“But I am Beethoven.”

I’ve already recycled a bit from John Suchet’s non-fictional book on Beethoven. Here is another bit from the same book (pp. 260-262 of my paperback edition – it follows a description of how Rossini met Beethoven, hence the Rossini reference in the first paragraph quoted). It illustrates what an eccentric state Beethoven was reduced to in later life, by his general state of ill-health, by his deafness, and by his lifelong tendency to do composing far better than he did living and getting along with other people:

It was probably in the autumn of this year, 1822, that an extraordinary event occurred that has become one of the legends surrounding Beethoven’s life. It was related to Thayer, again some forty years after the event, by a lithographer named Blasius Hofel for whom Beethoven sat, so as with many other tales of eccentricity it might have become embellished over the years, but as with Rossini’s account there is no reason to doubt its authenticity.

One autumn evening Hofel was enjoying an early-evening drink in the tavern Zum Schleifen (‘At the Ribbon’) in the Vienna suburb of Wiener Neustadt. Among the party was the local Commissioner of Police. It was already dark when a police constable came to the tavern to find the Commissioner.

‘Sir,’ said the constable, ‘we have arrested someone for behaving in a suspicious manner, He won’t be quiet. He keeps on yelling that he is Beethoven. But he’s just a tramp. He’s in a moth-eaten old coat, no hat. He has no identity papers, there’s no way of finding out who he is. We’re not sure what to do.’

‘Keep him under arrest overnight,’ replied the Commissioner. ‘We’ll speak to him in the morning and find out who he is.’

But it did not end there. As the Commissioner told Hofe! later, at eleven o’clock that night he was woken at home by a policeman who told him the man in custody would not quieten down, was still yelling that he was Beethoven, and was demanding that Anton Herzog, Musical Director in Wiener Neustadt, be called in to identify him.

The Commissioner decided he had better investigate. He went to Herzog’s house, woke him up, and asked him to accompany him to the police station. The Commissioner and Herzog were taken to the cell, and as soon as Herzog cast eyes on the tramp he exclaimed, ‘That is Beethoven!’

The Commissioner, no doubt congratulating himself that he had taken the matter seriously, ordered Beethoven’s immediate release. Herzog took him back to his own house, gave him the best room, assured him he would not be disturbed, and looked forward to seeing him for breakfast if he so wished, or if he preferred to sleep longer …

The next day the local Mayor came to Herzog’s house to apologise in person to the renowned composer for his treatment at the hands of an over-zealous police officer, gave Beethoven his best coat and the mayoral carriage to transport him home.

By then everyone knew what had happened. The day before Beethoven had got up early in the morning, put on his threadbare old coat, forgotten to take a hat, and set out for what he intended to be a short walk. He reached the towpath on the Danube Canal and followed it. He walked on for hours.

By late afternoon he ended up at the canal basin at the Un­gertor, a considerable distance from the city. He was totally lost and disorientated, and in a pitiful state having had nothing to eat all day. In this condition, tired, drawn, hungry, in tattered old clothes, he was seen by local people looking in at the windows of houses. They became suspicious and called the police.

A constable approached him and told him he was arresting him for behaving suspiciously.

‘But I am Beethoven.’

‘Of course you are. Why not? I’ll tell you what you are. You’re a tramp, and that Beethoven is no tramp.’ (‘Ein Lump sind Sie; so sieht der Beethoven nicht aus.’)

You cannot be unconventional if there are no conventions

Last October, I wrote about, and quoted Misha Donat writing about, the astonishing outburst that happens during the Andantino movement of Schubert’s penultimate Piano Sonata, D959.

In Standpoint, Jonathan Gaisman reflects on the value of artistic conventions, while writing about that same amazing passage:

We live now in an age which congratulates itself on the fact that art has succeeded in dispensing with aesthetic boundaries; however we do not always recognise what an impoverishment such freedom brings with it. If there are no conventions, it is impossible to be unconventional. In the middle section of the andantino, Schubert flouts every compositional principle, every concert-goer’s expectation. No wonder that András Schiff has said that the piece’s “modernity is incredible even today”. It is in effect a nervous breakdown in music, all the more remarkable from a composer who was writing at the dawn of the Romantic era but whose idiom and language are still classical.

Had Schubert not been cut down in his prime by syphilis, and had he not seen this coming, but had he instead lived to a ripe old age, composing all the while, would that actually have been, for us listeners, unambiguously better? Would he ever have written music like that, and like the other “late” masterpieces that he did write?

When classical music doubled up as pugilism: Beethoven knocks out Steibelt

John Suchet first wrote about Ludwig van Beethoven in the form of a three volume fictionalised biography. I recently read the first two volumes, but then switched to reading Suchet’s shorter, unfictionalised biography of Beethoven, which sticks closer to the known facts and cuts back on the flights of fancy.

But you suspect that Suchet still gets somewhat carried away. Here is his description (pp. 106-110) of a famous-at-the-time piano contest that took place between Beethoven and the noted Prussian virtuoso Daniel Steibelt, that took place in Vienna in 1800. Beethoven spent his life establishing himself as a composer, as distinct from relying on being a mere performer, and when his deafness struck he had no choice in the matter. He had to compose, and only to compose. But when he first arrived in Vienna, it was as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser, as well as composer, that Beethoven had first made his name.

Two regular themes at this blog are sport and classical music. In 1800, in Vienna, these two things were a lot closer than they are now:

It was customary at that time in Vienna for aristocrats to stage ‘improvisation contests’ in their salons. The way it would work was that their two virtuosos, with their supporters, would meet in a salon, and display their skills before an audience. This would involve playing their own compositions, possibly with an ensemble, and then setting tasks for each other. One would play a theme he had invented, which the other could not possibly have heard before, and improvise on it. The other would then go to the piano and try to emulate this. Then this second virtuoso would set a theme of his own invention, and the first player would have to copy that. Often it would involve imitation. If one pianist had a particular style, the other would imitate it. It was an evening’s entertainment in aristocratic Vienna.

Very soon after his arrival in Vienna, when aristocrats such as Lichnowsky realised what young Beethoven was capable of, they put him up against the local talent, and one by one he saw them off, at the same time steadily enhancing his reputation. Enter Daniel Steibelt, from Berlin, capital of Prussia, a renowned piano virtuoso with a fearsome reputation. Steibelt had stunned salon audiences in Berlin with his extraordinary virtuosity, enhanced by his trademark flourish, the tremolando. Now on a tour of European capitals, he had arrived in Vienna to conquer that city’s sophisticated musical cognoscenti. He brought with him something of a dashing reputation. He had been forced to join the Prussian army by his father, but had deserted to pursue a musical career.

It seems some of Beethoven’s friends went to hear Steibelt and were stunned at his virtuosity, to such an extent that they feared he might damage Beethoven’s reputation. This is probably why Beethoven, by now sick of these showcase events designed solely for the amusement of aristocrats, agreed to go along to the home of Count von Fries. He decided that he would play his recently published Trio for piano, clarinet and cello, which he had dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky’s mother-in-law. Steibelt brought along four musicians to perform his Piano Quintet.

The company assembled, including no doubt Prince Lichnowsky and his family. Beethoven and his musicians played first. His Trio was perhaps a slightly odd choice, since the piano part does not call for a particularly high degree of virtuosity. The work is in three movements, is fairly straightforward, and the critics welcomed it as being more easily comprehensible than the earlier published Op. l Piano Trios. The final movement is a set of variations on a well-known theme from a comic opera which had recently played successfully in Vienna.

There was polite applause from the salon audience, including Steibelt, who had listened ‘with a certain condescension’, and made a show of complimenting Beethoven. He took his position, with his musicians, in front of the audience, confident his Quintet would put Beethoven’s Trio in the shade and win the day. To make sure, he added some impressive (no doubt prepared) improvisation, and drew gasps from the audience with his audacious tremolandos.

At the end there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who had put on the more impressive display. All eyes turned to Beethoven, who as was usual at these events had the ‘right of reply’. Beethoven remained stubbornly in his seat and refused to play again. Steibelt had carried the day.

A week later it was decided to repeat the event, to stage a ‘rematch’. Given that Beethoven had been reluctant to attend the earlier evening, we can only assume his blood was up. Steibelt’s condescending behaviour, not to mention his ridiculously showy playing, had got under Beethoven’s skin. He was out for revenge.

There must have been an air of tension and anticipation in Count Fries’s salon on this second evening. Beethoven’s unpredictable temperament was well known. Everybody knew he had been bested a week earlier, and they would have seen the flare in his eyes and the set of his jaw. This spelled trouble.

Steibelt went first this time. He performed another of his quintets, which again met with great approval. Then he once again improvised on the piano, in a way that put his previous performance in the shade. It was brilliant. But he made a mistake, a serious mistake. There were gasps from the audience as they realised he had chosen the theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s own Trio, performed at the previous meeting, on which to improvise.

If the audience was shocked, Beethoven’s friends were appalled. That was nothing to how Beethoven felt. This time he needed no encouragement. He got out of his seat, stormed to the front, and as he passed the music stands snatched up the cello part of Steibelt’s Quintet. He sat roughly on the stool, all thoughts of salon etiquette gone, and made a show of putting the cello part on the piano stand upside-down.

He glared at the music, playing now to the audience, knowing he had everyone’s attention, aware that the decisive moment in the ‘Contest Beethoven v. Steibelt’ had come. With one finger he hammered out a series of notes from the first bar of Steibelt’s music. He made it sound exactly what it was: crude and unsophisticated. He then began to improvise. And boy, did he improvise. He imitated Steibelt’s playing, he unpicked it and put it back together again, he played some tremolandos, emphasising their absurdity. He played in a way no salon audience had heard before, and that Steibelt could not have believed was humanly possible.

It is easy to picture that powerful head, hair untamed, clothes inappropriate, fingers moving in a blur, no doubt singing, shouting, quite possibly hurling insults at the Prussian, who was probably sitting, back erect, powdered wig in place, clothes perfectly fitting, fingers curling tighter and tighter, as he realised he was not just being outplayed, he was being humiliated – in front of the most sophisticated musical gathering in the most sophisticated musical city in Europe.

Steibelt did not sit that way for long. With Beethoven still playing, he rose from his chair and strode out of the salon. He made it clear he never wanted to meet Beethoven again, and that if ever he was invited to perform again in Vienna, he would do so only if Beethoven was not present. In fact he took even more drastic action than that. He abandoned his tour and returned to Berlin to nurse his wounds. Some years later he went to St Petersburg and remained there for the rest of his life. He never returned to Vienna, and never met Beethoven again.

As for Beethoven, he was now – if there was any doubt before – the undisputed master of the keyboard in Vienna, if not Europe. Even Hummel, greatly admired, could not touch him. And following the drubbing of Steibelt, Beethoven was never again asked to take part in an improvisation contest. His position as Vienna’s supreme piano virtuoso was established once and for all.

Flash grief

So here I was, all set to do a great excerpt from a book about Beethoven. But then, my scanning software suddenly wasn’t working. I alerted The Guru. After the usual palaver about “Is it plugged in?” and “Is the scanner connected to the computer?” (yes and yes) The Guru then spent a while operating my computer from a distance (he has this particular superpower) and he then revealed that the reason my old scanning software had stopped working was that it made use of Adobe Flash, and Adobe Flash has recently given up the ghost.

So, another scanning system was installed, and I am now struggling to make sense of it. The Guru is very wise, but he suffers from the affliction of many gurus, which is that he supposes that what is to him obvious is surely quite easy also for the rest of us to understand. I have to explain it to him that what is obvious to him is, for me, downright impenetrable and bordering on impossible. To him, the new software is easy. He is used to getting to grips with new software. To him, that’s easy. For me, even when he has taken me through every small step, this new piece of software is still a great swirl of confusion, and I need a clear day to get to grips with it.

It is now nearly midnight, and so instead of that Beethoven book excerpt, which I will try to do tomorrow, there has only been time for this.


Yes, Osimertinib. It’s an anti-cancer drug. It derives its power to fight my particular cancer from a test having been done to determine the genetic nature of the cancer that I now have.

Journalists often like to describe those of us suffering from it as “battling” cancer. Well, with me, there is definitely battling going on, thank goodness, but I am only a very minor warrior in the battle. My major involvement is that my body is one of the many battlefields in which this sort of battle is happening. (I seem to recall that Christopher Hitchens said something like this in this.)

My “strategy”, if you can call it that, has been to proceed on the assumption that the judgement of the Royal Marsden’s cancer experts, about what will give me the best chance of a bit more life, is my best bet. I’m not second guessing these people. I have done very little reading to determine if their treatment makes sense. I am simply of the belief that their best guess is better than anything else available. Friends who have dug deeper, including my sister the former NHS GP, have given me no reason to doubt my bet. On the contrary, they agree about how very lucky I am to be living near to the Marsden.

I am taking my Osimertinib in the form of tablets, one each day, because this is what my seniors in the battle judge to be the best treatment. This evening, I just swallowed the sixth of a course of thirty such tablets that I have been proscribed. I have been told that right around now, I might start feeling rather better.

So, am I feeling any better? I think so, but I’m not sure. I have recently been rather ill. Headaches, shivery skin, weakness in the limbs, increased coughing, a runny nose, that sort of stuff. This felt like it was the cancer getting worse. But what if I was just, you know, ill, as a distinct thing? And is all of that illness getting less bad now? Rather hard to say, but I would say, probably, yes. It all feels complicated.

I have retreated into my comfort zone. By doing daily postings for here. By keeping more than half a nocturnal ear on the cricket, both in Australia and in Sri Lanka. By listening to music and reading stuff. And, in addition to more nutritional stuff, I’ve been having occasional servings of salt and caramel ice cream. Basically I am taking the pills, and waiting for them to work.

Wish me luck.

A link

Another rough day, I’m afraid, so not a lot here.

But something there, with a couple of quotes from a book about Beethoven. But quotes not about Beethoven. About war.

Norman Lebrecht has a go at Barenboim (and Igor Levit is not a God either)

I actually don’t think that the things Norman Lebrecht quotes star classical pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim saying about the nature of the Covid ordeal now being suffered by him and his fellow musicians and performers are really that terrible. Barenboim was trying to get across the all-embracing inescapability of the thing. He compared it to World War 2, pointing out that there were places in the world where you could escape from that war. True, he might had been wise to add a phrase like “if you were lucky”. Because as Lebrecht then argues, millions were not so lucky, could not escape World War 2 and suffered horrors and deaths way worse that anything now being endured by all but the most unlucky of the Covid generation.

Concludes Lebrecht:

This is a really unwise statement.

Maybe, but personally I doubt it. I would say that, for once, that this is a case where “clarification” is really all that should be needed, and maybe not even that. It was clear enough what Barenboim was at least trying to say.

But what I do relish about Lebrecht is his willingness to disagree in public with classical music’s various star performers when they express what he considers to be foolish opinions outside of their core competence. And in general, when he reckons they are not doing their jobs well enough to justify their often stonkingly unequal remuneration.

Especially when you consider the kind of power that people like Barenboim wield from their perches at the top of the musical world, often without even realising it.

And, when you consider the crawling reverence with which these people are now mostly treated by such broadcasting organisations as the BBC.

I have a recording from off the radio of a Proms performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto (which is one of my very favourite pieces), in which rising star pianist Igor Levit was the soloist. And very well he played it. (I happen greatly to prefer Levit’s way with this concerto to how Barenboim is in the habit of playing it.) But the spoken BBC intro, particularly as perpetrated by the BBC’s Petroc Trelawney, was some of the most grovellingly ridiculous verbiage I have recently heard on a serious radio station. Based on how Levit plays this concerto, and having heard him play Bach and Beethoven solo piano music that I happen also to own on CD, I think Levit is a fine pianist. But Trelawney spoke about Levit’s trick, to take a particularly ridiculous example, of bringing a bar of chocolate with him to fortify him during a hard evening of piano playing as if this were evidence that Levit is some sort of Higher Being, far above us mortals. It was embarrassing.

Norman Lebrecht, I think, often grabs hold of whatever stick he happens to be shaking at the wrong end. He is a man of impulse, and I think this often leads him astray. But he is right that this kind of grovelling to the big beasts of classical music should stop.

Copland creatures on a keyboard

More creature stuff. Earlier this evening, I spoke on the phone with friends, exchanging Christmas greetings. The teenage daughter of the family is about to do Grade 8 piano or some such unimaginably precocious thing, and one of the piano pieces she’s doing is by Aaron Copland, entitled The Cat and the Mouse. The idea is that it’s the noise that happens when a cat chases a mouse over a piano keyboard. Never heard of this piece until today. For me, Copland is those cheerful orchestral pieces that everyone knows, like Rodeo and Appalachian Spring. I played a YouTube video of it, done by a kid, and I have to say that to me it just sounded like a fun piece of music.

But here’s a ten year old girl playing it at a Lang Lang master class, back in 2010. She certainly seemed to relate to it. Maybe the mere idea of it being a cat and a mouse running about on a keyboard was enough to get her going. So good is this Kate Lee that I found myself digressing into wondering what she is doing now. I could find nothing of hers since 2017, when she played the first movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto with her school orchestra, than whom she was decidedly better. Presumably she’s studying piano at some music college now, keeping her head down. With Lang Lang on her side, if that is still how it is, she should do well. But then again, how many more oriental piano prodigies are there out there?

Looking forward to hearing the friends’ daughter play this piece.

Good morning Mozart

This morning, really quite early in the morning as it happened, I was able to walk past that Mozart statue, in what I think of as Pimlico Square. And because I’m not a morning person, and because the statue is so small and rather hidden away, I did walk past it, and had to retrace my steps. But back I went, and attempted more photos of it:

Once again, however, Young Mozart was silhouetted, this time by not himself being able to partake of the morning sun, but also by buildings behind him which did better. The only way to see his face was to zoom in on it.

Just like those Parliament Square statues I struggled to photo even okay for so long, I suspect the trick might be to go back there in the summer, but with clouds to stop the light all coming from the same direction.

I like how this statue says that already, even at his young age, Mozart already knew just what he was doing and how to command an audience. Or, maybe it’s just a case of him standing on a pedestal, which puts him in command automatically.

The great thing about statues is they stay put, and you can keep going back until you get them right. (See also Bartok.)

Crowd scenes

I’ve never been that interested in crowd scenes, until Sod’s Law swung into action and banned them.

So I went trawling through the archives, and to see if I could find any. I found … a few:

Tate Modern 2004, Hampstead Heath 2005, Farnborough 2012;
Trafalgar Square NFL gathering 2011, Blackheath Concert 2018, View from Tower Bridge 2019;
The Dome 2019, Bryan Caplan Lecture London 2019, South of France classical concert 2020.

That’s the trick of photoing. You need to know what is, at any particular time, temporary. In a few years time, I sincerely hope, crowd scenes will seem the most natural thing in the world. Again.