueghel's painting was whispering to him that the proffered gold/incense/myrrh might fetch a tidy sum, and in fact he's brought his friend (extreme right, with glasses) along, whose racial origins would have been clear to Brueghel's public, if Joseph was interested in doing a little business. Nor does Joseph object...

I had to look through what seemed like hundreds of much more conventional Adorations of the Magi on Google before I found what I was looking for. I wondered why it was hidden so deeply. Maybe because the truths in it have such sharp edges? Wherever you look there is greed, envy, avarice, vanity, stupidity, underlined by suggestions of violence and death. Mary holds a hand up in an expression of weary resignation, maybe thinking to herself Oh, why couldn't they have brought nappies or baby wipes? (Is this terribly irreverent? It's not meant to be.) The baby Jesus shrinks away, as far as he can, and who can blame him? The 'gift' being offered is myrrh, of which the nearest present-day equivalent is embalming fluid.

Oh dear. And yet I love presents, as long as they're unconditional.

*Title inspired by Rog. Thanks.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Unknown correspondent

While Dr Johnson was compiling his Dictionary someone unknown to him contributed the origin of 'curmudgeon' as a corruption of the French coeur méchant, i.e. 'wicked heart'. Accurate or not, this notion took Dr Johnson's fancy. He included this derivation, acknowledging its source as an 'unknown correspondent'.

Some years later a Dr Ash, a rival and lesser lexicographer, discovered this while plundering Johnson's dictionary for good things to put into his own. Reluctant to allow Johnson any credit, however, he announced that 'curmudgeon' was derived from coeur, 'unknown', and méchant, 'correspondent'.*

I only put this in to slake my own Christmas curmudgeonliness. It's not a case of Scroogeism, of bah, humbug. Enjoy what you can while you can, I say. Carpe diem. I just wish, I just wish, I just wish I could share it without pretending. I hated Christmas as a child. Z's (over there on the right) beautifully written Christmas memoirs reveal worlds unknown to me: I feel like a tousled orphan furtively staring in through a gap in the curtains, ashamed of my beggarly status.

It's not that people were ungenerous, quite the reverse. There were presents galore. I really didn't care for opening them very much: so many presents connoted an obligation to the giver, an intrusion into my independence. I hated the food, which was perfectly good, well cooked and imaginatively presented Christmas fare. My earliest memories of being sick stem from Christmas time. Lifelong dislikes mostly originating in Christmas won't go away, however hard I try: dates, brazil nuts, stuffing, bread sauce, potatoes, dark chocolate, especially the sort you got in gold foil-wrapped 'coins'.

I carried this uncomfortable burden with me into adulthood. I was afraid of passing it on to my children. However hard you try to mask them, certain hereditary phobias always get through. Working in schools didn't help: the end of the Christmas term was always so frantically active, especially in Scotland where it wasn't unknown to break up on Christmas Eve, that there was no energy left for Christmas at home.

Twenty years or so ago I tried to get this out of my system by writing what I decided was to become the definitive novel about Christmas. It was never finished and I don't expect it ever will be, now. In an early chapter the hero attends a watchnight service. While waiting for proceedings to start he tells his pew-neighbour Mrs Woods, who has brought her cat to the service in a basket, about St Francis of Assisi and the origin of Christmas cribs. St Francis, a very great saint indeed, once created a life-size stable, manger and all the rest of it. Into it he drove cattle, donkeys, poultry and maybe - who knows? - cats as well. His Mary was about 13. He wanted to show the dirt, darkness, stink, squalor, poverty and unwantedness that Jesus was born into, and to invite his parishioners to draw their own conclusions.

I don't know where this story came from. An unknown correspondent, probably. As for me, please don't worry. I'm a happy little soul really, and I do try hard not to be a skeleton at the feast. But I shan't be sorry when it's all over. Happy days, everyone!

* Mustn't fall into the same trap: I got this story from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, ed. James Sutherland, OUP London 1975 cheer everyone up after this lead-weight of dismalness here's an extraordinary piece of truly seasonal music.

Monday, 21 December 2009

December, 1910

Born in December 1910, my mother recently celebrated her 99th birthday and entered her 100th year. Here she is, very faint, when she was a few months old.

A random selection from Longman's Chronicle of the 20th Century gives a flavour of 1910:

*Girl Guides, a youth movement which encourages girls to be obedient, clean-living and resourceful, is formed by Sir Robert Baden-Powell and his sister Agnes

*Socialists are shot and sabred in Berlin during a suffrage demonstration

*Kissing is banned on French railways because of delays caused to trains thereby

*Diaghilev's Ballets Russes open their Paris season with première of Stravinsky's The Firebird

*Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker set up a tool company in Baltimore

*A London doctor claims that if lunacy increases at the current rate, the insane will outnumber the sane 40 years hence

*In Leipzig British officers Lt. Trench and Capt. Brandon are found guilty of espionage.

1910 was a busy year for the Ferryman:

*Edward VII died and was succeeded by his second son, George V

*Dr Crippen was hanged

*No amount of intercession by Dave could save Florence Nightingale

*The last surviving Pre-Raphaelite Brother, William Holman Hunt, died

*Charles Rolls, pioneer aviator, crashed fatally in Bournemouth, severing the Rolls-Royce partnership

*Reports of the death Mark Twain were no longer exaggerated.

My mother came from Colne, in Lancashire. The Burgh of Colne motto is, very aptly, 'We long endure'. She has been variously a teacher of home economics, a hotelière, a fashion retailer and a private caterer. She had to resign from her first post, in the West Riding, when she married. Married women were not then allowed in the teaching profession.

Several quotes have passed into family legend.

*When asked how she is: "A little better, thank you." Than what? We're never told.

*When tackling a bowl of raspberries, having emptied at least a quarter-pint of double cream into the dish:
"Do you eat much cream, dear?"
"No, I don't, really."
"Neither do I."

*Of her two marriages: "I never had any luck with my husbands."

Here she is with her great-grand-daughter, AKA the Blue Kitten. Almost 100 years separate them. When the Blue Kitten reaches a similar age, I wonder what her children will find remarkable about 2008, the year she was born?

Monday, 14 December 2009

Night of the Garter

Watching Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne on French TV the other night I became quite nostalgic over my days playing in pit orchestras. It was during a performance of La Vie Parisienne (playing the 2nd bassoon part on 'cello) in Scotland that I probably reached the very pinnacle of my musical career.

At the end everything becomes very animated with can-can dancers. Experience of this in the pit can be varied. If you're playing horn or trombone, they've probably put you right underneath the stage apron, and all you're conscious of is elephantine thumpings above your head, with each thump accompanied by showers of dust.

If you're playing violin, well to the front of the pit, the choice between appreciating the view immediately above you and keeping your eye on your music must be agonising. As it happens, the 2nd bassoon can-can part is so simple that it can be played effectively from memory, allowing the player to look about him/her and take in the whole frenetic ambience. I was lucky enough to be placed well forward.

On the last night of the run the famous can-can finished with the dancers ripping off their frilly garters and throwing them into the audience. Girls sometimes have problems throwing things any distance, and one short-trajectoried garter ended up on the end of my 'cello bow. I have to say at this point that it brought no privileges or benefits whatever, and I never discovered whose garter it was. But such an unusual trophy had to be kept, so it went into my special drawer and stayed there for many years.

When we moved house five years ago I emptied my special drawer into a bin-liner - we were only moving about 200 metres, so packing was fairly low-key - and into the black plastic bag went the frilly garter along with other treasured needments like a fossilised shark's tooth, some Spanish after-shave, a bird-warbler (put a little water into a bird-shaped container and blow gently down its hollow 'tail'), a lock of raven hair, a lucky Victorian penny, my favourite nail-scissors and so on. Then there was the Jolly Jumping Pecker, a wind-up penis that staggered fitfully about the floor, a prize I won at the Christmas do of the RAF band I played with for a time. All men should have a special drawer to keep such mementoes of halcyon moments in, wayside shrines filled with votive offerings to life's little triumphs and the winning hand fate occasionally deals. (Although at the time there were murmurings across the breakfast table about essentially frivolous natures, feet of clay, what would the neighbours/Board of Governors think, have you no sense of dignity?, capering's like a disease with you, etc., etc.)

There was also a pack of some pills called Wind-Eze, which I bought once simply for the name and the diverting possibility of passing the pack round, straight-faced, towards the end of any formal dinner parties we might be invited to.

It was a great mistake to put these treasures into a bin-liner. They were never seen again. As regards the Wind-Eze and the Jolly Jumping Pecker, probably just as well.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Dup egnops elcaert

I don't know why palindromes - sentences that read the same backwards as forwards: Gk. 'palin' = 'again': 'dromos' = 'running' - I don't know why palindromes should come to mind today, when a major focus of my attention is tonight's pud. The ever-stunning J. promises treacle sponge and custard. I can't say that this is a common dessert in France. It would be nearer the truth to say that 99.9% of French people are born, live their lives and die without benefit of that gorgeous, warm, womb-retro stodge, clarted with succulent golden syrup, nobly robed in steaming, smiling custard from which I will already have relished the skin from the jug.

Maybe it's the admission of a woeful sponge pud gluttony that leads me to a famous palindrome which you sometimes find carved into church fonts:

Nipson anomemata me monan opsin

It's Greek, meaning 'cleanse not only the face but sins also'. (To make it work you have to remember that 'ps' is a single letter in Greek.)

So often do palindromes disappoint through being over-contrived and not really meaning very much, ones like

Too bad I hid a boot


Anne I vote more cars race Rome to Vienna

- that it comes as a pleasant surprise to learn that W.H.Auden, consummate master of English in all its forms, should be credited with several quite outstandingly original palindromes:

Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era?


Norma is as selfless as I am, Ron

I can imagine him sitting back at his desk, out of breath - it does happen - with his struggles to pin down some masterpiece like Musée des Beaux Arts ('About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters...') and suddenly realising that 'Are we not' reads 'to new era' backwards. A little thought, a welcome break from Breughel's Fall of Icarus that he's writing about, and suddenly it falls into place; he reaches for his palindrome book and writes it in. Another day, another palindrome. Yesterday's was:

Sums are not set as a test on Erasmus

Where Auden stood on sponge pudding isn't recorded, as far as I know, but I don't think he can have got through several years of boarding school without frequent exposure to this classic of English cuisine. As for me, I'm really looking forward to tonight's treat, although I may have to dose myself with Nocsivag: I occasionally suffer from reflux, and I wouldn't want my treacle sponge, palindrome-like, coming back on me.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Good morning, Croatia

When I was about 15 someone gave me a cravat, a thing of great loveliness, rich in swirled Paisley arabesques in custard yellow and strawberry jam red. I adored it and wore it on every possible occasion, at one time getting into trouble for attempting to subvert the school uniform. School uniform - it pains me to type this ghastly admission - included a straw boater and a dashing green waistcoat with brass buttons, if you were a member of a select society called the Zetountes, which is Greek for 'seekers'. To my mind all that it needed to proclaim the ultra-fashionable Zetounte*-about-town was a brilliant yellow cravat. Others thought differently.

In any case not long afterwards the cravat became associated with those of a certain sexual orientation and my cravat never left its drawer. "Why don't you wear your cravat any more?" my mother asked once. "It suits you so well. I rely on you to wear it on Sunday, please. Denby Williamson is coming. He is just the man to appreciate it."

Denby Williamson, a man of perfumed middle age, was gay. His father had been curator or keeper of the last Tsar's Fabergé collection. Denby Williamson had inherited several Fabergé pieces, on which my mother had cast envious eyes. But my cravat stayed in its drawer.

Living in France many years later I rediscovered it. Other significances, never current in France, had long since died out, I imagined. I dared it once more, and found my earlier fashion fire rekindled. Passing a tailors and outfitters in Essex during a recent visit to the UK I went in, on the offchance that they might have some dusty tissue-wrapped relics in some distant stock-room. I was surprised to find several in prominent display. Could it be that they're now back in fashion? Could they still have those old connotations?

Well, who would care in France? I came out the richer by three gorgeous silken beauties, and the poorer by - but I'm ashamed to tell you. I'm now obsessed with wearing cravats, especially in winter, tucked confortably into open-necked polo shirts.

Denby Williamson died twenty years and more ago. No Fabergé came our way.

* I KNOW the singular of 'Zetountes' should be 'Zetous'. And the word 'cravat' comes from Hrvatska, which is what the Croats call their country.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

And 'undreds of beautiful women lay stretched out on the ground

Having now returned from foreign parts, I have much pleasure in dedicating this post to my friend Dave, in the hope that the link below will give him some innocent, seemly and much-deserved enjoyment.

(Full screen, volume up.)

Oh, all right, you too, Rog.

And Mr T-S.

And everyone else.

Monday, 15 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 13 Slugs, Snails and Irish Girls (2)

Having left our bodily imprints in the furrows between rows of turnips, we picked our way as the sun was rising through the pink-flowered wood and rejoined the slip road. We glanced up and down: there seemed to be no fewer hitch-hikers than the evening before. Had they been there all night, vainly waving thumbs at headlights?

Where we emerged from the wood there two lumpish girls of about our age, tousled and grimy, wearing baggy khaki shorts and what looked like army boots with bobby-socks that would have been white a few days before. That I can only remember what encased their lower halves tells its own story. One had an Irish tricolour on her rucksack. We tried them in English, but they were so uncommunicative that it was hardly worth the effort of speaking to them in any language:

- Hi. Where are you heading for?
- Istanbul.
- How long have you been here?
- Since Sunday.
- What, day and night?
- Aye. Bugger off, the pair of you. The queue starts up there.

She may have said 'the pair of yez', but I don't remember. Nor can I remember any witty, acerb, telling response to this. As the long day passed, and as by midday we'd only moved two places down the queue, the desperation of the Karlsruhe trap began to bite with all its savage force. The Irish girls had probably been afraid that their chances of a lift, already slender, would be reduced even further if they were apparently accompanied by two boys. Nobody ever stopped for groups of four. Besides, girls always had an advantage, although those girls (still there, about a dozen places down) hadn't done much to promote their femininity. It wouldn't have been easy for them, of course, to present a roadside vision of loveliness and more if they were sleeping rough like us.

The traffic rolled past, mostly accelerating hard, largely ignoring the roadside ripple of waving thumbs. The queue system didn't really work. There might have been a slight advantage in being first in the queue, but the few drivers who stopped did so quite arbitrarily. Down at the start of the slip road a car deposited a kilted hitch-hiker, who swung his rucksack on to his back, strode across the road and waved his thumb at the first car to pass, which stopped for him. A bolt of monstrous anger, like an electric shock, flashed up the queue. Fists were waved, one- or two-fingered gestures made, imprecations shouted in many languages, and I daresay lifelong anti-Scots prejudices formed.

The afternoon passed, under a sweltering August sun. There was nothing there, just a sun-bleached grass verge, litter-strewn, a pervading hopelessness mingled with petrol and diesel fumes, dust and hot tarmac. No mirages of little roadside cafés with bright awnings and ice-cold beer shimmered in the distance. The romance of this very road and no other, of this very point outside Karlsruhe being the gateway to the fabled east, to Vienna, to Budapest, to Istanbul and beyond to Persian lands afar, to Shangri-La and distant Cathay soon vanished, chased headlong by thirst and dirt, noisome fumes and the sensed hostility of fellow hitch-hikers. Newcomers appeared and took sullen station beyond us. Some said 'Servus!' as they trudged past, a greeting I hadn't known before. Each approaching vehicle spawned an embryo of hope, aborted despair as it sped past. Our water was done, in part squandered trying to rinse slug-slime off my brow in the night. We exchanged some plums with some French neighbours for a half-fill of what they called George's gourd, his water bottle.

George and I spoke less and less. We had now been in this desolate spot for 24 hours. Gefängnisvogel was a false prophet, his religion of transcendental motation a snare for the simple-minded.

Evil, frustration-fuelled thoughts began to swirl up from the depths. Should we pack up and go home? Would I be better off on my own?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 13 Slugs, Snails and Irish Girls (1)

In our cheap hotel in Limburg an den Lahr George and I enjoyed the best night's sleep that we'd had for about a week, deep, dreamless and untroubled by any of those disturbances we'd experienced so far. In chronological order they'd been:

1. Being urinated on in a rhododendron thicket in Brussels
2. An evangelist fighting with his wife in the next room
3. Vain searching in Aachen for an address in Stuttgart
4. Dirt and a Moh-scale concrete floor in predatory homosexual-haunted Cologne station

- and others were to follow, in due course: one night there was a sudden irruption of Pearly Kings and Queens; on another a dawn demolition gang moved in; and among the many uncomfortable conclusions to be drawn from this odyssey a priority has to be given to the inadvisability of unwittingly using an anthill as an alfresco pillow. As novice travellers the light of a holy innocence shone dimly about us: were these the nocturnal hallmarks of foreign travel? Could we expect things to improve, or were these disturbances the norm?

They didn't improve the following night, a Monday. We set off from Limburg an den Lahr, having changed into Deutschmarks the Belgian francs we'd earned by George pretending to be miraculously cured of a twisted ankle and by me singing Beethoven's Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, Nature's Praise of God, in Liège. We'd breakfasted well on coffee, fruit and fresh bread rolls with very white butter and blackcurrant jam. We were clean, shaven, and in an access of domesticity we'd even washed some of our clothes: no doubt very inefficiently with hotel bathbrush and a pumice-stone we found, but the wearing of a clean shirt and knickers was a rare luxury, even if they were still a bit stiff with unrinsed hard yellow soap.

An Amiable Dutchman and his wife, as placid and smiling as Prophet Gefängnisvogel had been maniacally devoured by speed, picked us up early. The following conversation took place:

Amiable Dutchman: Wo fahren Sie hin? [Where are you going?]
Me: Nach Wien. [To Vienna]
AD: Nach Wien! Wie lang unterwegs? [To Vienna! How long have you been travelling?]
Me, counting the days on my fingers: Sechs... [six]

... and now there was a problem: was the plural of Tag, day, Tage (pronounced 'taa-ge') or Täge (pronounced 'tay-ge')? A million panic-impelled brain-cells flashed, flitting at the speed of light through the cerebral maze for the connection that would lead to linguistic credibility: Tage or Täge? No tag from Schubert song or 'Battler' Britton war comic came to the rescue. In desperation I opted, as it happened correctly, for Tage.

Me: Sechs Tage.
AD, incredulously, wondering what kind of cretin he'd picked up if it took him that long to identify as basic a concept as the day: Sind Sie Deutsche? [Are you German?]
Me: Nein, wir sind Ëngländer. [No, we're English.]
AD: Then we can speak English!

The Amiable Dutchman and his wife (who produced a pack of marshmallows which we finished at her urging) eventually dropped us outside Karlsruhe, where the main thrust of the autobahn divides, eastwards for Stuttgart and Munich and southwards towards Strasbourg and Basel, which was where they were heading. There seemed to be a vast and incomprehensible tangle of motorways and slip roads. No roadsigns were designed for the benefit of English pedestrians, and it took much earnest rucksack-laden plodding under the August sun to find the eastern approach road.

When we finally reached it, we discovered a phenomenon that associates Karlsruhe in my mind as strongly with boredom and ill-tempered frustration as Cologne is with dirt and petty criminality. The approach road was dotted with about thirty sets of hitch-hikers, singletons or pairs, spaced regularly along the grass verge. Clearly this was a Great European Interchange for hitch-hikers. Ignorant of the conventions we set up a roadside thumb at the beginning of the approach road. Two Norwegian scouts a little beyond us, clearly far gone in boredom and frustration, shouted at us angrily to to clear off, this was their patch; we had to take our place in the queue. We asked where the end of the queue was: they waved up the slope to where the approach grafted itself into the autobahn.

By nightfall the queue had barely moved. As darkness fell we slipped away, not troubling to ask ourselves what would happen to our place in the queue if we abandoned it overnight. We climbed over a wooden fence and picked our way through a strip of woodland unappealingly littered with clumps of pink toilet paper. Beyond was a field of an unidentified root crop. We settled here for the night, brewing up yet more chicken noodle soup and regretting that we'd eaten all Mrs Amiable Dutchman's marshmallows. We talked of what we were going to do once this adventure was over. George was going to work in his father's insurance agency. I said I was going to write music. What else?

In the night I was woken by something tugging at my forehead and eyebrows. In horror I put my hand to my head to discover what it might be: it was a monstrous slug, crossing from one row of turnips to the next. I could not rid myself of its slime. Was there to be no end to nocturnal disturbances?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 12 A Group of Noble Dames (3)

Immortal Beloved candidate N0. 94: Therese von Brunswick

The question remains: why did Beethoven keep the Immortal Beloved letter among his private papers from 1812 until his death some fifteen years later?

In his days as a virtuoso pianist and while his hearing was still reasonably good Beethoven was famous for his extraordinary mastery of existing works, including his own, but also for his powers of improvisation, for inventing music as he sat at the keyboard. Almost a forgotten art nowadays, limited to jazz musicians and church organists, in Beethoven's day the ability of keyboard players to improvise was taken for granted. Many reports exist of listeners' reactions to Beethoven's improvisation, and mostly they speak of the sublime emotional power of his free extemporisation at the keyboard and of the utter captivation of his listeners. I suspect that some of the conquests which Franz Wegeler quotes above originated in Beethoven's improvisations, and that this Adonis of the piano's ability to charm women off the trees was no less developed than Liszt's or Chopin's, two other virtuoso improvisers. The 'conquests' Wegeler refers to were probably more innocent than the wider morality of a later age might encourage us to believe, and in any case girls who swoon over sweeping arpeggios and melting andante cantabiles don't usually become immediate life partners and surrogate mothers.

I suspect also, probably deeply unfashionably, that until his deafness became virtually total, the mainspring of his musical invention lay in improvisation. This isn't the place to explore the correlation between improvisation, his deafness and his finished, published work in depth and detail, but it does strike me that up until about 1805 Beethoven was reluctant to relinquish control over his more passionately intimate and emotional music by writing it in media that would require a group of musicians rather than a soloist to realise it. The great majority of what could crudely and crassly be called his love music is written for piano, hence primarily for Beethoven himself to play, and possibly - although this is the merest conjecture - for a piano-playing immortal beloved to feel the depth of his passion for her. As one might expect, given his genius for improvisation, such music is often cast in the slow movements of his piano sonatas. One has only to think of the famous slow movement of the Pathétique sonata of c.1798 or that of the Appassionata sonata of c.1806 to canvas the possibility that this music was so private, so expressive of intimate feeling, such a communion between composer and immortal beloved, that no one but a soloist could be expected to get inside it. No hidden ciphers, no coy messages of love such as Schumann encoded for his girlies in his piano suite Carnaval, none of the melting moments there are in the vast corpus of Schubert piano duets, where the composer might touch fingers or overlay hands with the beautiful pupil beside him: Beethoven's music is on a quite different, indeed elemental, level.

I think the slow movement of the Appassionata (his publisher Cranz's subtitle, not Beethoven's) is in some senses a parallel text to the Immortal Beloved letter. I expect there are many other similar movements, but I would like to analyse this one in what I admit are enjoyably unconventional terms, and I can only hope sincerely that my analysis won't be thought so erotic, indeed salacious, that the piece is withdrawn immediately as a set work by any Mrs Grundys lurking round the premises of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

This movement is cast in theme-and-variation form, alone of the recognised classical forms which allows for cumulative, uninterrupted dramatic build-up. Written in the greatest dignity with two slow beats in each bar, set plumb in the baritone register, the tune is possibly the simplest Beethoven ever wrote: in the first eight bars only four different notes are used. It mostly consists of simple chords, soft and low, slowly melding from one to the next with the velvet regularity of day turning into night, of ebb succeeding flow - and of the seamless rise and fall of a serene, timeless coition. This is the coitus that knows no lust, and there is nothing more beautiful between loving couples on this earth, nor anything more susceptible to ignoble degradation. The intensity grows while the twofold pulse remains stable, until after about three minutes of this sublime music the direction comes poco più mosso, a little faster. The web of delectably intense, tingling sound spun out of the initial chords leads towards climax; but then there comes, as it has to, knowing Beethoven's circumstances, the direction dimin[uendo] e rit[ardando], growing softer and slower. The original tune is broken into an exchange between the baritone and the soprano registers, as though between man and woman, and finally there is a soft, heart-breaking chord of despair. This leads us straight into the last movement of the sonata, a swirling, stuttering passion of disappointment and rage. There has been no climax. The expectation has led to nothing. Beethoven's love has been despised and rejected.

Was Beethoven conscious or unconscious of all this? I've no idea, but I feel perfectly at ease with a glorious agnosticism.

There are several conclusions to the Immortal Beloved saga. Firstly, her identity is unimportant, and musicological deerstalker and magnifying-glass work merely distracts from Beethoven's music. What matters is the depth of feeling the various women in his life engendered in him, feeling expressed firstly mainly in his piano music and later, as his deafness worsened and approached totality, in his symphonic work as well.

And then I think he kept the letter because it marked an important turning point in his life. Just as the 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament, which he also kept with this letter, marked his agonised coming to terms with his health and deafness, so after the Immortal Beloved episode he would renounce the idea of marriage. Whoever she was, she and her sisterhood live on in so much of Beethoven's music. Thank you, ladies. We owe you a great deal.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 12 A Group of Noble Dames (2)

Immortal Beloved candidate No. 94: Dorothea von Ertmann

I don't propose to analyse this letter [for the text see the previous post] in any detail, or to weigh up the evidence for and against any of the various contestants for the title die unsterbliche Geliebte, the Immortal Beloved, fascinating though this sort of historical detective footnoteism may be. If the letter in itself led to deeper insights into Beethoven's music it would be a different matter, but it doesn't, so it's probably enough to say that it was written in the summer of 1812 from Teplice, a spa town in what is now the Czech republic. Teplice was a fashionable resort, where the 42-year-old Beethoven had gone, for the second consecutive summer, to take the waters on the advice of his doctors in an attempt to relieve his appalling gastric condition and his deafness.

In July 1812, while Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia, a brilliant company gathered in Teplice, Beethoven among them. Here Beethoven met Goethe, two colossi of European culture, each as illustrious as the other in their different ways. The meeting wasn't a success. Neither pleased the other. Beethoven thought Goethe too wordly, too subservient to rank, too engrossed by the superficialities of court life. Goethe reported to his wife that same July that in Beethoven he had never before seen a more comprehensive, energetic or intense artist. I understand very well how strange he must appear to the outside world. While confiding to his diary that Beethoven 'played delightfully' - which seems to me on the more shadowy side of faint praise - Goethe wrote a few weeks later to a Berlin friend:

I met Beethoven in Töplitz [Teplice]. His gifts amazed me; but unfortunately he is a completely untamed person, who may not be wholly wrong in finding the world a detestable place, but in taking this view he doesn't make it any less detestable for himself and others. Much may be forgiven him, and sympathized with, because he is totally deaf. This may affect his musical life less than it does his social life. As he is by nature a laconic man, he feels this deficiency doubly.

Later that summer, maybe two months after the Immortal Beloved letter, Beethoven wrote in his journal, sometimes addressing himself in the first person, sometimes in the second: Submission, total submission to your destiny, only this will enable you to make the sacrifice … you can no longer be a man, not for yourself, but only for others, for you there can no longer be any happiness except in yourself, in your art - O God, give me strength to conquer myself, nothing must chain me to life. So everything connected with A. is destroyed.

Immortal Beloved candidate No. 94: Bettina von Brentano

Reading this heartbreak through we can wonder who 'A'. was and whether she was the Immortal Beloved. Some have argued for Amalie Sebald, some for Antonie von Brentano, some have muddied the waters further by suggesting that it isn't an A in Beethoven's manuscript at all, but ST: maybe not an impossibility given the nature of his handwriting. We can wonder again what happened to his letter, whether events overtook its being sent, whether it was returned with a refusal, whether it simply missed the post he refers to urgently. For me the most intriguing question is why he kept it, along with other private papers, until the end of his days some fifteen years later.

I can't think it likely that the Immortal Beloved letter was unique. From his late adolescence until middle age Beethoven was never out of love. There was always some woman, married or single, in the sights of his affections. According to his Bonn friend Franz Wegeler, Beethoven didn't have to raise his sights very high: In Vienna, at least while I was living there, Beethoven was always involved in amorous relationships, and sometimes made conquests that would have been hard, if not impossible, for many an Adonis to achieve.

For what it's worth, we know the names of some, probably not all, but enough to suggest a flattering succession of talented, clever and sometimes beautiful women: Amalie Sebald, Giulietta Guicciardi, the half-sisters Bettina and Antonie von Brentano, Dorothea von Ertmann, Magdalena Willmann, the sisters Theresa and Josephine (known as 'Pepi') von Brunswick, Theresa Malfatti. He thought very seriously about marriage with at least several of these. He enjoyed deep and rewarding friendships with some, but they resolutely stopped short of any closer attachment. Like most men he wanted the impossible. Beethoven's ideal of a woman and wife, what Goethe was later to call die Ewigweibliche, the ever-womanly, in Part 2 of Faust, is enshrined in the the part of Leonora in his opera Fidelio: Leonora, part young woman, part angel (although this isn't specified in the dramatis personae) gives everything unconditionally, including the offer of her life, to ensure the survival and liberation of her husband Florestan, a political prisoner being starved to death in a Spanish oubliette. It used to be said that all right-thinking married couples should attend a performance of Fidelio on their wedding anniversaries.

Having no other outlet he poured into his music his great capacity to love and his corresponding need to be loved which are expressed so urgently in the famous letter. Would it have been otherwise if he had married? Is it flippant to murmur thanks to the shades of the Immortal Beloved and her sisters for turning him down?

Immortal Beloved candidate No. 94: Josephine 'Pepi' von Brunswick

Thursday, 30 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 12 A Group of Noble Dames (1)

Immortal Beloved candidate No.94: Amalie Sebald

Beethoven never married.

Very shortly after his death in the spring of 1827 his executors searched his apartment in the building known as das Schwarzspanierhaus, the House of the Black Spaniard. They were looking primarily for seven share certificates Beethoven had in a Viennese bank, which he had left to his nephew, Karl. Among those present was Gerhard von Breuning, an intelligent, cheerful and outgoing 13-year-old whom Beethoven nicknamed Hosenknopf, 'trouser-button'. Beethoven had known Gerhard's father Stephan since they were children in Bonn together, and they had had a rather up-and-down friendship ever since.

Beethoven's writing desk, which eventually came into Gerhard von Breuning's possession, yielded nothing, and it wasn't until Karl Holz, a pupil and friend of Beethoven, pulled on a bent nail stuck into a wardrobe that a drawer came out, revealing the shares, a miniature portrait, one or two other memorabilia and in particular a letter that has intrigued Beethoven biographers ever since.

Immortal Beloved candidate No. 94: Giulietta Guicciardi

6th July, in the morning

My angel, my all, my I - only a few words today, and those in pencil (with yours) - I will not know until tomorrow where I am staying … Can our love exist otherwise than through self-sacrifice, through not demanding everything, can you alter the fact that you are not completely mine and I am not completely yours - Ah God, look at Nature and calm your feelings over what must be - love demands everything and rightly so, so it is for me with you, for you with me - but you forget so easily that I must live for you and for me, if we were wholly united, you would feel the pain of it as little as I.

… we will probably see each other soon, and anyway today I can't tell you the thoughts about my life I've been having over the last few days - if our hearts were always close together I would probably have no such thoughts, my breast is full of things I must tell you - Ah - There are times when I think speech is vain - be happy - be my true and only treasure always, my all, as I am yours - as for the rest, the gods must send what must be and what shall be for us -

your faithful ludwig

Monday evening, 6th July

… Ah, wherever I am, you are with me, I tell us both how I imagine that I can live with you, what a life!!!! like this!!!! without you - Pursued here and there by people's kindness that I think I wish to deserve as little as I do deserve it - the humility of man to man - it hurts me - and when I consider what I am in the universe and what he is whom they call the greatest - and yet here again is the divine part of mankind - I weep when I realise that you probably will not hear from me until Saturday - however much you love me I love you more - but don't ever hide yourself from me - good night - as I am taking the waters I must sleep now -
[crossed out: come with me, come with me] - Ah God! - so near! So far! Is not our love a truly heavenly building, as strongly founded as the firmament.

Good morning on the 7th of July

Even before I get up, my thoughts hasten to you, my immortal beloved, thoughts sometimes joyful, sometimes sad. Waiting to find out if Fate will hear our request - I can either live wholly with you, or not at all, yes I have decided to wander until such time as I can fly into your arms and say I have wholly come home to you, until I can send my soul enfolded in you into the spirit world - yes, sadly it must be so - you will compose yourself all the more because you know my constancy towards you, never can another possess my heart, never - never -
Oh God why must one go so far away from one's beloved, and yet my life in V[ienna] now seems a wretched one -
Your love makes me the happiest and the unhappiest at the same time - at my age I need a uniformity of life - can this exist in terms of our relationship? - Angel, I've just discovered that the post goes off daily, and I must therefore close so that you get this l[etter] as soon as possible - be calm, only through calm consideration of our existence can we achieve our aim of living together - be calm - love me - today - yesterday - what tearful longing for you - you - you - my life - my all - farewell - love me always - never doubt the most faithful heart of your beloved


ever yours
ever mine
ever us

[My translation. Not an easy task. In the white heat of his passion Beethoven sometimes writes ungrammatically, or without bringing his sentences to a conclusion. His handwriting is very difficult to decipher, and some words are so illegible as to be open to different readings. Worse, the original manuscript was first copied and 'rationalised' by one Anton Schindler, an acquaintance of Beethoven who subsequently wrote one of the earliest biographies. Where Schindler was uncertain, he was inclined to invent, and even to tamper with primary documents to support his invention. Most of the far-fetched, romantic legends told about Beethoven originate with him. When Schindler comes in, serious Beethoven commentators hide behind the sofa.]

This famous letter, written as a continuous outpouring on three sides of paper, is addressed to die unsterbliche Geliebte, the Immortal Beloved. Oceans of ink, midnight oil and massive swathes of computer memory have been squandered on identifying the woman Beethoven addressed it to, but no one has conclusively established who the lady was. Nor has it ever been explained how the letter came to be in Beethoven's possession at his death. Was it never sent? Was it returned? How strong are the indications that the Immortal Beloved was already married?

Immortal Beloved candidate No. 94: Antonie von Brentano

Thursday, 23 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 11 Fingers of Improvidence (3)

That night George and I slept between sheets.

Prophet Gefängnisvogel vanished as summarily as he had appeared and was seen no more. In the interests of a good story I would like to describe how, nearing Limburg an der Lahn, a town not far from Frankfurt, he had at last seen - no, 'descried' is better - he had at last descried in his rear mirror distant flashing lights of pursuing police cars, and how his cigar tip threatened to burst into flames as his Mercedes' speedometer needle felt its way up to 250 kph. I would like to embroider this further by invoking (again) The Wind in the Willows, where Toad, escaping from jail by train, is pursued by a locomotive bristling with policemen waving truncheons, detectives waving revolvers and, by a genial swerve of the imagination, ancient warders waving halberds. I would so like to able to tell how Prophet Gefängnisvogel, approaching the Limburg an der Lahn autobahn exit, reckoned he might just be able to give his pursuers the slip by putting on maximum revs., how the needle actually snapped off against the stop-pin on the 280 kph mark, how he slewed his Merc screeching down the slip road; how he braked hard leaving a tortured banshee scramble of tyre burns that were later acclaimed and preserved as a masterpiece of action art, urged us blinking through the flames of his cigar to jump for it, good luck, lads, break a leg, may the force be with you, see you in Blighty . . . but if any of this happened it has unaccountably slipped out of my mind. All that comes into it is a remembrance of being dropped in Limburg an der Lahn and the rhythmic clink and clank of water-bottles and saucepans suspended from our rucksacks as we trudged in search of somewhere to spend the night.

What passed for my planning of this expedition a month or two before was a lot of empty talk, the persiflage of a Luftmensch*, posing as an ur-Romantic, fired by the heroic energy of Beethoven, deeply in love - a necessary concomitant - with Adèle, although in fact she was just the latest in an unending line of flames, licit and illicit. But in a world where image was paramount I also wished to be thought of not merely as a latter-day Young Werther and martyr to refined artistic sensitivities, but as a man of physical prowess too, a sportsman. Scowling did the trick: scowling with a Beethovenian truculence at everyone except my closest associates conveniently bridged these two extremes. To this day there hangs in a lavatory at home a school athletics team photograph from that summer: the others gaze at the camera, bland, placid. Some grin. I scowl.

George prepared himself with his usual calm, efficient and unfussy deliberation and did practical things like bringing more than one change of clothes and joining the International Youth Hostels Association, something that in my careless improvidence I never bothered to do. According to him there was a Youth Hostel in Limburg, and in fact we found it not far from the autobahn exit. George produced his membership card and they accepted him readily, but no amount of pleading could persuade them to take me in too. George sighed deeply but said nothing, noble soul.

Eventually we passed an unpretentious hotel near the station. We looked at each other with an unspoken shall we? or shall we spend yet another night in a rhododendron thicket - on the floor in a mad evangelist's living room - under an oak tree in a park - in a pestiferous corner of Cologne Hauptbahnhof? Without actually saying anything we pushed clumsily though a revolving door, fully expecting to be propelled out through it again double quick on account of our tramp-like filth. The cheapest room was an attic with twin beds. And a bath. And a lavatory. Never did hotel manager admit guests more enthusiastic about staying in his premises. Never was hot water more gratefully sunk into, never was bog more thankfully sat on, never was sleep sweeter.

Prophet Gefängnisvogel's only involvement with deception, we decided, was in his absurd pantomime about being on the run. But the taste for speed, utterly compelling and addictive, never left us. Henceforward any moment not spent travelling, the faster the better, was wasted, a sort of purgatory of impatience and recrimination. We even begrudged the time it took next morning to find a bank in Limburg where I could change my Belgian francs into Deutschmarks.

* Many thanks to my friend Dave for this word, exactly expressing the sense of air-headed fainéantisme I wanted.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 11 Fingers of Improvidence (2)

There aren't too many occasions in adult life when you entrust yourself deliberately and unconditionally and with no means of withdrawal into the hands of a person not known to you. Surgeon, hypnotist, airline pilot, maybe. Confessor, financial adviser, dorsal tattoo artist. And escaped convict. Conversation wasn't easy. What are you supposed to say to someone who says he has just burst out of jail, stolen a Mercedes (for all we knew) and whose only preoccupation is to put as many kilometres between himself and the screws as fast as possible? An inane barbershop-cum-dentist's-waiting-room dialogue formed in my mind: Escaped from prison, you say? Well, there you go, squire. Some do, some don't. Turned out warm again, eh? See Dexter had a good knock last week, ton and a half v. Middlesex. Nice country round about here. Reminds me of Devon. Ever been to Devon, mein Herr? I couldn't have said this fluently in German, anyway. Eventually I put enough bad German together to ask him what he'd been put inside for: warum haben Sie in Gefängnis gewesen?

Betrug, Schwindel, he answered, which I took to mean fraud, but only because Schwindel sounded like 'swindle'. If this was true maybe things weren't so desperate. Weren't con-men usually gentle people, less violent than, say, murderers, rapists or gun-runners? Maybe we wouldn't be used as human shields when the police caught up with us? I started to consult George, but Herr Gefängnisvogel (i.e. gaolbird, but we didn't refer to him as this until much later) objected to us speaking in English. Meanwhile signs to Bonn on the right flashed past, and soon gave way to other towns further up the Rhine, Königswinter, Bad Honnef, Andernach, and I knew I would never get to Beethoven's birthplace.

It didn't matter. It didn't matter that we were probably accessories, that all this could end quite nastily. The great god Speed had gathered us to his bosom, his prophet Gefängnisvogel was preaching the word, George and I, lowly neophytes, could only worship and know the heavenly ecstasy of travelling at transcendent speed from A to - who knew where? It occurred to me that the great god in whose arms we were folded should have a grander, more magnificently remote name than 'Speed'. 'Velocity', 'Celerity', maybe, but then I thought No: the greatest gods have simple names, as easily accessible to the most humble as to the most exalted. Jehovah really means 'I am'; Jupiter is really a way of saying 'Dad'; maybe the god Speed should be known as 'Whoosh!' or 'Vroom!' or even, in a bizarre onomatopoeia for speed I saw in Mad magazine at about the time of this epic journey, 'Fagroon!'

Prophet Gefängnisvogel was clearly enjoying his liberty, humming and chuckling to himself while flakes of cigar ash snowed on to his tie and shirt-front. (Please don't ask what an escaped convict was doing wearing a tie.) Fast-lane kilometre swallowed kilometre, the speedometer needle seemed stuck on the 200kph mark, in a celebratory pageant of our juvenile understanding of Einstein's Theory of Relativity in which the Rhineland passed before our eyes, rather than our eyes passing over it. Rarely a glance from the Prophet in the rear mirror: wherever the avenging legions of Polizei were, they weren't on our immediate trail.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 11 Fingers of Improvidence (1)

A few minutes into the train journey George and I took out of Cologne I tried to make a joke as crippled as it was over-complicated, inexcusable even in one who was feeling the worse of a failed tryst with Adèle (not that I really believed that she would ever turn up), a rough and unwashed night in a dark corner of Cologne station, being refused entry to Cologne cathedral because of my tramp-like appearance, several goes of schnapps, having my pocket-book and money stolen, and being rescued by a termagant cleaner from attempted rape by laying about my predatory assailant and me with a wet mop. I quoted from Schiller's An die Freude, that Ode to Joy from which Beethoven took some of the better lines to set for the last movement of his Ninth Symphony: something about wishing I felt a bit more Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen, with the exultation of a victorious hero, a hero coming to Siegen, i.e.victory. Siegen, where I understood we were heading for, also happened to be the name of a town some stations down the line, a place from which we could easily reach Bonn and I at least could bow the knee at Beethoven's birthplace. George grunted and continued looking out of the window at the Sunday suburbs and sleeping factories of Cologne. I have a faint and probably mistaken impression of passing a factory chimney decorated with '4711' in immense vertical figures, the trademark of Echt Kölnisch Wasser, the true Eau de Cologne. I mention this merely to confound and if possible set at one another's throats those critics who assert:

1. You couldn't possibly have seen such a chimney. There was no such chimney to see. It was razed during the war and had not yet been rebuilt. Whereof you cannot speak, thereon you must remain silent.

- and those who ask:

2. How come you missed the 4711 chimney? It's like describing walking across Westminster Bridge and leaving out Big Ben. Clearly this account is thoroughly flawed and we can't take your word for anything.

No odour of Eau de Cologne wafted in through the slightly open window, only scents of railways and high summer industrial concrete. I slumped back, as far as the hard leather seats allowed slumping, put my feet up on my rucksack and dangled tempting images of a shave, a bath, a square meal and a bed before my inner eye.

I doubt if insightful glances into the Eroica interrupted the rail-rhythmed and points-rattled mental procession of hot water, razor and sponge, followed by a glorious stream of hot rich stew gurgling on to our plates, completed by visions of a warm, yielding, fresh-linened bed somehow conflated with Adèle's warm, yielding body, preferably without any linen at all; this last an a priori dream if ever there was one, and 'yielding', in the context of desirable women, being a word cogged out of Far From the Madding Crowd.

George asked to look at my map of Germany. Along with a similar map of Austria, this was one of the very few concessions to providence that I'd made before leaving. Even this was more in the spirit of a joyous anticipation, tracing the lines I imagined we would travel with an eager finger, sounding silently to myself place-names heavy with a motley of iconic overtones: Bonn, the cradle of Beethoven; the Lorelei on the Rhine, subject of a poem by Heine which expressed much of what I felt about Adèle in more bitter moments; Mannheim, the nursery of orchestral playing; the Starnberger See near Munich, where mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria drowned himself to slake the pangs of unrequited love for himself as the incarnation of Lohengrin or Parsifal; Salzburg, fief of the Mozarts, and finally Vienna. This is the glory of maps, beside which their practical use becomes almost incidental: easy-going and undemanding - yielding, even - companions in travels in hope, innocent of the frequent disappointments of arrival. But I would have had no end of a job persuading George of this.

- Siegen? We're not going to Siegen. I bought tickets for Siegburg. Look. What made you think we were going to Siegen? It's miles off our route.

I glanced at the map. It was indeed. So abandoning any thoughts of an auto-heroic entry into Siegen, I settled for Siegburg, which is such a modest distance from Cologne that we arrived there virtually at the end of this conversation, shouldered rucksacks and set off for the nearest autobahn entry point. No banks or bureaux de change were open in Siegburg that Sunday, so the francs I'd come by in Liège remained solidly Belgian in the back pocket of my shorts.

We set up thumbing-station, and presently a man in a Mercedes stopped for us, asking the question that was soon to become invariable: Wo fahren Sie hin? Where are you going to to? Vienna seemed a tall order: I thought of somewhere not too far, but not too near either. Frankfurt, perhaps?
- Frankfurt, I said.
- Ja, ja. Steigen Sie ein. Get in.

I had never travelled faster in a car. Our driver, a large, paunchy, middle-aged man with cigar ash littered down his shirt, his lap and on to the floor beneath him, drove at a steady 200 kilometres per hour down a mostly straight and featureless motorway, one of those civil engineering achievements that no one at that time was prepared to acknowledge as a pre-war legacy of Adolf Hitler.

He told us he had just escaped from prison.

Monday, 5 January 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 10 Pontecorvo, Abercrombie, Nelson & Co (3)

Beethoven was sometimes obscure about what outside factors had influenced his compositions. Asked about the 'meaning' of the Waldstein piano sonata, composed in 1804, a year after the Eroica, he replied 'Read The Tempest'. I expect this was extraordinarily frustrating for anyone who thereupon went scurrying off to a recital of the Waldstein sonata with a copy of Shakespeare's play, hoping to find a parallel narrative: passages in the music where the Viennese listener could whisper Ach ja, das muss der Caliban sein (Ah yes, that must be Caliban) or - we can have this in Viennese dialect, even - Wart a bisserl, ich glaube, das ist die Miranda, die sagt sowas wie: So a schöne neue Welt, und dann wohnen solche Leute drin! (Hold on, that's got to be Miranda saying 'O brave new world, that hath such people in it'.) Of course there aren't any such direct correspondences, and attempts to find any reduce the Waldstein sonata at best to the level of incidental music and to a Brush Up Your Shakespeare quiz at worst. So with the Eroica.

There is no biographical or narrative content in the Eroica. Shortly before its composition Beethoven poured out his despair, brought about by his chronic illness and ever-worsening deafness, in letters to friends and in his will. Several are quoted above. He felt death approaching. He was 32 (he may have believed he was 30) when he wrote the will known as the Heiligenstadt testament after the village where he wrote it, now an inner suburb of Vienna. Few 32-year-olds are concerned about making their wills, very few indeed in the terms of the Heiligenstadt testament. The will mentions thoughts of suicide. Beethoven believed his physical state was drawing the curtains about his art. It was the end. Will it not free me from a condition of endless suffering? Come when you [i.e. death] will, I will meet you with courage, he wrote among the final lines of his testament.

The Eroica was Beethoven's response. A year or two earlier he had expressed himself to Franz Wegeler, his doctor friend from Bonn days, with typically Beethovenian defiance: I will grasp Fate by the throat; it shall not conquer me. We don't know what last gasp of fate, or lightning flash of courage, or what misty dawn of hope, raised his spirit. Maybe it's more likely that there was just the slow, firm, onward tread of determination not to to succumb, not to surrender to despair. He had no conventional religion; his strength came from within him. Maybe work on the Eroica - which is very highly wrought - and other compositions was therapy in itself. Suggestions have been made that, in the absence of any evidence of opiates from the analysis of samples of his hair and bone that I outlined earlier, Beethoven could lose himself in composition so completely as to eclipse pain. So little are we taken with things of the spirit that we may find it hard to imagine the surge of uplift and joy Beethoven experienced, the shiver down his spine, as odd scraps and phrases destined to find their place in the Eroica found their way into his musical imagination. The hero, the Prometheus, trailing clouds of joy, coming with laughter from afar, was himself, and, through himself, us. The Eroica is a celebration of any human being, then or now, who has won against heavy odds and has shared the fruits of success.