The Kind Mr. Beethoven

     My favorite story about Beethoven is the kind thing he did for his friend Dorothea von Ertmann, a baroness. In 1807, when Beethoven was deaf and was hiding out from society for the shame of it, the baroness’ baby died. Years later, after Beethoven was dead, Felix Mendelssohn visited the baroness in Italy, and she told him what Beethoven had done.
     Von Ertmann told Mendelssohn “the loveliest anecdotes about Beethoven, how, in the evening when she played for him, he used the candle snuffers as toothpicks, etc. … She related that when she lost her last child, Beethoven at first did not want to come into the house. At length he invited her to visit him, and when she came he sat himself down at the pianoforte and said simply: ‘We will now talk to each other in tones,’ and for over an hour played without stopping, and as she remarked: ‘He told me everything, and at last brought me comfort.'”
     Beethoven is one of the few men in the immense, sad history of our planet, whose life repays endless study, and whose life and art become more rewarding and greater each time we study them.
     J.S. Bach showed us that there is such a thing as perfection. Mozart shows the immediacy and transience of beauty. Beethoven shows us the nobility of struggle, even though the struggle will ultimately overcome all of us.
     Not that Beethoven was a saint. My other favorite story is about an unfortunate child he accepted as a piano student. Beethoven hated to give lessons. He wasn’t cut out for it; he didn’t like it; it paid practically nothing, and he considered it an enormous waste of time. But as a favor to his old counterpoint teacher, Beethoven agreed to teach Johann Albrechtsberger’s grandson.
     Pretty soon, though, Beethoven became so unhappy with the boy’s playing that he bit him on the shoulder.
     That got Beethoven out of those lessons.

     Beethoven had trouble dealing with people. He had trouble with everything, outside of music. One of his publishers, Johann Streicher, wrote that Beethoven once told him, “Everything I do apart from music is badly done and is stupid.”
     It must have been difficult for Beethoven to invite Baroness von Ertmann to his rooms. He did it because he wanted to do something kind for her, and the only way he knew how to do that was to play the piano. That must have been some hour of music. It’s lost to history forever, of course. What was not lost to history was Beethoven’s act of kindness. That act of kindness is still making people happy, when we read of it. That’s worth mentioning, because it was harder for Beethoven to be kind to people than it was for him to write great music. But he tried to be kind, and once in a while he succeeded.
     It sounds sappy to say this, but I do not recall any major figure in the U.S. government during the past seven years, nor during this enormously depressing presidential campaign, ever saying or doing anything kind. All we hear is how tough they are, who they’ll bomb, who they’ll punish, how harshly they’ll punish them, and how horrible other people are for not doing what the U.S. president wants, when he wants it, and how he wants it.
     Even when the subject is schools for little kids, all we hear about is how we should punish the bad schools – the public schools – and take their money away, and shut them down.
     It’s easy to talk tough. Little boys start doing it before they get to junior high. A lot of them keep doing it until they are old men.
     I suppose the candidates talk like that, and act like that, because they think American voters will like it. Maybe Americans do like it. I don’t know. I seem to be out of step with the rest of my country.
     I believe the United States is being run by idiots, and that the more one studies our recent history, the more repulsive, repellent and idiotic all of our “great men” appear. I believe the study of our recent history will be repulsive and repellent forever.
     The tiniest, most unimportant waltz Beethoven ever wrote did more for the dignity and happiness of mankind than everything our despicable president and all 535 members of our cowardly Congress have done in the past seven years. And, I suspect, Beethoven’s most trivial minuet will bring more happiness to the world than everything all of our craven candidates for president will say for the next year, until, God help us, we elect one of them.
Sunday is Beethoven’s 237th birthday.

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