Mr. Beethoven

By Paul Griffiths

A novel by Paul Griffiths asking: What if Beethoven had visited America?

1 – The Cabin

“Mr. Beethoven?”

The person so addressed, lying fully clothed on the narrow bed built into the far side of the small cabin, moved only with the gentle roll of the ship. Eyes and mouth were closed. There was no sound.

The boy, without stepping forward any further from where he stood at the doorway, his trailing hand still on the brass knob he had lately swivelled open, tried a louder call.

“Mr. Beethoven?”

Still nothing. Somebody had informed the boy the previous day, but he had forgotten, that the recumbent body before him never would be made to stir this way, not if he were to yell at the top of his voice, not if he were to sing out lustily in his emerging tenor the master’s "Ode to Joy,” a tune of which, of course, he would have had no inkling.

What to do? He had been told to accompany the passenger down a deck to the dining saloon, where he would then have to don an apron quickly before serving the cabbage soup and boiled mutton, if these were on the menu for the evening. He could not return empty-handed. Nor could he just stand there; he was already at risk of taking longer over this mission than the steward would have been expecting.

Could he have misremembered the name? No. The spelling would probably have foxed him, but he could reproduce what he had been told pretty well. Then he thought how stupid it was to imagine that the man lay still asleep only because he had been hailed by the wrong name. Any sound at all should have had him blinking awake. Even the click of the latch.

The boy did a loud cough, having first raised his hand to his mouth for politeness.

He took it down – who was watching? – and coughed again. There was still no response, and the boy, with no means to know why this passenger continued to lie so still, felt a cool flush just under his skin. He had witnessed burials at sea, conducted by captains who put on their vicarage voices, captains who stumbled over the sentences, captains who turned sullen for the rest of the voyage.

He stood there, nothing happening, while down below the other cabin passengers would be looking about them with feigned nonchalance, and the steward would be standing smiling, a napkin over his horizontal left forearm, as if everything were proceeding quite normally, while inwardly the fellow would be calculating how the scale of remonstration would be rising with the this boy’s increasing dilatoriness, hard second on hard second.

The boy let go the doorknob and took two steps further into the cabin, enough to be standing over the passenger. Behind him the door had closed, so that the cabin was notably dimmer, its only light seeping in through a small porthole. Even so, from this nearer position he could clearly see regular movements in the man’s nostrils and hear a periodic disgruntlement coming through the slightly parted lips. He leaned down close to the ear nearer him, taking care to keep his lips away from the alien flesh, and this time, so as not to alarm, whispered.

“Mr. Beethoven.”

Still expecting a response, he was more than ever disconcerted, and may not have noticed, as he stood up, how puzzlement and anxiety about what was happening right there, in the cabin, were dismissing fear of reprisal below. He reached out a hand. Could he bring himself? Yes, he could. Touching the man’s arm, but through the bedclothes, and so protected from direct contact, he gave a firm, short push, and again repeated the name.

“Mr. Beethoven.”

Yes, the eyes opened and the face came alive. The head turned a little, so that these newly opened eyes might look directly at the face of the one who had summoned them from whatever dream. The mouth opened, as if to speak, but then closed again without doing so, no doubt because the passenger realized that if he said anything the boy would be bound to answer, probably with a question – you would see from his look – and then what? The eyes closed again.

“Mr. Beethoven, you’re wanted below for supper.”

But the boy did not get far into that sentence before he remembered at last that this passenger did not respond to speech. Could he bring himself again to touch the passenger? He could – though it would have been too much to expect him not to use his voice at the same time, as if somehow to make the rousing more civil.

“Mr. Beethoven, please!”

It was as before: the eyes opened and the head turned. A stare, from a stranger, can be a flooding of humanity through whatever dams of difference, enough to make the boy feel he knows this man, better than he knows the captain, better than he knows his grandfather, that suddenly he has in his mind full possession of this person.

As he held the boy with those eyes, the man fumbled his hands out from under the bedclothes to grasp the nearby right hand of this new young friend. The boy felt the clutch and almost immediately a tug that would have unsteadied him had the grip not been relaxed right away.

He understood. Bringing his left hand into action, clasping as well as he could with his slender fingers the two rough hands still holding on to his right, he pulled the man up into a sitting position. Then, when he was sure stability had been achieved, he let go. The man nodded thanks, breathing heavily as he sat there, keeping himself upright with his two flattened palms pressed down on the bed. Then he swung, with no warning, his legs out of bed, and with an alacrity that took the boy by surprise, stood up in his nightshirt, a little shorter than the boy and evidently waiting for something.

Yes, the boy would have to help him dress.

 

35 – Another Midday Meeting

Another midday came – it could have been the following day, or it could have been a little later, when these meetings at the cottage at twelve had become something of a routine, a routine that for Mrs. Hill had matured from excitement to a steadier pleasure, not unmixed at times with confusion and even distress that she could not quite grasp what the composer was asking of her, or how to answer his questions and demands – and Mrs. Hill was there again. It was all as it always was: being let in by Thankful and taken into the composer’s study, marveling at what he had achieved since the last visit, which might have been only the day before, being brought a cup of chocolate, and beginning their discussion.

Now and again, not often, there might be some conversation between them on other topics, such as food, or health, and in such a case the composer might have declared:

“Since yesterday I have only taken some soup, and a couple of eggs, and drank nothing but water.” A reference to “potato purée” would be another possibility. And Mrs. Hill would be properly sympathetic, or amused. Early in their acquaintance, she found such digressions tiresome and unwelcome; she was in the presence of a great artist and did not want to know about, did not want to imagine, his everyday life and his bodily needs, his existence as a creature like herself.

Artists should not speak of potato purée. As time went on, however, she came to enjoy how the world-renowned composer would chat to her of their fellowship in humanity. Such moments leveled the ground. These were griefs and annoyances that she, too, had experienced (though more time would have to pass before she would feel it possible to lead off with her own little troubles). Moreover, people do not talk of potato purée without there being a great deal else between them.

On this occasion, this one of so many, there may or may not have been some such irrelevant and yet so relevant dialogue between them before they set about what Mrs. Hill supposed she had to call “work.” Sometimes the composer would appear fizzing with anxiety and eagerness to discuss some problem, and by discussion, Mrs. Hill felt, rather than as a result of anything she directly said, come up with an answer. At other times he was more relaxed, though Mrs. Hill soon came to suspect that the outward calm and even affability screened a perturbation still more intense than when it was more manifest.

There is yet the chance that some documentary record of these sessions will eventually come to light. Scraps of paper might have survived, for it is more than possible that Mrs. Hill, rather than communicate through Thankful all the time (not that the girl was not charming and discreet) would have resorted to writing down questions and comments she wanted to address to the composer. That way, particularly when points of musical grammar were at issue, she might feel secure that her meaning was being conveyed correctly. It is more than possible, too, that she would have wanted, when she left the composer some time in the early afternoon, to gather up such scribblings and take them with her to write up in some journal or memoir (a book she had been given by one of her daughters, and had been saving for some suitably important function, may be imagined, with its binding and ribbon in willow-green silk and its unlined pages whose invitation she may have accepted to attempt a sketch of the composer bent over his desk), perhaps adding, while her memory was still fresh, his side of the conversation. This is all very plausible. And it is plausible, too, that Thankful, perhaps as an old lady back on Martha’s Vineyard, would have been visited by some scholar or biographer intent on interviewing someone who had been privy to the composer’s intimate relationships and creative life. Indeed, it is bewildering that A. W. Thayer, the first to plan a thoroughly researched life of the composer, and a man born and educated in the Boston area, should have taken himself to Europe to pursue his endeavors and not sought out this star witness living, so to speak, right under his nose. After all, Thankful, whose later existence is lost to us, could have outlived several generations of musicologists; she might even have survived into the twentieth century.

But to return to the day in question, Mrs. Hill immediately found – and Thankful has surely warned her as they walked through the house – a gentleman in some turmoil. When she entered his field of view, and as if in answer to some question from her (though she had not yet spoken), he said:

“But everything went wrong!”

“What do you mean, my very dear friend,” said Mrs. Hill. “Whatever can you mean?”

The composer patted the chair beside him at his desk, and she sat down. He looked at her squarely in silence for a moment, waved a hand at Thankful to go prepare the chocolate, and began.

“It was not I who chose Mr. B.” – almost certainly, Mrs. Hill would immediately have suspected the composer was referring to Mr. Ballou – “to write the text.”

Yes, then, this certainly was to do with Hosea Ballou.

“I was assured that the Society had commissioned him to write it.”

The composer slowly leaned forward toward Mrs. Hill in a way that might have been unsettling had she not been used to him by now, and his voice dropped as he went on:

“I could foresee with the utmost assurance that to collaborate with him in this undertaking would certainly be difficult.”

He leaned back again, and, while he was doing so, Mrs. Hill might well have been pondering whether she was being invited to defend Mr. Ballou and, if so, how she would go about doing so, when the composer continued, again in full voice.

“Now, however, several passages” – he picked up the little book and shook it – “indeed I may say a great many passages” – he put it down again and snarled the next words – “in B.’s oratorio” – he returned to a calmer demeanor – “will have to be altered.”

The pause went on, and Mrs. Hill vigorously nodded, which suited as a prompt to the composer to return to his theme.

“I have in fact marked a few of them and shall soon finish marking the rest. For although the subject is very well thought out” (as, Mrs. Hill considered, I would expect of Mr. Ballou) “and the poetry has some merit” (not so sure) “yet it just cannot remain as it is at present.”

The composer turned his head toward the window. A bird was calling out, but of course that cannot have been what drew his attention. Mrs. Hill felt she must now say something in support, and, forgetting for an instant that Thankful was not there to translate for her, she opened her mouth to do so. However, neither she nor anyone else could know how she was going to proceed, because at this the composer immediately directed himself once more to her and to what was on his mind.

“Well,” he said, “we need not enquire into the value of poems of this kind.”

Mrs. Hill again gave a firm nod.

“But so far as I am concerned, I prefer to set to music the works of poets like Homer, Klopstock, and Schiller.”

Mrs. Hill would have been able to smile knowledgeably at the mention of these names, which she may even have revered as much as the composer did, for the most celebrated work of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803), and almost certainly the one of which the composer would have been thinking, Der Messias, had been translated into English by Mary and John Collyer, and their version, published first in London in 1763 (when the immense epic was only half-finished), had been brought out five years later in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, by the newspaper editor Shepard Kollock. Of course, given that Mrs. Hill would have to have been conversant with German for these scenes to be taking place, she could have read Klopstock and Schiller in the original. Cousin Josiah was not a massive supporter of female education; five years before all this, as Mayor of Boston, he had been instrumental in closing the city’s high school for girls. Since that school – the first such establishment in the United States – had been open for only two years, very few could have benefitted from it, and certainly not Mrs. Hill, who was of a class that at the time of her childhood would have educated its offspring, and certainly its female offspring, at home. Her father was Samuel Quincy, elder brother of their host’s father, another Josiah. In parallel fashion, she received her mother’s first name, and eventually, on her marriage, her mother’s last name, too, for the latter had been born Hannah Hill.

Samuel Quincy had been a prominent lawyer and a loyalist, who left Boston in 1776, when the British evacuated those who wished to go. His daughter Hannah, our Mrs. Hill, was then thirteen, and remained with her mother, who had elected for the Revolutionary side, and her two younger brothers. Presumably, the mother was able to raise her children in comfort, and you could imagine she employed a German governess for her daughter. Such a person might well no longer be alive, and so have left no trace in Stimpson’s directory, where, besides Graupner and Zeuner, the only German names are those of Frederick Eberle and Henry Niebuhr, both of them also musicians, and where the person named as having consular responsibilities in the city for German territories – Prussia and Bremen (then a sovereign republic) – had a thoroughly Anglo name: Thomas Searle. The paucity of Germans at this date, when most people were of British or Irish origin, with a few French, makes it unsurprising that the city had no Lutheran church – but then you have to recall that the composer was Roman Catholic by affiliation, if not much by practice. There had been a Catholic church in the city for thirty years, Holy Cross, but it would seem highly unlikely that the composer ever set foot in it. Nor can we easily see him accompanying Lowell Mason to any of the Presbyterian churches in Boston that the latter served as organist, or going along with the Quincy family to Sunday service.

Once again, Mrs. Hill might have felt called upon to indicate her approval and her attention with a decisive nod.

“For at any rate,” the composer went on, “even though in their works there are difficulties to overcome, these immortal poets are worth the trouble.”

At this point, Thankful returned with the chocolate, so that Mrs. Hill now had greater opportunity to participate in the conversation. The composer sipped his chocolate, looked at Thankful with a smile, and turned to his friend to speak.

“What do you think?”

“Well,” said Mrs. Hill, “I hardly have the experience or the authority to comment on those venerable authors, whose works I endorse as heartily as you do.”

It was true, then. She did know Klopstock and Schiller.

“But if –”

The composer broke off her thought. It was as if what he was looking for was not her words, as transmitted by Thankful, but the sway of her mind, for which he needed no interpreter, seeing the evidence for himself.

“That is the reason for my asking you to help me,” he said.

Mrs. Hill had, of course, been tremulously alert to where this conversation might be heading. Was something being required of her? If so, what? Or was she being ridiculous in supposing that the composer, however rapidly their friendship had developed in closeness, was about to invite her assistance in the great enterprise? But it did seem so. He had asked. He had asked, and he was looking at her in expectation of an answer – looking at her and not at Thankful.

She might answer, then, without words, but words came to her.

“Of course I would – I will – do everything in my power,” she said, breaking off with the phrase lifting, for it was clear by now that her response had been received. The composer had, almost at her first words, begun shifting things around on the desk before them, which caused Mrs. Hill to notice that he had open not only the manuscript booklet of Mr. Ballou’s libretto but also two copies of the Bible, in English and in German.

Bringing the libretto to the fore, he pointed to a passage and said: “But how weak and poor are these words!”

Mrs. Hill read them, and then read them out – not for the composer’s benefit, of course, but to experience how they felt and sounded:

“O doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass?

Or doth the ox fed in its stall then beg?

Would we the cellar full of salt let pass

To give some savor to our white of egg?”

She pushed the dismal booklet away from her and said: “Not one of Mr. Ballou’s best inspirations, no.”

“May I?” she added, and the composer gave her a quick nod. She reached for the English Bible and quickly found the relevant section, which she also read out:

“Doth the wild ass bray when he hath grass? or loweth the ox over his fodder?

“Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the

white of an egg?”

“I think I see what has happened here,” she said. “Your author” – to name Mr. Ballou would have seemed too much to blame him – “has found an almost regular line at the beginning of the first verse, and then has twisted and cramped the rest to complete the quatrain. With rhymes, of course.”

The composer, looking at her fixedly all this while, said: “What can I do?”

Mrs. Hill did not directly respond, but instead asked: “May I see what Martin Luther made of this same passage?”

Again the composer nodded. Mrs. Hill reached for the German Bible, turned the pages to Job 6, and once again read from the chapter out loud, for there was no need for her to fear making some error in pronunciation:

“Das Wild schreit nicht, wenn es Gras hat; der Ochse blökt nicht, wenn er sein

Futter hat.

“Kann man auch essen was ungesalzen ist? Oder wer mag kosten das Weiße um den

Dotter?”

“How fine,” said Mrs. Hill. “How very fine.” And perhaps unconsciously she imitated the manner of approval her governess would voice during German lessons. “Simple and direct. That opening half-verse: four syllables and then another four. And the movement from statement (animal) to question (human), where the English has only the latter.”

“However,” Mrs. Hill continued in a different manner, “the problem with your libretto is that it has not sufficiently digested, if I could put it so, the Biblical text. We have to consider what Job is saying here, which is that God has given him the wrong food: the bitter aloes of correction, when what he has merited is the acceptable sustenance of the righteous – and this is the reason for his lament. The Biblical language is, we observe, full of metaphor, and I wonder if this is suitable in the libretto of an oratorio, where, of course, it is the music that will supply the poetry.”

Mrs. Hill felt she had probably better stop there, for though the composer had given every sign of trust, she was uncertain how far and for how long she would be welcome on the sacred pastures of his work.

She need not have worried. Placing a palm on Ballou’s booklet, the composer slid it back across the desktop in her direction, placed his hands in his lap, and said: “You can do what you like with it.”

Mrs. Hill thought. She picked up a pencil and opened the libretto to the aria they had been discussing. In the ample margin to the right of Ballou’s text she wrote:

“No creature cries before its proper food —

Hold — the tasteless tests us”

Now that she had written this down, she looked at the words, which seemed to have an extra sense, as not only a parallel or replacement for the text to their left but a commentary. Below, after a moment’s further thought, she appended a version in German:

“Keine Kreatur schreit vor seinem richtigen Futter —

Halt — das Geschmacklos uns probiert.”

Then, with the same gesture of holding the book down on the desk with her palm, she moved it across to the composer. Thankful, with no part to play in these exchanges, nevertheless observed closely what Mrs. Hill had written. While the composer, too, was examining the lines, Mrs. Hill wondered if she should point out the alliterations, the rhythm. Any such quandaries were rapidly dispelled by another of the composer’s smiles as he pushed the little book back to her.

“I shall agree,” he said, “to whatever you consider to be the best.”

 

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