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?

 

 

Composer Alex Berko

Alex Berko, right, with composer John Wineglass and conductor Max Bragado-Darman at Glen Deven Ranch in Big Sur

WHAT A DIFFERENCE 5 months can make. What a difference one week or even one moment can make. It certainly feels like a lifetime since I last sent an update—we lived in a completely different world back in January…just 5 months ago. As Tom Hanks put it in his graduation speech to Wright State University:

“Part of [our] lives will forever be identified as ‘before,’ in the same way other generations tell time like ‘that was before the war, or ‘that was before the internet,’ or ‘that was before Beyoncé.’ The word ‘before’ is going to carry great weight with [us].”

In the spirit of drawing lines between the before, the now, and the what will be, I’ll be writing this letter in a bit of a different way than in the past:
THE BEFORE
Back in February and March, I was in the thick of finishing up my first year of course work at Rice. Me and my colleague, the wonderful flutist Tyler Martin, were prepping to premiere a new piece of mine for his Master’s recital. I was working on two new commissions for Chicago-based choirs, Stare at the Sun and Constellation Men’s Ensemble. I was appointed as a Composer in Residence with Luzerne Music Center and I was teaching my wonderful Rice Preparatory department students on Saturdays. Laura and I went to our first rodeo (that is a holiday here in Texas). For very good reasons, this has all been cancelled/postponed.
THE NOW
My world has slowed down quite a bit and I have found a lot of comfort in that. My first year of grad school ended uneventfully in April and since then, I have settled in to my new normal. My time is spent cooking a lot, reading, running, teaching online, and continuing to write, though it has been tough to find the right notes…
A wonderful article by Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian was posted on icareifyoulisten.com. It talked about the pressures that many artists are feeling now to create more than ever before and eloquently put the importance of prioritizing your health and well-being over work:

“My humble hope is that after all this, there will be a wild explosion of art to celebrate. The Black Plague gave us the vitality of the Renaissance. The Great Depression gave us bursts of experimentation in cinema and music. Crisis after crisis, the flowers continue to bloom, artists create new work, we find the stamina to go forward, and life carries on. But let’s process this as best as we are able. Let’s be kind to our hearts. Let’s choose to take care of ourselves now, however that individually manifests itself to each of us, so that we may best position ourselves for those projects we care so much about. With this choice, I am beginning to daydream again.” 

Now, I don’t believe that this is the time to stop creating altogether. I’m still writing, but I’m finding myself doing so in a different way. Words are coming quicker than music, but in so much of my music, words are equally, if not more important. I’m writing a lot of words and when the music is ready, I’ll have a few things to say.

THE WHAT WILL BE

I miss live performance as I’m sure you do, too. Countless premieres and performances of music and theater have been cancelled and I’m mourning for all of my gigging musician friends who have lost all of their work for the foreseeable future. What I’m holding on to is the moment when we all get to sit in a hall or stand on stage again and have our ears and hearts filled with the amazing sounds of others. To me and to so many others, music isn’t worth much if we can’t share it (not behind a screen…in person) and I know that I’m certainly missing sharing.

Come the fall, there will still be plenty of uncertainty. It may be unlikely that this year, choirs will sing again and orchestras will play again. But, at some point they will, and when that day comes, I just know that we’ll all need to hear those living, breathing sounds more than ever before. We’ll celebrate together.

I sincerely hope that you and your family are safe and healthy and finding some light in all of this darkness.

Much love,
Alex