The History Channel runs a very good podcast and the episode that’s been staying with me over the past few days is a mini biography they recently did of Ludwig van Beethoven, the composer who’d gone completely deaf by the time he composed his most famous piece, “Ode to Joy”—which I’d heard before (we’ve all heard the tune) but I’ve never really known how to appreciate it. I still don’t know how to appreciate it. If I hear a classical recording, and I enjoy it, my first thought is, “Imagine how much I’d enjoy this if I knew what a tuba looked like.”
But knowing something about the guy, and about the milieu in which he composed it, did at least make me more appreciative of how complicated the tune is, and how remarkable it is that it was composed by a guy who couldn’t fuckin hear it. Made me think critically about even just the fact that there are a buncha different instruments being coordinated in a single effort—and that all of those instruments are being handled by people with tremendous talent—and all of those people with tremendous talent are forsaking the ability to do their own thing and are instead choosing to work together to create something remarkable…
I started to get a kind of emotional warmth at the thought of it. I could kinda see myself entering that reactionary tunnel where you sometimes see people wiping at a tear during an opera (a caliber of refinement I don’t think I’ll ever achieve).
But in the course of this podcast they interview one of his biographers, Jan Swafford, who happens to be a composer himself and who clearly has some pretty strong feelings about his subject because they dude’s voice is emotional to the point of cracking almost all through the episode. He even weeps at one point.
My dad gets on my nerves sometimes with his contention (I think it’s wrong) that the overwhelming majority of writers, if propositioned with having a modest income, but the literary legacy of Franz Kafka, versus great wealth, like Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code), but a guarantee that they’ll be forgotten after their death (like Dan Brown), they’d choose the latter.
That they’d all choose wealth over respect.
Which I think reflects a pretty poor impression of writers, on his part (and also maybe an underestimation of writers’ vanity), but when I hear this biographer getting so goddamn emotional over Beethoven, it’s a nice reminder that, no, they (we?) aren’t all in it for the money.
Neither was Beethoven, apparently.