Beethoven Saved My Life

     Forty years ago, when I was a woodwind student at the Manhattan School of Music, one of my favorite professors, the wonderful Fritz Kramer, told our music history class what it’s like to freeze to death.
     Fritz said it was the best way to go. He wanted to die under snow on a mountain. Me too.
     Fritz studied with Anton Webern, and told us funny stories about him.
     Webern was the purest member of the 12-tone school. He got up at 5 a.m. and composed for an hour every day. No more, no less. He needed absolute quiet to write music. Well, he was German.
     When they learned his routine, Fritz and his boys – who would follow Mahler and Bruckner anywhere, but thought Webern was crazy – got up way early to meet under Webern’s window and make noise.
     They threw rocks into a garbage can and rolled it around and sang stupid songs – anything to keep Webern from composing.
     They did it for art.
     (Webern was shot to death by an American G.I. on Sept. 15, 1945, as he stepped onto his front porch for a smoke. The G.I. who killed him, Pfc. Raymond Norwood Bell, of North Carolina, died of “alcoholic remorse” in 1955.)
     But as I was saying, Fritz Kramer had a heart condition, and his doctor and his wife ordered him to trek no more in the mountains.
     Fritz told us about dying in the mountains with a faraway, longing look in his eyes.
     Poor Fritz. His fellow student at the Vienna Conservatory, Dr. Joseph Braunstein, who introduced me to Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, did not have a heart condition, so he could trek the Alps, though was older even than Fritz. Dr. Braunstein made it to 104.
     I think Death was afraid to come for Dr. Braunstein.
     I liked Dr. Braunstein, but I loved Fritz.
     Dr. Braunstein ate a sandwich halfway through each two-hour class. As our attention waned, and we started to chat, Dr. Braunstein – and I believe this happened every week – shouted: “Silence!” spewing white bread from his mouth.
     And the class continued in silence.
     Dr. Braunstein gave me an A-minus on my 32-page paper on the Grosse Fuge. His only comment was: “The chart on page 11 is not sufficient.”
     Thirty-five years later, when a longer version of that paper was published as a book, the chart on page 11 still was not sufficient. Thank God Dr. Braunstein was up in heaven by then – climbing clouds, I’m sure.
     Why am I bringing this up?
     Well, recently I stepped into a hot bath with a sharp knife in my hand, and looked for my femoral artery. Never mind why. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
     Fortunately, or not, I’d turned the stereo way up in the other room to Beethoven’s Opus 131 Quartet in C Sharp Minor.
     Might as well die listening to great art, I figured, as I lay in the tub with my big sharp knife.
     More people die by suicide in the United States than in auto accidents: more than 38,000 a year. It’s the 10th leading cause of death, and the second-most frequent way to die for people from 15 to 34.
     Most suicides are linked to depression, which is treatable.
     Someone in the United States dies by suicide every 12 minutes and 20 seconds.
     I damn near killed myself. So did Beethoven, damn near, when he realized he was going deaf.
     If you are considering it, please call a suicide hotline. Depression is treatable.
     Or listen to one of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, Opus Nos. 127, 130, 131, 132, or 135 – in E-flat, B-flat, C sharp minor, A minor, and F major. Just listen.
     There’s no reason to check out of a world that contains such beauty.
     This has been a public service announcement.

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