My Beethoven dilemma

I’ve written a satirical novel called Beethoven’s Tenth and the journey which saved the world. It’s about a small group of fictional characters with grudges against their authors. Led by Dr Watson, of Sherlock Holmes fame, they set out to publicise their grievances. This revolves around one of them, Johannes Kreisler, a brilliant eccentric created by the real composer, E T A Hoffman, finishing Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony. After a roller coaster ride it all ends triumphantly, with grudges resolved and, thanks to the new symphony, the world a much rosier, hopeful place. Beethoven, at least in spirit, has saved the day.

But have I perpetuated a terrible wrong? Not a single character in my novel considers that Beethoven’s music might embody the ‘racist, misogynist, patriarchal tradition’ that some claim has ‘colonised’ Western classical music. How could I possibly have missed the fact that Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony overflows ‘with male violence and female subordination, its narrative primarily based on phallic sexuality’? Why was I so blind to the ‘bisexual narrative’ and ‘Oedipal configurations’ lurking in Beethoven’s grand works?

Foolishly, I thought also that ‘masterful’ and ‘masterpiece’—derived from Latin and German—signalled skill and refinement. How embarrassing to discover that, according to some modern commentators, they are little more than codewords for slavery and sexism. I’m so relieved I don’t hold a Masters degree.

In my novel’s defence, I often spell out Beethoven’s name. The book’s dedication is to ‘Ludwig and Francesca’ (my partner). But that was more good luck than good management. Only now do I know that the mononym, Beethoven, is also a source of offence. I feel badly, then, about the title and the cover. Thank goodness I wasn’t writing a politically correct novel about Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Puccini. There’d be little space for the actual story.

From now on I’ll make sure it’s always William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. I’ll go only to art galleries who display names such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dali y Domenech, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva and so on. I’m not sure how to handle Aristotle and Sophocles, who seem positively name deprived. By contrast, Jesus of Nazareth Son of God is both a mouthful and consciously gendered. I’ll need advice on that one.

I will try to make amends, though aspects of my novel may cause readers unease. Johannes Kreisler hero worships ‘the noble, the miraculous Ludwig van Beethoven’. So too does one of the villains. Influenced by hearing LVB’s Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies played over a jail intercom, he declares he loves the composer’s ‘string quarters’ (sic) more than he loves his mother.

And there’s not a single word in my book about LVB’s fractious relationship with his young relation, Karl. If I’d done my research I would have discovered a 1945 book, jointly authored by Richard and Editha Sterba, Beethoven and His Nephew: A Psychoanalytic Study of Their Relationship. It reportedly ‘marshalled evidence to prove that LVB was a repressed homosexual whose inability to reconcile conflicting male and female impulses deprived him of a secure ego and left him without tenderness, warmth or most other human qualities’.

Oh dear. Could that explain why LVB never married? Or maybe he was just too busy with his music. Perhaps he never found the right woman, or at least the woman who thought he was right for her. He certainly doesn’t seem to have lacked self-confidence, commenting to his long-term supporter, Prince Lichnowsky, that while there were thousands of princes there was only one Beethoven.

Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, has noted that a pattern emerges among the women in LVB’s life: affection, friendship, respect, passion, though probably mostly platonic. His loves ‘were usually impossible or at least unlikely, often because the objects of Beethoven’s affection were women of noble birth or already married. As a result, what we would today call a “stable relationship” seems to have always remained just out of reach.’ Not a whole lot out of the ordinary there.

In a wonderful new book, Oxford academic Professor Laura Tunbridge suggests there were very human qualities both of light and dark in LVB. She paints him as brilliant, flawed, often irascible, shrewd if not wise about money, with a keen taste for good coffee and wine. (On his death bed he lamented that wine he had ordered had arrived ‘too late’.) I’ll have to consider carefully the future of Beethoven’s Tenth. I could take the easy way out and switch on the shredder. But a book burning during a fierce thunderstorm would be more to LVB’s style. Maybe I should just relax and let his extraordinary music wash over me. It’s worked pretty well for the past 50-plus years.

 

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