Beethoven's Birthday

Nowadays, newspapers run a pitiful fraction of the daily comics (i.e. “the funnies”) which they used to; anybody who cares about them has to head to their local bookstore to buy a specialty edition where they’ve been carefully curated, a hardcover collector’s edition that you won’t ever dare to actually read. When I was a child, however, not only were newspaper comic strips in their heyday, but mass-market paperback collections of them were so plentiful as to be available in drugstores and supermarkets. (Do they still sell mass market paperbacks in bins in the supermarket, like they did when I was a child? Oh well, I’m old.)

All of which is to say that I was exposed to a large amount of Charles Schultz’ Peanuts as a child. And that’s not counting the holiday specials, many of which received their first airings when I was a wide-eyed youngster. (I’m not that old; A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown were already established classics when I was born, but I was around for the debut of their Thanksgiving installment, Valentine’s Day installment, Election Day installment, and so on.) Those dog eared paperbacks were my reading primers. And as such, they were pretty advanced – Schultz doesn’t skimp on the philosophical and literary references, which pre-school me desperately tried to make sense of. Peanuts taught me about theology, psychology, clinical depression. And most importantly, it taught me about the most sacred day of all the year – Schroeder’s favorite holiday, Beethoven’s Birthday.

Which, if you’re reading this on the day I post, is today. December 16.

(Well, technically, we assume it’s December 16. Ludwig van Beethoven’s record of baptism is listed as December 17, 1770, and at the time in his birthplace of Bonn, Germany, the tradition was to baptize the infant the day after they were born. So December 16 is a safe assumption for day of birth. Now, there are folks nowadays who, seeing the 17th as the only date for which there’s actual documentary evidence, mark that as the birthday. These people are wrong and I choose to pity them.)

I’m a huge classical music fan. A huge Beethoven fan. And as far as childhood influences go, I can think of no moment that better illustrates what being an artist feels like – that particular high we’re all chasing – than the sequence in the 1969 movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown where Schroeder’s playing Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata. We switch to his point of view, and the piano expands out from under him, transporting him to a larger world. Strangely, though, for all my devotion, Beethoven isn’t really part of my professional world. I’m not a professional musician, and Beethoven isn’t namechecked in a great many American playscripts, so for all his significance to the culture at large, he simply hasn’t come up in my theatrical life.

Except for one time.

Fifteen years ago, I was performing in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Macbeth. Well, one of their productions of Macbeth, at any rate – they’ve done that show a lot. And indeed, I was performing in their production of Macbeth sixteen years ago, as well, which is what made it possible to perform in it fifteen years ago. For you see, that 2003 production caught the eye of the folks who were booking the 2004 Bonn Bienniale, and at their invitation, we were invited to a whirlwind German tour in 2004.

(I should note that the name Bonn Bienniale implies that the theater and arts festival where we found ourselves recurred in that city every two years; that there was a 2002 Bienniale before us, and a 2006 Bienniale after us, and so on. I’ve found no evidence that this is the case; searching for the 2004 Bonn Bienniale turns up nothing except mentions from various folks like me that we happened to be there for it. But we were there, and it did happen, and if not for the fact that this all happened in June of that year, I’d chalk it up to a Beethoven’s Birthday miracle. But I digress.)

We didn’t have very much time to see Bonn; the run of the show and the bulk of our time were spent just outside of the city, in the Klosterruine Heisterbach, the ruined shell of a monastery where our production was actually mounted. But we did get to do a few touristy things: a few of us took a short river tour along the Rhine; many more of us loaded up on German chocolates.

And I was able to make time to make holy pilgrimage to the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The house is largely a tourist destination; you can buy Beethoven T-shirts and keychains. There’s walls of period wind instruments for you to look at. (You’ll have to take my word for it, because you can’t take pictures of them without a stern old German man knocking the camera out of your hands. Or your phone, these days – this was fifteen years ago, remember.) But once you’ve made your way through the house, and seen the exhibits and read the pamphlets, you come to a small, spare little room. By its position in the house, you can surmise that it would have been that upstairs bedroom.

I was struck dumb by the energy coming from that spot – that same energy hinted at in that crude Peanuts animation from 1969, that holy sense of potential and promise. That spot, where the man would have been born.

This was all fifteen years ago, and Beethoven was born 249 years ago this day, and still I go on, as do we all – from show to show, project to project, trying to find that moment when the piano will expand out from under my expectant fingers, into that better world to come.

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