Since I’m technically on holidays, I’ve decided to post a piece of pure whimsy that I unearthed while tidying my hard drive (well, what do you do when you’re on holidays?). It dates from my days working for a period instrument orchestra in Cleveland and it was intended for a subscriber newsletter, hence the “in” character of some of the jokes, especially those referring to mythology and matters celestial.
On arrival in heaven, Robert Schumann was granted one wish. Since he had always longed to be a late-night celebrity chat show host, “Florestan’s Follies” became a weekly highlight on celestial television. One memorable program featured Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert as guests. Through grave diligence and sheer imagination we have obtained a rare and valuable transcript of the conversation.
RS: My guests tonight are two of the profoundest and most inspiring composers I know: Beethoven the German genius, godlike and intimidating, and Schubert, a shy Austrian better known to his friends as Little Mushroom [Schwammerl]. They lived in the same city for three decades, and never met!
Well, tonight we bring them together in anticipation of the groundbreaking performances of their music that will be taking place in Cleveland, Ohio.
Franz – welcome! I’ve admired your work ever since I heard the Erlkönig song. I played it over and over again when I was at law school.
FS: Thank you! I’m proud of that one.
RS: And Ludwig – you’re looking well! I notice you haven’t brought your ear trumpet?
LvB: That’s the nice thing about being in heaven – I have my hearing back. What’s not so good is discovering that the mercury treatments probably caused more harm than good. You know, the best thing my doctor ever did for me was to send a crate of good wine when I was on my deathbed.
RS: Well, I have to say that one of the best things about heaven for me is that I’ve been able to hear all of Franz’s music that was completely unknown in my time. Perfect, poetic works that simply never saw the light of day, didn’t even get a private performance. Whole symphonies! And unwhole symphonies too. Take the Eighth Symphony…buried away for years before it was performed. And it’s sublime!
Now I’ve always firmly believed that where the rest of us use a diary to set down our momentary feelings, you, Franz, use a piece of manuscript paper. Your music is your diary. So tell me, what’s the story behind this particular Unfinished Symphony?
FS: Well, you know Bob, a rather clever musicologist working in the 1930s found a semi-autobiographical dream that I wrote down and speculated that this symphony follows the events of the dream. In which case it’s not “unfinished” at all, but quite complete in two movements.
RS: Fascinating. But that theory doesn’t account for the fact that you made a draft of a scherzo movement.
FS: Exactly! And the finale too. But the musicologists haven’t found that yet. So, for now, some people are compromising with an Entr’acte from my Rosamunde music. It really doesn’t work. Better to stick with the two movements I did finish.
LvB: And why didn’t you finish it? I didn’t finish my Tenth, of course, but death has this habit of getting in the way of works in progress. You can’t claim that as an excuse; at least not with this symphony.
FS: To be honest, Herr Beethoven…
LvB: Ludwig, please!
FS: To be honest, it was your fault. We were all left in your shadow, you know. All of us. Me; Robert here; Mendelssohn; Berlioz; even Wagner, though he was in denial. You know what Grillparzer said at your funeral? Well, of course you do, but the audience doesn’t. He said: “He was an artist…Who can stand beside him?’ After that, my friends and I went to the “Castle of Eisenstadt” and drank till one in the morning [got sloshed]. I mean, how do you write a symphony after “Beethoven Nine”? We all struggled with that. And I had only gotten so far in the Eighth Symphony. The Ninth – the Great C Major – was better in that respect.
RS: Was it ever! That is one amazing symphony – heavenly length, like a novel in four volumes by Jean Paul!
Now Ludwig, I’ve been meaning to ask you about your Pastoral Symphony, the Sixth. Franz was just talking about how his Unfinished could be heard in terms of a program, a narrative. That’s not so uncommon, of course, but what makes your symphony different? Can we really call it “program music”.
LvB: The first important thing is there on the title page, Bob: “More the expression of feeling than painting.” And the second important thing is that I wasn’t thinking of myself as a tone artist [Tonkünstler, the usual word for a musician], I was a tone poet [Tondichter]. That’s the crux of it.
FS: But what about the thunderstorm? And the peasants dancing? And the bird calls? You even labeled them in the music: quail, cuckoo, and… what was the other one?
FS: That’s all program music: painting not poetry. How can you say that thundering timpani and a shrieking piccolo is “feelings in tones” when it’s blindingly obvious that it’s a thunderstorm?
LvB: [Ludwig looks uncomfortable and begins to scowl.]
RS: Well, we have to wrap before the next ad break. You know that Apollo’s Fire will be performing your symphonies in Cleveland next month?
LvB: Don’t we ever! Apollo talks about nothing else!
RS: And they’re beginning the program with your Leonore Overture No.3, Ludwig – one of the four overtures you wrote for your only opera, Fidelio. Now Franz, you were telling me how you first came to hear this opera…
FS: That’s right. The final version of Fidelio premiered when I was about seventeen. I had to sell my schoolbooks to get a ticket. But it was worth it.
RS: It certainly must have been. But that’s all we have time for now. It’s been great to have you both on the show.
LvB: Perhaps we should catch up again for those concerts? I hear they’re using all the right instruments.
RS: Absolutely. Concerts in Akron, Severance Hall and Oberlin. We’ll be there! Or at least, you two will; and I’ll be there in spirit!
Yvonne Frindle takes responsibility for whatever may have been lost in the translation of this curious artifact. All flights of fancy have at least tenuous connections to musical scholarship.