Chapter 16: When George and Beethoven Meet

Virginia newspaperman George Thompson finally gets inside Beethoven’s home at the Schwarzspanierhaus, outside Vienna. Their meeting could have been—well, you’ll see.

Chapter 16

I wandered inside like an adventurer in an exotic land. Pistachio-green walls surrounded a chaotic disruption of music scores and early morning habits. Crowning the room was the likeness of a large laurel wreath, symbol of victory, molded in the white ceiling.

The stormy weather cast wandering shadows upon two pianofortes standing in the middle of the room. I took the flickering candle that Gabrielle had spied and moved it to the pianos. One was a strawberry blonde, the other a burled-wood brunette. Upon them were long rolls of paper, three open books of poems—one Schiller, the other Goethe—two open newspapers, broken ink-stained quill pens, and a small personal chalkboard and chalk. A breakfast plate was smeared with the yellow leftovers of soft-boiled eggs.

Despite the clutter, the pianos’ magnificence could not be obscured. The graceful curves of their bodies intertwined like perfectly fitted puzzle pieces. The brunette, an English Broadwood, was a muscular lass with six octaves and two pedals. Like Adam reaching for the  forbidden fruit, I could not resist touching her. “Beethoven’s hands were here,” I marveled aloud. I put down the candle and pressed down the key of C. She responded full-throated, with a dense, rich tone, perhaps a little heavy. I then flirted with the five-pedaled blonde, a Viennese Graf—light-hearted and clear, sounding better than yesteryear’s harpsichord. My fingers played an A major chord. Such sweet singing! “Don’t touch anything of his,” Mälzel’s warning echoed. My hand drew back as if burned.

I passed a load of laundry piled at the doorway of what appeared to be an office. To my right, in the room’s corner stood an unmade bed; above it hung a life-sized portrait of a stern-looking gentleman. Judging by his flowing dark-green felt coat, trimmed with tassels and fur collar, he showed importance from a much earlier age. His one hand held a musical score, his other pointed to it. Past the bed stood a nightstand with a clock and its Roman numerals, then a washstand, and a cracked mirror above it. Under the stand hid a tin wastebasket, typically French, with its idyllic scenery of two 18th-century lovers cavorting amongst trees, their eyes locked in love. A large, angry dent had kicked the couple in their middle, distorting their features into shock and woe.

A nearby tub was warmed by a porcelain stove, its Parthenon column soaring to the ceiling. I touched the tub’s bottom; water glistened on my fingertips. Beethoven had just bathed. A damp muslin shirt and black stockings hung to dry on a clotheshorse nearby.

The end of my tour showed furniture that was pockmarked, dented, or scraped, of which a man of meager means would buy from a thrift store and abuse more.

Suddenly, the air smelled rank. Not like garbage or New York City refuse, but medicinal—a pungent, bittersweet odor that conjured unhappy memories of my mother’s medicine in the hospital.

My heart raced as I backed into the Broadwood, turned, and there it was, lying on top—the title page of the Ninth Symphony’s published manuscript. I put the candle down and hovered over the music. No one appeared at the doorway to catch me in the act; all was quiet. I picked up the score. Giddy joy leaped inside me. The Holy Grail of all who seek spiritual love and truth in music rested in my hands. But Beethoven was not finished with it. Numerical markings—Mälzel’s metronome beats— were scribbled along the margins by this stanza and that. More pages later, clumps of black notes hurried along, their symmetry creating hills and dips.

There, my favorite part: An die Freude with its solo voices mingling with the chorus, “Freude schöner Götterfunken/Tochter aus Elysium.” To my horror, long pencil slashes tore over the remaining pages of the chorus. Scribbled in the margins: “Replace with instruments.” Beethoven was altering this great work! “No, no, maestro, you cannot do this. Do not silence these angels,” I muttered with motherly concern as if he were standing by me.

The London performance came to life again. I closed my eyes and threw back my head. “O friends, no more these sounds!/Let us sing more cheerful songs full of joy!” An die Freude rushed at me with an orgiastic pleasure. The strings tensed, woodwinds blared, and kettledrums boomed with the chorus’s celestial voices rising higher, stronger, like great fists beating upon the gates of heaven until they burst open: “Und der Cherub steht vor Gott/vor Gott/vor Gott!”

SCHWEINEHUND!” came a roar at the back of my head. “Unhand my music!”

I flipped the manuscript into the air and spun about. “Jesus!”

An old man of snorting ferocity came to my face. Grey hair shocked about his head like a lion’s mane, as his small, brown, fierce eyes bore into mine as would red-hot pincers. Pieces of blood-dried paper stuck to his cheeks and gnarled chin.

“Impudence!” His rough paw gripped the edge of the piano top as he bent to snatch the fallen manuscript. “Outrageous rascal!”

His hair bounced as he sprang upright and slammed the music on the piano with such force, the instrument groaned and the candle jumped into the breakfast plate, extinguishing itself in the egg smear.

He glared at me more closely, raging beast in eye-to-eye combat with trembling cub. “Come to steal my music behind my back, have you? The whole PACK of you is enough to make me gnaw at the bit!”

I opened my mouth in defense. Nothing came out. Neither  apology nor tears could appease him.

“Have  you always  the habit of  molesting people’s  property?” he yelled.

His broad chest and swollen belly pinned me against the piano. That graceful curve I admired minutes ago stabbed me in the back. Desperately I wished to shrink into a mouse and scurry away. “Please, forgive me,” I begged.

A low, slow-rising chuckle rumbled from deep in his chest, then roared into laughter, so thundering in its volume that it threatened to shatter my face. He enjoyed unsettling my sanity. Mental cat-and-mouse games were not beneath him. “Beethoven is odd, insane, a misanthrope!  As ugly as Lucifer’s ass! Do I have the face of a monster?” He patted his papered face to prove his point, but his delight dropped into alarmed concern. “Good God.”

He stripped off a piece and winced as it pulled his skin, then he studied it. His expression of humiliation betrayed how grotesque he appeared to me. He shuffled to the cracked mirror above the washbasin, gazed upon his image, and peeled off another piece. “You would think,” he said to no one in particular, “that after forty years, Beethoven could master shaving himself.” His palms flew impatiently over his face and the papers snowed to the floor.  He snatched the  razor and flung it into the  tin basket of dented French lovers, creating a horrible noise, then wiped away what damage his razor left. “I shall never shave again.”

I hurried to the dining room doorway.

Herr Englischmann!” Beethoven’s hawk eye caught me in the mirror. I froze in place. He patted his face with a towel and threw it down, then approached me, tying  his  grey brocade robe about him.  Half of his white shirt collar, lined yellow with old perspiration, stuck out of the robe’s lapel. The bottoms of his baggy brown trousers sagged upon black kidskin slippers, their stitched sides splitting apart. Only his robe was decent.

He came close to me. I clutched the doorway for support. The twitching rage of his features softened before my vulnerability. He laid his wildness to rest, but instinct told me it could flare at any moment. One had to proceed cautiously.

“I do not bite,” Beethoven said quietly, “nor am I mad, no matter what others may have told you. People are only people.”

The truth of his own words drew down his expression into sadness. His arched black brows, streaked with grey, knit together. Unable to meet my gaze, he shuffled back to his bed and winced as he crawled upon the mattress. Kicking off his slippers, he leaned against the headboard, pulled the fur throw to his waist, and buried his face in his hands. A long exhausted breath blew from his chest.

Slowly, I picked up my valise. The sight of him hunched in a corner, surrounded by chaos, barely sustaining himself and his maid under straightened conditions, and possessed of unsettled frustration, aroused in me reason and empathy. The hopelessness in those fiery eyes. . .

Why was my father so isolated and lonely in his own home? I needed to help him, so that he could help me.

© L.A. Hider Jones. All rights reserved.

End of Chapter 16. To read more, you can purchase the book through Amazon.