Beethoven’s “The Kiss”

By Norman Lebrecht

AS BEETHOVEN LAY DYING the vultures descended. Friends, neighbours, acquaintances, passers-by, tourists and tradesmen, all popped in to see how he was getting on, some to make off with whatever they could. Any portable possession that might have value as a posthumous trophy was taken. While he slept, people cut off locks of his hair. One was the young composer Ferdinand Hiller whose motives were slightly purer. Hiller thought the lock might somehow lead him to the physical secrets of Beethoven’s genius. The gruesome relic languished in his family for a century and more until it was put up for sale. There was a regular trade in the auction rooms in locks of Beethoven’s hair, some of them genuine.

One came into the possession of Dr. Alfredo Guevara, an attention-seeing urologist in Arizona, near the Mexican border. Guevara subjected the lock to multiple laboratory tests in an effort to support his contention that Beethoven’s failing health and death were caused by syphilis. Relying on a memoir by a Viennese cellist, the good doctor convinced himself that Beethoven consorted with prostitutes and caught his death of the pox. Most musical scholars think this unlikely.

Beethoven was a prudish man, embarrassed by talk of sex. He fought long and hard to stop his brother from marrying a woman of what he considered to be loose morals, and he wrested his nephew away from her care after his brother died. He disapproved of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni for its licentiousness. He shunned people who were living in sin, even aristicrats who could have been of good use to him. He may have enjoyed a night out getting drunk with a cellist but he was not the kind of man who relieved his urges in a brothel, even when drunk.

Beethoven had grown up with his father’s alcoholism and bawdiness, and with his mother’s accusations of licentiousness and infidelity. It may well be that his inability ever to form a relationship with a woman stemmed from a deep-seated fear of sex, that it might deflect him from the path of righteousness and from his creative destiny. By his last years he had put all thoughts of romance and desire behind him.

So it comes as a considerable shock to find that Beethoven, high-minded and in the midst of writing the Missa Solemnis, broke off his spiritual quest to write a little ditty called The Kiss. We have no idea why he did it.

The words are by Christian Felix Weisse, whose poems had previousy been set by Mozart. The text reads as follows:

I was with Chloe all alone,
And really wanted to kiss her:
But she said she would give a shriek,
That nothing would come of it.

But I got brave and kissed her,
Notwithstanding her resistance.
And did she shriek? Oh yes, she shrieked.
But that was a long time after.

I find this insignificant song incredibly reassuring. A broken man, cut off by his deafness, has a sudden impulse to be young again, to snatch a kiss from a passing Chloe, to give himself and her the satisfaction of human connection. What could possibly be more uplifting?



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LIMITED LINES  Choreographed for Suttle Dance Company in Detroit by founder Sylvia Suttle, daughter of former Monterey Symphony music director Clark Suttle.



JOHN WINEGLASS, who has had commissioned premieres by the Monterey Symphony (Big Sur: The Night Sun) and Cabrillo Festival (Someone Else’s Child) is writing a violin concerto for the Symphony and soloist Edwin Huizinga. Click HERE


COMPOSERS answer challenging questions. Several of them speak up. Click HERE


LEON FLEISHER, who long-suffered from injury to his right hand, was 92. His Beethoven and Brahms piano concerto recordings with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra remain legendary. Click HERE





RHIANNON GIDDENS is a multi-racial artist who embodies Silkroad Ensemble’s values of embracing difference and sparking radical cultural collaboration and passion-driven learning to create a more hopeful and inclusive world. These qualities—and more—make her perfectly suited to lead Silkroad’s artistic vision into the future. Click HERE


CLASSICAL MUSIC is trying to outrun its age. Click HERE





THOMAS TALLIS (1505-1585) is probably best known today for his anthem “Why fum’th in fight” that resurfaced in the Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis of 1910—the work that put the late-blooming RVW on the global musical map. But the Tallis tale goes much deeper; a composer of choral motets and anthems in the years after Henry VIII defiantly established the Church of England, Tallis also straddled the transition from renaissance polyphony to ‘well-tempered’ harmony, the practice which has dominated Western music right up to the present. A Tallis contemporary, Alessandro Striggio, had gained fame for composing a 40-voice motet, “Ecce beatam lucem,” which inspired the 4th Duke of Norfolk to commission a work of similar ambition by an Englishman. Tallis accepted the challenge and created “Spem in alium nunquam habui” (I never have put my hope in any other) for eight vocal ensembles of five voices each. To celebrate the 450th anniversary of the extraordinary Tallis work, Suzi Digby and her ORA Singers recorded it on CD and DVD, scheduled for release on August 21. For the occasion, the Scottish composer James MacMillan was commissioned to write a new 40-voice motet, which makes its debut on this album. MacMillan followed the formal outline of the Tallis and chose the text “Vidi aquam egredientem de templo” (I saw water flowing out of the temple). If anything, the MacMillan is even more transparent and therefore gripping than the Tallis. (Both works last about nine minutes in performance.) The DVD contains the full performances of both as well as a conversation between Digby and MacMillan. Between the two bookends of the Tallis and MacMillan, ORA sings 16th century motets by Derrick Gerarde, Alfonso Ferrabosco, William Byrd, Philip van Wilder. Two more Tallis motets are included. SM



WHAT A GREAT SERVICE, and what a wonderfully presented, attractive site. Thanks for helping to keep the arts alive around our lovely Monterey Bay! ~Gary A Patton, Santa Cruz


THERE ARE FEW MORE enjoyable ways to while away an evening in lockdown than discovering the work of Ylvis, a Norwegian comedy duo. Made up of brothers Vegard and Bard Ylvisaker, the band produces delightfully absurd pastiches of various kinds of music. Many of the songs were written in English for their variety TV show, “Tonight With Ylvis”, and are best consumed on YouTube with the zany accompanying videos. This is music designed to be appreciated at home, where the lyrics can be easily digested and the videos paused or repeated when laughter ensues. Much of Ylvis’s comic appeal lies in the way they treat everyday, even banal, themes with deadpan gravity. They wrote a song about animal noises, asking “What does the fox say?” (see below) and parodying European electronic pop, because they “wanted to make a very good production about something very stupid,” Vegard explains. It is an irresistible earworm, topping the charts in Norway and reaching number six on the Billboard chart in America. The video has been watched nearly 1bn times online. The country-inflected “Massachusetts” is a tongue-in-cheek ode to America’s 15th-most-populous state (it angered some Bay Staters by suggesting that they were homophobic). “Russian Government Process,” in the style of a traditional folk song, pokes fun at that country’s opaque bureaucracy—as the music increases in tempo, the list of instructions becomes harder to understand. They have also written lampoons of sultry R’n’B (“The Cabin”), misogynistic hip-hop (“Work It”) and dubstep (“Someone Like Me”). Besides their sheer range, what sets Ylvis apart from other comedy groups is the catchiness of the melodies and the brothers’ versatile and prodigious talents. You will try—and fail—to hit their high notes in the shower. In these dull, repetitive days, their work is a heartening reminder that even anodyne things can be a source of inspiration. (Excerpted from The Economist, July 18, 2020.)



OUR PHILIP PEARCE thanks the Monterey County Theatre Alliance for making available a Zoom-cast of Howard Burnham’s In a Dream within a Dream. It’s still available to watch. Click HERE


Scott MacClelland, editor; Rebecca CR Brooks, associate editor