This is a table in Beethoven's apartment in Mödling, Austria, one of the suburbs where he would retreat from the heat in Vienna during the summer months. I took this photo shortly after I completed the first draft of my novel about young Beethoven, The Black Spaniard.
The Black Spaniard was completed in August 2013 and is currently being revised.
Book I follows the life of Luis van Beethoven from birth through his 16th year. Book 2 takes our hero from his audition with the composer Haydn in 1792 to his completion of a Heroic Symphony in 1804. (Beethoven was variously known as Ludwig, Luis, Louis, Luigi during his life. I selected Luis for its pleasant sound and to convey what many considered the Spanish character of the composer.)
The novel focuses closely on Beethoven's ties with secret societies and his "otherness." As Beethoven leaves behind poverty and parochialism, he learns about integrity from the blind woman composer, Maria Paradis, and about human equality from Angelo Soliman, the first Black Freemason.
My research into late 18th/early 19th century Germany and Austria was supported by study visits to Bonn and Vienna in 2013, as well as immersion in the resources of the Princeton University Libraries.
Following are two excerpts, a light chapter (Ch. 53); and a more serious episode from earlier in the novel (Ch. 38) written when the name of the protagonist was Gardner. I also am including a stream-of-consciousness reflection on the Divine in Nature to give the reader a vivid sense of how my hero experienced the sacred within the world. These chapters may change as the novel is revised. Below is a golden vineyard and local church I photographed south of Vienna where Beethoven used to walk, composing in his sketchbook in the fresh air.
In this scene, Luis is 21 and en route to Vienna for the second time, to study music with the great composer, Franz Joseph Haydn.
The ride out was smooth enough, though at a brisk pace in order to reach the city within a week. There was an ever-changing parade of fellow passengers, but Luis was in no mood for conversation. He looked out the window, and sometimes read the literature Neefe had given him before his departure, strange writings from the East and Egypt, which he was sure to hide from the prying eyes of the occasional priest sharing the coach. Among them was a slim volume of a Hindu text translated by Forster. Forster…where had he heard that name before? Luis shook his head to himself. He had lived so long, it seemed, already had done so much, a lifetime’s work! He smiled: and yet it was just beginning. Thoughts of his old life already were slipping away, and recollections of Eleanor evaporated as the coach drew closer to its destination.
Luis hated to travel and stay in strange places, but most were routine along the way, with one exception. On one afternoon, he was the only passenger on the coach, and the driver stopped for the night in an out-of-the-way inn, very working class, and quite run down. While careless of his appearance and tired from a few days’ travel, Luis still cut an imposing figure, and his high black boots, a gift from Count Waldstein, still retained their shine.
After acquainting himself with his room—more like a monk’s shabby cell than the sort of lodgings he was now used to—Luis went downstairs for a meal and a pint. The tavern was filled with locals, laborers and farm hands who had been working hard to prepare the barns and fields for the winter ahead. The light wasn’t very good and cast an eerie golden glow over the squalid array of tables and stools. In one corner, Luis noticed a neglected piano, sunk in the shadows. The place had a stale, smoky smell, but he was hungry and eager to just get through the night.
The barmaid took his order. He had nothing to occupy him, no book or paper, and at any rate, one couldn’t read in this poor light. So he looked directly into the girl’s face, and noticed she was rather pretty, with blonde braids pinned over the top of her head. She in turn looked back, frowned, and took his order. “Where you from?” she asked, looking at him strangely. “You’re not from around here.” “Well, of course not,” said Luis, deciding to open up a bit. “I am employed by the court of a prince. And going to another in Vienna.” The girl’s eyes widened a bit, and she sized up his clothing. Then she smiled, revealing a missing canine tooth. Luis was amused, but maintained eye contact, until he heard a stool shift behind him, and a heavy hand thrash down on his shoulder.
“Darren!” the girl said, annoyed, looking at the hulking shape behind Luis. “Leave off, Darren!”
Darren pulled back on Luis’s shoulder and lifted him up with one hand. “Who do you think you are!” The young man was at least six feet tall, with arms like the rear flanks of a large hog, and smelling as sweet. Non-plussed, Luis turned and glared into the man’s ugly face. “Excuse me,” he scowled, “have we been introduced?” The tall man was not used to sarcasm. “Say,” he said, tightening his grip on Luis’s lapels, “we don’t need your kind around here.” “And what kind would that be?” demanded Luis, prying the rough fingers off one shoulder. “Black devils!” the ugly man said. “Straight from hell, you are!” Luis gave a short laugh, though he was quaking within. “You are mistaken!” he said. “I am van Beethoven. That would be van…”
“He’s an arissocrat!” called the bar keep, “lay off ‘im, Darren, we’ll have the ‘thorities here, and I’ll loose my license again!” Darren wasn’t so sure. “He’s a gentleman, fer sure,” said the girl, secretly pleased at the attention, but not wanting anyone to be hurt. “Ain’t you, dear?”
Luis unclenched his fists, and drew back a bit, pulling himself up to his full 5 foot 5 height (perhaps 5 foot 6 with the boots), and shook his hair, as though symbolically freeing himself from his assailant. “I am. In fact,” he was starting to enjoy the altercation after several days of inactivity, “have you heard of the Chevalier de St. George?” Blank stares from all around him. “He is a renowned Black musician lately in the French court. You might say I am…a German equivalent!” The tavern owner, impressed, nodded slowly. “It’s true about that ‘van,’ Darren, means royalty,” the man continued in a cautioning tone. “So, Mr. Van whatever, don’t mind Darren here, he’s just stickin’ up for his girl, you know how these things is.” Luis smiled a superior smile and waved his hand. Had he had a clean handkerchief, he would have waved that as well.
“No trouble,” said he, turning to nod pleasantly to the girl, who smiled another toothless grin. “So, let me try your goulash, then, as I see you have a piano, I would be delighted to play you a few tunes of your own choosing!” The group of a dozen patrons and the main actors in this drama relaxed a bit, and there were hums of approval. So it was that Luis became aware of two other wonderful qualities that he possessed: that of peacemaker among the lower classes, and his own ability to transform into royalty, thanks to the Dutch “van” in his name. The “van” actually meant no more than “of,” but in the German states, the equivalent “von” signified someone of royal birth (such as the von Breunings and Count von Waldstein). So what if a small deception were perpetrated; no harm was done. And after all, wasn’t Luis true royalty, the royalty of genius? It sounded convincing to him, and gave him another tool in his charted course to success.
Predictably, the meal was dreadful, but the bread was filling and the beer enlivening. Before long, Luis was at the dusty piano. He tossed the sheet music onto the floor, and was soon taking requests for “Polly, I wish I’d loved ya better” and “The long night’s dark without you, Bess.” There were at least six keys missing, and the piano had not been tuned since it was dropped off by a wandering furniture hauler some years before. Still, all had a good time, and soon, Darren was putting a hammy hand of friendship on the shoulder of the man he would have shaken to death an hour earlier. The crowd soon was singing “I miss you, Mother, how I miss your gentle heart,” and a few sobs escaped from the more intoxicated choristers.
At the end of the night’s revels, Luis, not overly sober himself, raised a tankard to all present, and said, “Remember, gents and lady, remember tonight, when van Beethoven gave you an evening of music!” “Hurrah!” and similar comments dwindled into the air as the owner closed up shop and Luis made it up to his room, satisfied with a night’s work.
In writing my novel, a fictional fantasy based on the childhood and youth of the composer Beethoven, I needed to convey the experience of the child Beethoven in ecstatic communion with the Divine in Nature. The only way to do this was to write a section in a kind of stream-of-consciousness rush of feeling, even though stylistically this is out of sync with the rest of the book. The section, which has been inserted into Chapter 25 in Book I, appears below:
Luis and Nature
For Luis was one of those hypersensitive children who experience nature through every cell and pore of their bodies. Stopping to sniff a lily, he absorbed the golden color, the brown stamens and pistils, and every speck of pollen dust; he became the lily, golden glow of the lily and how it deepened with the day, and the perfume, undetectable to most, filled his lungs, and spread into his arms and legs and out through the tips of fingers and toes, back into the world.
He became the bee, the hum of the bee, the fur of the bee’s coat and the scratch of its claws, invisible to other eyes, but not to his. The green leaves, the earth below, the worms, the little insects all like choristers singing a song that was his own song, for he was the song they sang. And the trees especially, when he ran into the woods, the trees rushed up and grabbed him and wrapped him in their long arms and smothered him (in a good sense) in their foliage, and lifted him up, and he was their sap, and they were his refuge, and they held him up to the sky, the blue, cloud-tossed sky, which had its own perfume which only he could know, a perfume so strong and intoxicating it drenched all the organs of his body, and he himself became the organ of the sky, the vehicle through which it knew itself.
And night, with silver moonlight and millions of shining stars shooting their tiny points of fire, penetrated his innermost being. Every hair on his body stood on end, like little receptors linking outside and in, and his eyes glazed and he could no longer see, and no longer hear, and no longer smell, but only feel, feeling without thought or reference point as though nature and he compressed into one unity of flow. Then the sky reached down to the dark grey Rhine, endlessly rocking to the north, and he would find himself wading in the shallows, with the seabirds who were nothing but projections of himself, and he would spread his broad white wings when morning came, and fly into that rising fire in the East, and fall as a ray on a wayside flower and appear like a golden glow and breathe in all life, all continuity, all cyclicity, over and over again, until something jolted him back into the world of parents and deeds, and he would shake his head, and hurry home.
And as it was with nature, with music it was the same.
Excerpt from The Black Spaniard
Part of Chapter 38
This novel is set in what is now Germany in the late 18th century. The story revolves around a poor family of musicians whose eldest son, Luis, is born dark-skinned, enough to give him the appearance of being African in origin. The father is a mediocre singer and music teacher and an abusive alcoholic, who despises his eldest son for his dark skin and other reasons described early in the story. Until this chapter, Luis and his mother, who is haggard and worn beyond her years, have passively borne the abuse of the father, as dictated by culture and religion at the time.
This section follows a scene describing the domestic happiness of the boy’s new music teacher.
On the other side of the city in a shabbier flat, a much different scene was taking place. Poverty, illness, alcoholism, depression, and poor nutrition were taking their toll on the Gardner family. As always, the house rang with music, but music neither festive nor profound. Scales, drills, exercises, in counterpoint against the restless cries of the three younger Gardner boys. Mary sat by herself, coughing now and then, as she mended and applied patches to well-worn clothing, squinting in the scarce light. Mrs. Fischer, dropping off some leftover rolls one evening, swore that the child playing the piano would surely go blind. The comment touched Mary’s heart, which was worn by care. “Boys, sit here in the front,” she called. She put down her work and put out some of the baker’s rolls, broken into bits, leaving them for the children, with small cups of warm beer. She then lit a candle, and made her way upstairs where Luis was practicing on the smaller piano beside his bed.
She did not know what it was he was playing. Any more, music all sounded pretty much the same to her, but she could tell her son was putting his heart into it, and lately seemed more confident, if not exactly cheerful. It must have been the doing of that new teacher, she mused. The result was good, better than she expected, especially since she heard he was Protestant. Luis worked so hard, some day he would become a successful court musician like Grandfather, marry and have a family of his own, not a distressed family like this, but a prosperous happy family, in which all members were respected and honored, and God Himself was head of the household.
She coughed, and Luis looked over his shoulder. “Mother! What are you doing here!” he said, wiping his forehead, for he had been concentrating so hard beads of sweat had formed on his brow. “Here, sit down,” he said helping his mother to the plain chair in the corner. It was a clear night, and a spot of moonlight lengthened on the floor. “There,” he said, blowing out his candle, “we can save a bit on that.”
“My fine son,” said Mary, “I have neglected you. Mrs. Fischer said you were hurting your eyes playing in this dim light…”
“Oh, no, I work mostly from memory when it is dark,” the boy said. “Come closer,” said Mary, “I hardly look at you these days. You have grown so, and you’re not so pudgy, are you?” Luis held his mother’s hand, and looked down bashfully.
“My son, I don’t know how long I can stay up here with you, your brothers need watching, and who knows when your father will return. Sit for a moment beside me.” Luis sat on the floor and rested his head against her skirt. “You have been such a good son, and what pleases me most is your sense of responsibility and duty, and your obedience to God’s law,” she said. “We have had some difficult times, and I fear they will get worse before they get better.”
Luis wasn’t entirely comfortable with these kind words, since his mother had no idea how many scuffles, fistfights, deceit, and episodes of hooky had riddled his checkered childhood.
“Mother, I will be working and earning a wage soon! I already am Master Neefe’s assistant, and he promises me I shall have a salary for my work. I will give it all to you, Mother. Providing,” he hesitated, “you can keep it from Father.”
Mary shook her head. “I cannot do that, Luis, and you should not suggest it. It is God’s will that the father is head of the family. This life is not meant to be easy. Suffering prepares us for future glory. Luis, you were made as you were for a reason. Life will be more difficult for you than for most. This is because you are poor, your homelife has not been peaceful, but mostly, because of your dark skin.”
“I do not mind,” said Luis firmly, “I do not care what people think.”
“You do not care what they think, but you must treat everyone with respect,” his mother persisted. She did not often contradict him, but her words seemed to have a stronger weight this night, as though she needed to give him the final words he would need in life even if she were no longer present. “To treat others with respect, and rely on your Heavenly Father, aren’t these the two great commandments? Or so I’ve heard.
“Luis, you must promise me that you will live a moral life, respecting all people, even those who would treat you like an animal because your appearance is different than theirs. Luis,” she paused, “you will be a man in just a few years, and will find yourself attracted to women.” The thought made Luis laugh, though he stifled the impulse. “Mother, honestly, what a ridiculous idea! I can never love anyone but you!”
“Hush,” she whispered, secretly pleased by this childish revelation. “Yes, you will want to court many young ladies, but son, always treat women in particular with respect. The Church would no doubt say otherwise, but you will find that women are closer to heaven than any other creatures on earth.” From downstairs came the sound of young Frank crying, and some ruckus. “Ah, I must go back downstairs. Mrs. Fischer dropped off some rolls, would you like to have some?” his mother asked. Memories of previous gifts of brick-hard bread rose to Luis’s mind. “No, I will finish up here, I’d better relight my candle.”
Luis felt a warm glow after she left. It had been a while since his mother had spoken to him with her simple wisdom in this way, and he did love her so. Perhaps things were looking up for him. A loving mother, a supportive teacher, even his father had been leaving him alone. He pulled the curtain to hide the too-bright moonlight and soon went to bed and to sleep.
But it was not to be a long or restful sleep. At some point in the night, he dreamed of loud voices and screams, a horrific nightmare with faceless monsters in random acts of whipping and beating. He sat up in terror, then calmed as he slowly slipped back into reality. But the sounds of a violent row continued. He drew back the curtain for light; the moon was high in the sky and moving toward the west. Suddenly, the reality of what was happening jolted him into action, and he rushed to his parents’ room and opened the door. There his father, visibly drunk in the flickering lantern light, was bent over his mother, who was cowering on the floor beside the bed sobbing. His father clearly had been beating her with a walking stick.
“Stop that!” cried Luis, running toward his father, who turned, lifted the stick toward the child, and shouted at him in his loudest theatrical voice, “You stop, you savage, you…”
Luis pushed his father so hard, the man fell back against the wardrobe with a horrible crash, upsetting a table, and causing the lantern to send jets of scarlet light up and down the walls. Luis took the walking stick and threw it across the room, then grabbed his father’s arm with a strength he did not know he possessed. Looking down at his abject father, quaking before him in a mixture of alcoholic delirium and astonishment, he shook him as a dog shakes a rag.
“Don’t you ever lay a finger on my mother again,” he fumed, hissing between clenched teeth. “Don’t you ever touch her!”
Mary sobbed, “No, Luis, stop.”
“He’ll stop, he’ll stop now,” seethed the boy, tightening the vice-like grip on his father’s arm and then pushing him away with force. “Get out!” he shouted, and to Mary’s surprise, her husband crawled to the door, pulled himself up, muttering, and uneasily lumbered down the stairs.
Luis stood there for a moment, too stunned by his own action even to tremble. Mary looked at her son, first with fear, then with gratitude, and finally with pride. She wiped the tears from her eyes and smoothed back her hair. Her head ached where the stick had fallen, but it was par for the course, living with a man who seemed to have two personalities, to be two utterly different men wrapped in the flesh of one.
Luis turned and leaned against the wardrobe, cradling his face on the crook of his arm, his back to his mother. “Luis,” his mother said, as she pulled herself up from the floor, and moved slowly to the wardrobe, where she stood just behind him. “Thank you.” He turned and put his head on his mother’s shoulder and held her tight. “Never leave me, Mother,” he said, breathing hard. “I will never let anyone harm you ever again.” Mary did not know whether this was the end of an era of pain and uncertainty, or the beginning of something much worse. “Don’t think of it, my child. Here, wash your face. Are you calm? Can you go to sleep? Put the chair behind your door tonight. Just in case.” He nodded, and kissed her cheek.
Back in his room, there was little sleep for Luis. The moon was invisible now, behind a growing bank of clouds, and the room was dark. As he lay on his back, Luis’s body and mind tingled with the aftermath of violent emotions he had never experienced before. He was partly horrified at the unexpected explosion of his own sense of power, of his own capacity for violence. But as the night wore on, he felt something else, something much stronger: that he was glad he had stopped his father, something that never would have occurred to his rational mind, something he never would have done, being brought up to obey authority. He was not yet 12, and yet at this age, in this time, boys were becoming men. And so it was with Luis. This night was the turning point. It was the dawn of the vision of the man he was soon to be.