The first love of my life was not Beethoven. But he was the first who was dead.
The first who was alive, I don’t mind confessing to you, was Leslie Uggams. She sang in front of the band on Mitch Miller’s variety show on Sunday evenings. Every week like clockwork one brother or the other would tease me with “It’s Sunday, James, guess who’s on TV tonight” or some other such snarky comment. Snarkiness is the whole purpose of older brothers, I came to realize, but I didn’t know it at the time. I never missed Leslie Uggams, though, whose smile was broader than the television screen. The teasing was a small agony to endure for the smile and the song. In spite of that agony, though, I tuned in week after week; that’s how I knew it was love, albeit that of a four-year-old.
The second love of my life, around the same time, was Leonard Bernstein, whom I also knew only from television. My first glimpse was a Young People’s Concert where, demonstrating with the New York Philharmonic, he made the majesty of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as accessible as Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” There were a lot of young persons in that Carnegie Hall audience on that black-and-white screen, and he spoke to them so personably that I felt he was speaking directly to me, too, through the magic of public television.
There was no dark side, no sturm und drang, to either of these puppy loves, or infatuations, or crushes, whatever you want to call them, so I won’t deny that they might not have been true love. When I think back, I realize that what I had really fallen in love with was Music.
The first love of my life that got me in trouble, though—so you know it was true love—was Beethoven.
I had started playing piano at age three, after climbing on the bench next to my father with a “Show me how to do that.” He showed me.
I was five when I started first grade. That very first week of September, my parents telephoned Mrs. Dalbeck to sign up my older brothers and me for piano lessons. She must have said something like “he’s too young,” because next thing I know, my father stretched out the phone cord to the archway of the living room and told me to play “In the Mood” for her, nice and loudly so she could hear it. Which I did—backwards. She heard, and that was that.
In the third grade, I performed an original composition of mine called “Indian Hippies” at an assembly in front of the whole school.
By the time I was in fourth grade, we had already seen on television the first two Peanuts specials—A Charlie Brown Christmas and Charlie Brown’s All Stars. By then I had been helping my oldest brother deliver newspapers for a year or two, devouring the daily comics page en route. My favorite comic strip was Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, I suppose because all the characters were roughly my age, except for this one dog (and later his friend a little bird). Schroeder was the cool kid with the long hair. He played catcher on the baseball team, but more importantly, he played the piano. And did he love Beethoven—so much so that other kids teased him about it the way my brothers teased me about Leslie Uggams. But they never got his goat. He stood firm and proud in his love of Beethoven. So, I started loving Beethoven too. It was the most natural thing in the world.
Our school library had a big biography of Beethoven—over three hundred pages. That suggested it was written for regular readers, meaning grownups, not just kids. I borrowed it and could not get through the pages fast enough. And I discovered that Beethoven and I had quite a few things in common. For one, we were both German (though I also had some Irish and Italian mixed in). We both had fathers who encouraged us in music. Finally, we shared an almost giddy if not spiritually ecstatic love of nature. Of course, I would not know what ecstatic meant till years later, but I sure remember the invariable tingle up and down my spine whenever I took a long walk in the woods and unexpectedly came across a pristine pond, a sparkling waterfall, or a great blue heron taking flight. I felt singularly and mysteriously at home in the world of nature, and seemed to understand everything that babbling brooks were trying to say through their babblings. What’s more, I frequently got up before dawn (not just on days my dad and I would go fishing before school, but on other days, too) and went outside to watch the magic of a sunrise.
Fourth grade was also the year I learned what Confirmation was, as my oldest brother was in seventh grade and going through the rather tedious pre-Confirmation process called Confirmation classes. One of the things he would have to do would be to choose a Confirmation name. I decided that when my time came, mine would be Beethoven.
My very Catholic cousin Katherine later told me that you had to choose the name of a saint. Everyone Else agreed. I told her and Everyone Else, “Beethoven is a saint.” I knew this because Schroeder took the day off from school on Beethoven’s birthday, December 16, as well as on his own birthday, whenever that was. Notwithstanding that Schroeder was a fictional character from a comic strip, not a real person, this shut her up, at least about that topic, even though she was a year older than my oldest brother. Maybe she was just being nice and didn’t want to argue the point—or worse, didn’t need to, because she knew she was right. This was a tactic I quickly recognized as one I myself had deployed since a very early age, what with being the youngest of three brothers of German, Irish, and Italian ancestry. (I leave you to imagine the rest.)
But as far as I was concerned, the notion of Beethoven not being a saint was as ridiculous as that of Original Sin, which they started talking to us about on day one of Sunday School when I was five and Sing Along with Mitch had just been canceled. Our catechism teacher Mrs. Dufault (we would not learn the word catechism till fifth grade, by the way) tried to impress upon us that Mary, and then Jesus, were the only two human beings ever who were born without Original Sin. I told her that I was not born with it either, but she didn’t believe me. Worse, she actually disagreed. She told me quite specifically that I indeed was born with Original Sin. I repeated that that was actually not the case, and that I knew this for a fact. “How do you know?” we probably said at the same time, but that argument didn’t work for either of us. However, I let the matter drop because I was quite used to doing this by now when I knew I was right and the entire Catholic Church and Mrs. Dufault were wrong.
Years later when I started writing poetry seriously, I discovered that poems about what you know to be true but can’t explain how come you know it’s true—that’s called Metaphysical Poetry. I also learned that Original Sin did not exist after all but was a scheme cooked up to make everyone feel guilty about something they never even did in the first place just so all the churches could stay in business.
By the time I got to junior high school, the concept of “compromise” had been introduced to us in social studies class, what with the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of Such-and-Such Year. Moreover, I knew how to use a dictionary to look such words up, so I had a faint idea what the teachers were actually talking about. So, when I began Confirmation classes, I thought, let’s see how this Compromise thing works, and entertained the notion of taking the Confirmation name of “Bartholomew,” which was as close as I could find to “Beethoven” in the catalogue of saints.
But merely thinking this in the privacy of my own mind brought torment worse than any fraternal teasing I had endured about Leslie Uggams years earlier. And I knew what the source of my misery was. Betraying Beethoven. That’s how you know it’s love, don’t you, when you feel absolutely horrible if you sell the beloved person out, or even think about doing so, and the fact that they are dead doesn’t make a whit of difference.
Nope, “Bartholomew” was not “Beethoven,” so I reconfirmed my commitment—to Beethoven, not to what they called “faith.” Beethoven or bust. “He’s a saint as far as I’m concerned, and I’m the one who’ll have to live with my Confirmation name for the rest of my life, and that’s all that matters in the end,” I recall saying to some adult tasked with conducting our Confirmation classes.
Meanwhile I had heard of the Spanish Inquisition, massacres of innocents, the Crusades, adulterous Popes (and three at one time!), and more recent rumblings of a pederastic priest only five towns away. (Decades later I would see his face, finally, on Court TV, and know what all the noise was about.)
I knew enough not to mention what was not to mention, at least not to anyone who might get me in more trouble than I was already in. The unmentionable did, however, rack my brain, and I passed some grueling hours in tormented soul-searching. Then I took a tip from Beethoven and searched for a solution by taking a walk in the woods by a certain babbling brook I already knew well—which finally told me in no uncertain terms what I had to do in order to live with myself.
I consulted with my very Catholic mother, who, since she grew up in Italy, had to be more Catholic than any priest, nun, catechism teacher, or cousin, so I trusted her as an authority on the subject. I don’t recall everything she said, but I did hear, for the first time, her personal take on Life After Death. This was the first conversation about Metaphysics I ever had with my mom. I don’t recall her quite answering my question, but I do remember getting the distinct impression that whatever I decided, I would probably not get kicked out of the house.
At Confirmation class, though, I still got flak. I would not give up Beethoven, however. I gave up the Church instead.
I don’t think anyone except my mom even noticed.
Years later, my love of nature and music, so informed by my love of Beethoven, would play a huge part in my life. When I was a senior at Yale (majoring in music, no surprise) I performed the Waldstein, or “Sunrise,” Piano Sonata. What that sonata is about is not just the sunrise of the day, though, but that of Creation itself, as far as I am concerned.
More recently, my fourth poetry collection, Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists (Shanti Arts, Maine, USA, 2018), touches on a similar theme with regard to the creation of art, architecture, dance, music, and cinema. My fifth, Quickening: Poems from Before and Beyond (Cyberwit.net Press, India, 2019) treats the coming of the Cosmos more directly through what one might call Metaphysical Poetry.
Out of Nothing includes two odes to Leonard Bernstein. The quasi-villanelle I have included below is about Beethoven as well, and a moment of falling in love, not with Leslie Uggams, but with Leonard Bernstein, with Beethoven, and with Music (originally published in the full-length collection Stage to Page: Poems from the Theater, Cincinnati, OH: WordTech Communications, 2016):
Beethoven’s Fifth The repetition, then the variation, separated us from the animals, he said. Len Bernstein. That was composition. Young People’s Concert. TV. Repetition, when chosen, was how we knew we had souls. The repetition, then the variation, dadada dum… as if in invitation, and then DADADA DUM! How one phrase calls— as for an answer: that was composition. He said it again. The swelling excitation swelled into fervor, sounding off the walls, in repetition and more variation, as beads fell from his hair, though that rendition was stop and go, ’cause Bernstein had the balls to stop the orchestra, explaining composition to all of us. His patient explanation, his kind way—I was five and felt His thrills. The repetition, then the variation, he said, was what made us—and composition!