By Jonathan Blumhofer
Beethoven never left Europe. But he could have. And the possibility that he might have visited Boston is the basis of Paul Griffiths’s touching, witty, and thought-provoking new novel.
Mr. Beethoven by Paul Griffiths. New York Review Books, 312 pages, $17.95.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s music is such a presence on the programs of local orchestras and Boston is such an old city that the thought of the great man walking through Back Bay is more plausible than not. Of course, in his 56 years, Beethoven never left Europe. But he could have — and that possibility forms the basis of Paul Griffiths’s touching, witty, and thought-provoking new novel, Mr. Beethoven.
Griffiths is an accomplished librettist, critic, and writer on music. His present story is knowingly rooted in the historical record: in 1823, the Handel & Haydn Society offered Beethoven a commission for a new work. Though, in point of fact, he turned down the request, Griffiths has him, a decade later, coming to the United States to fulfill the Society’s petition for an oratorio.
So, as Mr. Beethoven opens, the composer arrives from Europe and settles in with the Lowell Masons. All sorts of business and activities ensue: he endeavors to collaborate with his pompous librettist, Hosea Ballou; auditions singers; decamps for the summer months to the homestead of the Josiah Quincys south of Boston; and returns to town, all the while struggling to fulfill his commission — a piece, we eventually learn, that is an oratorio about the biblical character Job.
Along the way, Griffiths resurrects Boston’s young, thriving musical scene: its tensions between boards, musicians, and composer, as well as the nerve-wracking weeks leading up to a premiere will all likely be familiar — despite the distance of nearly two centuries — to anyone who has ever been involved in musical productions (especially of big pieces).
And Griffiths uncovers some fascinating bits of regional trivia, most notably a Martha’s Vineyard sign language community from which he draws Beethoven’s providentially named amanuensis, Thankful.
This is a singular scene, then, that Griffiths paints, perhaps not quite so gritty as it actually was but plenty recognizable, all the same.
And if it all seems a bit too fantastic to be believed, well, the author’s right there with you. His writing is peppered with qualifications — “he could have seen this,” “it’s possible Beethoven would have done” that, etc. — that culminate in a chapter called “Intervention” in which he addresses the historical leaps necessary to telling this particular tale.
Even if that doesn’t entirely seem to settle things, it at least helps focus the reader’s attention moving forward: we’re not the only ones suspending our disbelief, Griffiths seems to be saying.
And that’s important because, by the time you come to the triumphant conclusion of Mr. Beethoven, you’ve likely come to realize that, more than just engaging in a diversionary exercise in wishful historical fiction, Griffiths has crafted a novel that’s a striking meditation on the creative process.
In practice, of course, most labors of this sort unfold in isolation and are difficult, if not impossible, to transmit. Here, Beethoven’s struggles, both with his oratorio’s libretto and his desire to craft a new musical language to fit the story, though, are plainly etched: what passes for dialogue from the composer are his actual words, drawn from letters and journal entries he left behind.
Yet the structure, prose, and tone of Griffiths’s writing — especially, actually, the intrusive, conversational devices he employs — also lay bare some of the process’s ups and downs. This is particularly true of the insecurities and questions that often arise in the torturous business of creating art, great or small. Here, Griffiths brings his audience alongside both an imagined Beethoven and, more obliquely, himself, illuminating the very human doubts, concerns, and revelations that dog the artist’s craft. It’s an impressive accomplishment, technically and emotionally.
Equally striking is how Mr. Beethoven reminds us that, in history, nothing is etched in stone until it’s already happened. Had Beethoven not fallen ill in late 1826, he likely wouldn’t have died the following March. The Ninth Symphony, in all probability, would have been followed by a Tenth (maybe an Eleventh?). Had Beethoven been granted another decade, there might have been more string quartets, further keyboard pieces — maybe even a Requiem (or a trip to Boston to write an oratorio on Job). Musically, Europe’s (and America’s) 19th century could have followed a different course.
As we all know, it didn’t. But therein lies the subtle profundity of Mr. Beethoven: it reminds that, for all we know, nothing is foreordained until it’s done — in which case, there’s nothing “fore” about it. Indeed, the answer to Thankful’s novel-ending question — “Did it all really happen?” — might very well have been in the affirmative.
Even though we know the true number of Beethoven’s days, then, Griffiths’s premise ultimately provides us with a worthwhile, even inspiring, moral to recall. It’s one that’s especially apt, considering the tumultuous days through which we’re living.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.