Thursday, November 13, 2008

So Did They Kiss Or What?

The essence of the story is this: the boy Liszt, who was studying with Czerny, gave a concert in the small Redoutensaal in April, 1823. A few days earlier he was taken, in company with his father, to Beethoven's house. There is an entry in the Conversation Book, probably written by the father:

I have often expressed the wish to Herr von Schindler to make your high acquaintance and am rejoiced to be able now to do so. As I shall give a concert on Sunday the 13th I most humbly beg you to give me your high presence.

Schindler wrote:

Little Liszt has urgently requested me humbly to beg you for a theme on which he wishes to improvise at his concert tomorrow. [Some words crossed out] humilime dominationem Vestram, si placeat scribere unum Thema. [He humbly begs for the contribution of a theme, if you will be so kind.] He will keep it sealed until he opens it there...

The little fellow's free improvisations cannot yet, strictly speaking, be interpreted as such. The lad is a true pianist; but as far as improvisation is concerned, the day is still far off when one can say that he improvises...

Do come, it will certainly amuse Karl to hear how the little fellow plays.

After other entries. Schindler returns to the subject:

Won't you make up for the rather unfriendly reception of the other day by coming tomorrow to little Liszt's concert?

According to Nohl and Liszt himself, Beethoven did attend the concert, and much moved by the boy's phenomenal playing, went onstage, lifted the boy in his arms, and kissed him. Liszt's own account of his meeting Beethoven is this:

I was about eleven years old when my respected teacher Czerny took me to see Beethoven. already a long time before, he had told Beethoven about me and asked him to give me a hearing some day. However, Beethoven had such an aversion to infant prodigies that he persistently refused to see me. At last Czerny, indefatigable, persuaded him, so that, impatiently, he said, "Well bring the rascal to me, in God's name!" It was about ten o'clock in the morning when we entered the two small rooms in the Schwarzspanierhaus, where Beethoven was living at the time,* myself very shy, Czerny kind and encouraging. Beethoven was sitting at a long narrow table near the window, working. For a time he scrutinized us grimly, exchanged a few hurried words with Czerny and remained silent when my good teacher called me to the piano. The first thing I played was a short piece by Ries. When I had finished, Beethoven asked me whether I could play a fugue by Bach. I chose the fugue in C minor from the Well-Tempered Clavichord. "Could you also transpose this fugue at once into another key?" Beethoven asked me. Fortunately, I could. After the final chord, I looked up. The Master's darkly glowing gaze was fixed upon me penetratingly. Yet suddenly a benevolent smile broke up his gloomy features, Beethoven came quite close, bent over me, laid his hand on my head and repeatedly stroked my hair. "Devil of a fellow!" he whispered, "such a young rascal!" I suddenly plucked up courage. "May I play something of yours now?" I asked cheekily. Beethoven nodded with a smile. I played the first movement of the C major Concerto. When I had ended, Beethoven seized both my hands, kissed me on the forehead and said gently, "Off with you! You're a happy little fellow, for you'll give happiness and joy to many other people. There is nothing better or greater than that!" This event in my life has remained my greatest pride, the palladium for my whole artistic career. I speak of it only very rarely and only to my intimate friends.**

It is almost certain that Beethoven did not attend Liszt's concert. This did not prevent a 19th century artist from picturing the scene: Beethoven, having climbed onto the stage, embraces the boy. "Beethoven's kiss," if indeed it was bestowed, was more likely given in his room.***

* At the time he was not living there.
** Michael Hamburger, op. cit.
*** Sacheverell Sitwell in his biography of Liszt writes: "it seems unlikely that Beethoven attended the concert. He was too deaf to derive any pleasure from another person's playing. He certainly did not give Liszt the theme he had asked for upon which to improvise. But, on the authority of Liszt himself, the story is true that Beethoven climbed upon the stage at the end of the concert, lifted him in his arms, and kissed him. This personal testimony cannot be lightly contradicted, although it has been argued by his detractors that the story was merely invented as an advertisement for the young virtuoso.

"It is sufficient that Liszt knew Beethoven and that on some occasion, in public or more probably in private, perhaps in the master's own house, Beethoven should have been so impressed by his playing that he embraced him. This possibility, that the episode took place in Beethoven's own house, is certainly in accord with the version of it that used to be told by Ferdinand Hiller, a musician who was one of Liszt's early pupils."

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How's that for some 19th century filth?

I got that from a book called Beethoven, Biography of a Genius by George Marek. Like all good filth, it was almost free--$0.25 to be precise. It's a thick one too--696 pages. Sure it's kind of stilted in its writing, but full of fun facts and anecdotes like the one above.

Right before I spent $0.25 on a 696 page biography of Beethoven, I bought a chicken (dead) for $1.98 at the supermarket. Maybe this deflation thing isn't so bad after all. At least a new austerity is new, right--new is cool, right? Besides, why would Time magazine lie to us?

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Getting back to that kissable little Liszt, raise hands, how many of you can play a Bach Fugue? Now, how many of you can play the same Bach Fugue in another key? Now, how many of you can name a club (pardon me, "performance venue") where there is a (working) piano? Now, how many of those "performance venue's" return your multiple e-mails asking, nay begging them for a humble slot their busy activity calendar--perhaps on a slow day not dedicated to puppet shows or workshops on how to turn broken electronic toys from the 80's into avant-garde musical appliances that anyone can play?

Not that there's anything wrong with puppets or Speak & Spells rising from the bottom of the toy box to be given a fleeting avant-hipster moment at the "performance venue."

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Do they even count votes anymore?

Late breaking addition--at one point Obama had 333 electoral votes. Sadly that number didn't stick (I guess in the end the number is something like 338.) Anyhow, being the 44th president 40 years after that Kennedy situation, to be sworn in 77 days from now is enough numbers to give even the most lax of synchromystics plenty to think about.

"Developing" as they say...

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