In M. Beethoven imagining and if the legendary composer had spent time in Boston
In 1833, JJ Whatson, a sailor, and Peter Wortley, a shoemaker, arrived in Boston on a ship named Florida. It is not known why they came, and other than the passenger list held by the National Archives, they have left no other mark in history. We don’t know anything about them, their trip, or what happened to the ship as it crossed the Atlantic. One thing is certain, however: Ludwig van Beethoven was not the.
But he could have been. Barely a decade earlier, Samuel Richardson, founding member of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, had made an opening to Beethoven through a connection to Vienna. The Society wanted to commission the great composer to produce a biblical oratorio to be performed in Boston. Busy completing his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven never responded – such is his stature that this snub is considered a notable piece of the Society’s tradition. If he had agreed, however, it is conceivable that Beethoven would have crossed the ocean, perhaps on the Florida, and settled in Boylston Hall to hear his last composition performed for the very first time.
For Paul Griffiths, novelist, librettist, and former music critic for The New Yorker and The New York Times, this counterfactual premise is too good to be overlooked. In his latest book, “Mr. BeethovenHe imagines the composer sharing a cabin with Whatson and Wortley, disembarking at Lewis Wharf and beginning the long, arduous work of creating an oratorio based on the Book of Job, while frequenting the upper crust of 19th century Boston. The result is a novel full of wit and empathy, which provides an in-depth insight into the composition of classical music and historical literature through playful and inventive prose.
Griffiths, an admirer of Georges Perec’s constrained writing techniques, has set himself some basic rules. On the one hand, all of Beethoven’s dialogues in the book are taken verbatim, from the published letters of the composer. Everything he says in the book is something he said in life, placed in a new context. Additionally, Griffiths is committed to pulling back the veil on his approach, openly discussing his research methods and the relative plausibility of his narrative choices in the text. âNot that long ago,â he writes of the Florida, âthe task of finding what might have been this particular shipâ¦ would have presented, well, quite a bit of difficulty. â¦ Now everything can be done at home at no cost, thanks to the Familysearch website supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He also likes to experiment with form. Every now and then he’ll think better of a choice he made and reset the scene, going back to allow it to play out differently and take the narrative in a different and more appropriate direction. In one chapter, he expresses the tone of two characters having an argument through dynamic marks commonly found in musical notation (e.g., fff, triple strong or very, very strong). While these tactics could easily have come across as cheap gimmicks, they succeed because, under intelligence, Griffiths has built an emotionally resonant story about the nature of artistic collaboration and communication.
Beethoven’s relationship with Mrs. Hill, a musically-minded widow who helps refine the lead libretto he was loaded with, and Thankful, a young lady from Martha’s Vineyard who acts as a sign language interpreter of the deaf composer, are rich in emotions and feelings. And with Thankful, you can watch Griffiths build the character in real time. âIt must be a girl, for a girl they would think more patient, more reliable,â he wrote. âComing from Martha’s Vineyard, she will probably have to be the daughter of a family whose resources come from farming or fishing.
Few historical figures are as well documented as Ludwig von Beethoven, and Griffiths makes extensive use of the primary sources, biographies and musical analysis available to create both his character and a fictional oratorio that fits into the composer’s work. âWhile the first stanza of Elihu’s solo has the freshness of a folk song,â he writes of the performance, âother parts, even of this number, are densely worked on, being both harmoniously adventurous and superimposed on the story. â Frankly, this is an apt description of the book itself.
But by putting together factual information to create an entirely plausible false reality, Griffiths shows that on some level the whole story is just a story that we tinker with by interpreting the available facts in whatever way we think is plausible. As perspectives and tastes change in the present, our view of history also changes, and while we may have more to do with rebuilding Beethoven than with Whatson and Wortley, in the end, this is still largely conjecture. Sometimes even the facts turn out to be fictions – in the 1970s it was discovered that Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s first biographer, had peppered his work with forgeries to pass himself off as a close confidant of the composer. These lies have misled historians and critics for over a century.
Combining in-depth scholarship with a broad-minded philosophical perspective, Griffiths has written a thought-provoking novel about the possibility that prompts us to seriously think about what we know and how we know it. He invites readers to join him in taking on the challenges of reimagining the past, and the spirit of spontaneity he offers is irresistible.
By Paul Griffiths
New York Review Books, 312 pages, $ 17.95
Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance literary critic from Boston. He can be contacted at [email protected].