Nine minutes and 49 seconds with Ludwig van Beethoven

About twenty-five years ago, I had an inspiration – make a bundle of money by writing a screenplay about the maestro. I researched the project for a year, reading scores of biographies (the best, I think, is the moving and insightful “Beethoven: His Spiritual Development” by J.W.N. Sullivan). I also read Beethoven’s letters and his conversation books (that record what people he was with wrote to communicate with him after he became deaf). My screenplay was mediocre. My subsequent play: ho-hum. Then, a couple of years ago, it dawned on me. I am first and foremost a poet, and though I had a put a lid on poetry when I went to Northwestern University’s graduate ad program, I was writing poetry again. Isn’t it time to revisit Beethoven?

The poem is addressed to a woman he profoundly loved when he was young – and still loves. There is much speculation about who the significant women were in his life and, especially, who is the “Immortal Beloved” that he was on the verge of running away with. The movie, “Immortal Beloved,” starring Gary Oldham (who is brilliant playing Beethoven) is based on the ridiculous notion that the woman was his brother’s wife (who, in fact, he loathed). For my purposes, I did not need to identify the woman he still cherishes.

As for its title: It took me nine minutes and 49 seconds to read this Beethoven poem aloud.


Head of Beethoven, Emile Antoine Bourdelle (The Cleveland Museum of Art ) (CC0 1.0)

Nine minutes and 49 seconds with Ludwig van Beethoven

I wish to send you news of me today.
But, then, I think, by doing so,
I would be trying too hard to make myself important
to you again,
after these 30 years.
It’s best to let the past enjoy its life in the past.
Yet, how often I wish to have people such as you
about me.

I live far away from nearly everybody
whom I love or could love.
My best friends have not heard from me for years,
especially if we had a row.

If I think I’ve been mistreated and feel hurt,
nothing can convince me I’m wrong.
I know the purest, most innocent feelings can be misconstrued.
The pain you caused me has long since been forgiven.
There are moments I long to be with you.
I shall never find compensation
for losing you.

At the first light of day, I look out the window.
The forest is as lovely and vivid to me
as you and the day we parted.

They say I’ve grown more coarse, but remain honest and unaffected,
that I bluntly say whatever I think
and my thoughtlessness prevents me from seeing
matters in their proper light.
In my letters, they say it’s hard to find out what I mean.
Great thoughts drift through me
but I have no command over words.
What do I care for commas, semicolons or periods?
What do I care for prudence and self-restraint?
It’s all the same to me.

What most people wish to see and hear
is what they see and hear.
They have no sense for the power of beauty,
no appreciation for sweetness and light.
What they say amounts to nothing.
They do nothing to make themselves understood.
Mostly, they only see themselves in others.
But, then, I saw the best parts of myself in you.

I’m told you’ve never been back to Vienna.
Let me reassure you that you still cannot find an honest servant here.
From the emperor to the black boot,
all are worthless.
They jump about! They always begin right at the top!
Always maestros! Always D-flat!
They beat upon kettles and frying pans,
blow whistles and horns
to drive away demons of evil and ill luck.
As long as they have brown beer and sausages,
they will never know despair.

I still have enemies, by no means few.
Many pianists here are my deadly enemies.
Otherwise, I might enlighten them
on the right position and use of the hands,
particularly the thumb.

After we parted, I improvised every night,
sometimes variations on a given theme,
sometimes with no direction
except where my heart wandered.
I would later learn an enemy,
capable merely of fashionable melodies of no significance,
had noted down my peculiarities in composing
and passed off my music as his own.

One night I improvised at a social gathering.
Suddenly, I turned around and saw the fools were weeping.
I ran home, never to play for them again.

I, on the other hand, fear to hear other people’s music
on the off chance it would sacrifice my originality.

Did I bore you often with complaints about my teachers?
I’m still compelled to take exception.
They were envious and did not wish me well.
Of my first three trios, Haydn advised me not to publish
the C minor, though he knew it was the best.
Plus, he insisted I note on the title page, “pupil of Haydn.”
Yes, I had instruction from him
but I learned nothing from him.
Nor from Albrechtsberger (pedantic).
Nor Salieri (trivial).

Ah, whatever is good and beautiful needs no teachers.
It simply exists without anyone’s help.

And there was a chance, even after we parted,
I should be the happiest of men
if the demon had not forever pitched his tent in my ear.
If I had any other profession, it would not be so bad.
The very sense which should be more highly developed in me
than in other men,
a sense I once possessed in its most perfect form.

At least we were together before the demon claimed me in full.

What humiliation to stand beside someone who hears
a flute in the distance and I hear nothing.
In the theater, to lean against the railings
close to the orchestra and still not hear
the high notes or the singing voices.
And when people talk softly, to hear
their tones, but not their words.

My ears whistle and roar incessantly.
I still have a burning terror I must reveal myself.
In conversation, it’s a marvel most people only think
I’m absentminded.

Night and day, I avoid social functions.
Refined conversations, mutual effusions of thought
are denied to me.

I cannot bear to be yelled at
and I cannot bear to say to men,
goddamn you, speak louder,
for I am deaf.

Lavater believed he could heal my sickness
through the power of his right hand.
For years, impudent doctors, like him, aggravated my affliction.

I easily might have put an end to my life.
Only one thing held me back: Art.
Oh, it seemed impossible to leave this world
until I produced all I feel capable of producing.

I live only in my scores and before one is completed,
another is already on the way.
I often write three or four works at the same time.

In these works, every theme is elaborated —
mysteries, uncertainties and doubts —
my notes functional rather than decorative,
in a manner peculiar to truth, different from the rest.

They pay me next to nothing
for the work that takes so much time and effort.
Owing to unreliable copying, I have to examine
each voice individually.
To translate my art to strings,
whole passages must be omitted or changed.

I do not need to change anything in my style of composition
though the difficulties of my work are often pointed out to me.

“Fidelio,” for instance, they can’t perform
nor do people wish to hear it.

Meanwhile, for years, I prayed, let me find her at last,
a woman, such as you, who would strengthen virtue in me,
and who is permitted to be mine.

But fate or the configurations of my brain
that dictate personality and ability
would not allow it.

As I demonstrated to you, I am not consistently virtuous.
Therefore I meet disgrace
and no woman can endure me.

Alas, I’ve considerably lowered my standards.
Recently, I set my sights on a peasant girl
whose father is renowned for slovenliness.

I spy her across the fence, pitchfork in hand,
She flaunts her charms on a cart laden with hay and manure,
and performs the waggle dance,
the one bees use
to communicate the direction and distance of food.

Oh how she ignores me as I wave my white handkerchief!
She prefers green farm hands
adapted to the environment
and most likely to reproduce.

Resignation! What a miserable refuge.
Yet for me it’s all that remains.
It’s a curse.
The most excellent among us derive joy
from suffering.

It’s only my music that matters.
I’m not a philosopher or saint,
a lover or father.

In life, you travel and find a nice inn
and though you like it,
it doesn’t mean you want to stay there forever.
For us, my darling, it was a place of passage merely.

I would be happy enough again to own an angora
waistcoat knit by your own hand.
The last one fashion has ages ago made unfashionable
and I can only hold it dear to me in my wardrobe
and fancy there’s still a scent of you inside it.

Recommend virtue to your children
because virtue alone, not money,
can grant happiness.
Give my best to your husband.
They tell me he is an excellent man.

If you go to the ruins at Baden, think that I lingered there.
If you wander through the mysterious fir forests,
think it was there that I composed.

I have not found anyone
who feels or understands my compositions as well as you.

However much you remember me,
my remembrance of you is greater.

Know this secret:
It’s you.
No other woman can fully possess my heart,